For football fans, April 2021 will be remembered as the time when those who eat at the highest table in European sport tried, but failed, to run away with the dining table.
The European Super League was an attempt by 12 of England, Italy and Spain’s biggest clubs to form a lucrative breakaway competition that would eventually see 20 elite teams play regularly with each other in front of a televised audience. billions of dollars without fear. to be eliminated or relegated.
This vision of an unlimited income stream collapsed after a large number of supporters of future founding clubs, especially England sides such as Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, staged heated protests outside the gates. of their land. Within 72 hours of the Super League plans emerging, eight of the 12 clubs withdrew and the project was scrapped.
What does this have to do with the art world? A lot, in fact. In recent years, the world’s most valuable football clubs and works of art have both become targets of very wealthy investors who for some reason want to spend huge sums of money on prestigious names. .
Chelsea and Tottenham are owned respectively by billionaire art collectors Roman Abramovich and Joe Lewis. Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the final buyer of Leonardo’s $ 450 million Salvator Mundi, tried unsuccessfully to buy Newcastle United for £ 300million. The seller of Salvator Mundi, the Russian oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev, is president and owner of the French Ligue 1 team, AS Monaco.
And so on. Money keeps the multibillion-dollar art and sport companies going. But the European Super League fiasco has troubled the minds of millions of football lovers, causing them to question the super rich’s hold on the ‘beautiful game’ in a way that rarely disrupts the football world. international art.
Fans at Newcastle (who finished 12th in the Premier League this season) would understandably have welcomed money from the Middle East to buy trophy-winning players. But the fact remains that faced with a project as financially cynical as the European Super League, this same type of supporter was indignant enough to handle the turnstiles and stop what Ander Herrera, a Spanish midfielder who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, described as “the rich are stealing what the people have created”.
Radicalism for sale
What the European Super League was trying to do was turn football into a commodity, something capitalism did long ago with art.
“One of the lessons of modernism was that art could be radical, aesthetically and politically,” explains sculptor Anish Kapoor. “Postmodernism, however, sees artists as manufacturers of luxury goods for the rich. How can the radical have a radical voice when it is for sale? It’s just more merchandise. We artists have to change that. I don’t see it coming. The merchandise therefore goes to those who pay the most.
Compared to football, the art trade is small. It has significantly fewer participants and does not have a mass global fan base. But the huge prices paid by the rich for the trophy works of star artists match the millions that top clubs pay to secure the skills of the world’s most talented players. Jeff Koons moving from Gagosian and David Zwirner to Pace might not be as newsworthy as current rumors that Cristiano Ronaldo wants to leave Juventus for Manchester United, but similar power structures prevail. The stocks of top football clubs, like those of top galleries, auction houses, and art fair organizers, tend to be driven by billionaires, private equity vehicles, or sovereign wealth funds.
These structures represent a permanent challenge for artists who see themselves as politically aware or engaged.
In March, Swiss group MCH, now majority-owned by James Murdoch’s private investment firm Lupa Systems, hosted a Covid-friendly edition of its Art Basel fair in Hong Kong, whose democratic autonomy has been all but crushed. by the Chinese government.
London gallery White Cube, which also has a branch in Hong Kong, was among the 104 exhibitors. Among his offerings was the monumental work of Andreas Gursky Hong Kong Shanghai Bank III (2020), showing the HSBC head office designed by Norman Foster in Hong Kong, illuminated with words such as “Surveillance” and “Borders”. According to White Cube, these “invite the viewer to reflect on the power structures that filter and guide all interpretations of historical events.”
Art and politics
If this work, priced at € 400,000, was a critique of a superpower whose persecution of its Uyghur minority has been described by the US and UK governments as genocide, then this criticism was indeed very indirect. Conversely, could the presence of a Western art fair at the state-owned Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center be considered an endorsement of this same regime? As of this writing, Art Basel said it was “not aware of any such criticism”.
“There are two ways to look at Art Basel in Hong Kong,” says Joes Segal, chief curator of the Wende Museum in Los Angeles and author of the 2016 book. Art and politics: between purity and propaganda. Segal believes the fair can be seen as “a manifestation of the artistic establishment offering legitimacy to a repressive regime”, or, alternatively, as a “breeze of fresh air in terms of creativity and political commitment”. He adds that the downside of canceling such international events is that “it takes away the ability for people in places like Hong Kong to stay in touch with the outside world and feel supported.”
There are, of course, many recent examples of artists who stand up and are counted on a political or social issue. Ai Weiwei has been a vocal critic of the Chinese authoritarian regime for years. Nan Goldin has tirelessly exposed how members of the Sackler family have used the profits from the sale of her deadly addictive opioids to fund philanthropic art endeavors. Banksy used the profits from his sales to buy a rescue boat for migrants in the Mediterranean.
But right now, after the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is identity politics, rather than politics, that dominates contemporary artistic culture in the West, commercially and institutionally.
The works of female artists concerned with issues of identity and race drew intensive auctions last month at Christie’s 21st Century Night Sale in New York City. Paintings by Jordan Casteel ($ 687,500), Nina Chanel Abney ($ 990,000), Lynette Yiadom-Boakye ($ 1.95 million) and Mickalene Thomas ($ 1.8 million) all set record prices.
Robert Colescott’s satirical masterpiece from 1975 George Washington Carver crossing the Delaware, humorously remaking a pivotal moment in American history with African Americans, was the $ 15.3 million star of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Matching Auction.
Identity-based art has become a very lucrative commodity for top auction houses, leading to price growth in remote live auctions that are less entertaining than the umpteenth revenge between, for example, Manchester United and Juventus in the future European Super League.
Sotheby’s and Manchester United are both owned by private investors, respectively Patrick Drahi and the Glazer family, who have relied on huge amounts of debt to fund their LBOs. United fans continue to protest against disengaged American owners obsessed with the club’s growth, forcing a postponement of a game against Liverpool recently.
Meanwhile, Drahi, who bought Sotheby’s for $ 3.7 billion in 2019 using $ 1.1 billion in debt, plans to sell an additional $ 300 million in debt to fund a dividend payment to owners of the ‘business, mainly to itself, according to the Financial Time (FT). In 2020, pay cuts and layoffs saved Sotheby’s $ 98 million, posting a profit of $ 39.1 million, the FT reports.
This kind of aggressive cost cutting and money extraction is the kind of ownership strategy that would infuriate football fans, but in the art business it’s just seen as the way of the financial world.
“In democracies, art is about creative freedom, but unfortunately that includes the freedom of the public not to understand and not care,” Segal said.
That’s the point. The art world can be proud of its political conscience, but unlike football, few people care about art so that questions are asked about the power structures that control this particular game.