“I'm the hedgehog, Stefan's the fox,” said Jonathan T.D. Neil last night. Neil is an art critic, academic and director of the L.A. Sotheby's Institute of Art, a graduate program based out of Claremont. He was comparing himself to Stefan Simchowitz, the art advisor, collector and patron who's become known, and villainized for, being market savvy. The two men were debating the state of the art world last night at a space called Blacklisted in WeHo, right near the L.A. headquarters of Sotheby's Auction House. Someone had asked what made them different. Were they even that different? 

“Stefan has more money,” Neil offered.

“He's probably better read,” Simchowitz said.
“Stefan's mind works horizontally,” said Neil, meaning that Simchowitz can network and make connections, “I'm envious of that. I get an idea or problem and drill into it, and right now my problem is value.” He wanted to know what it means that some things (like a painting made by a 20-something painter, or the words of a dead critic) are valuable, economically or because they have other kinds of cultural clout, and how that value accrues. Simchowitz was less interested in the nuances of value, and more interested in who had access to authority in the art world.

These questions sound vague and big, but they seem to be on a lot of people's minds these days – there's talk about whether the art world's heady elitism is putting out more casual tech industry collectors; talk about whether or not the young painters are selling for too much before they've had time to really mature.

Neil and Simchowitz divided their debate into rounds, clinking glasses of scotch before each. Or at least they did until Simchowitz's father came up on stage and took the scotch away – he'd never seen his son drink and had to put an end to it, he said, then took a sip himself.

Learning about art online

Here, Neil wondered if digital image distribution – Simchowitz is a big proponent of social media – was good for the art. Does it diffuse the affect of the work? Does it get the right information out to the right audiences? Simchowitz argued that it was “absolutely positive.” He pointed out Keith Rivers, a Buffalo Bills linebacker, sitting in the front row. Rivers had learned much of what he knows from images on the internet, learning “more about contemporary art” than most people and “breaking his back and the back of others to do so.” 

Simchowitz also added that it wasn't fair to say that social media conversations aren't critical. If you search Twitter and Instagram for #oscarmurillo (Murillo is a young painter who's seen skyrocketing success these last few years) “you see different microbursts of criticism. . . . When added together, they have the [potency] of a review written by [The New York Times'] Roberta Smith.”

He added, “It's an alternative system,” saying the barbarians, the self-taught, internet-savvy but not necessarily theory-savvy enthusiasts, were at the gates of the establishment with their bows and arrows out.

“Why do they want in?” Neil asked.

“For once, they can participate.”

Money and greed

“People are interested in [participating in] this world,” Neil allowed, “but they are also motivated by the prospect of returns.” He was referring here to the extremely high prices some new paintings – by artists who have seemingly barely had time to establish themselves – were getting at auction. Were people buying these artists' work as enthusiasts or speculators?

“But corruption underlies” everything, Simchowitz pointed out. 

“Saying it's pervasive is not a justification for engaging in it,” said Neil.

At this point, Simchowitz asked everyone who wasn't greedy to raise their hands. “One in every 5 people define themselves as not greedy,” he concluded. “[Greed's] a mechanism to get people to consume culture,” meaning if the potential to make money or to own valuable assets is what gets people to buy fantastic Sterling Ruby sculptures, then so be it. At least they're getting interested.

Are you Ahab or Moby Dick?

Neil cited an article by Chris Hedges, a Truthdig.com columnist both men like, that posits all of Western civilization is essentially on the Pequod, the ship in Melville's Moby Dick. Most of us are like Captain Ahab, trying to rationalize our collective madness, putting misguided optimism above truth. So what's the responsibility of artists? Should they be trying to escape the Ahab mentality? Should they be trying to change the world? 

That's “a segment” of artists who take that approach, Simchowitz said.

“Why shouldn't we hold everyone to that standard?” asked Neil.

“Art has different functions,” said Simchowitz. If you require everything to be serious and political, “you impregnate it with an ideology that becomes dangerous in itself.” Here, there was applause followed by a boo in the back. Simchowitz continued, “There's something really wonderful about someone who just wants to make something beautiful.”

“The idea of the beautiful, it's just garbage,” said Neil, frustrated. How did Simchowitz define beauty, he wanted to know? Who really knows how art is supposed to function?

He didn't get answers to these questions. But both men seemed to agree that it doesn't make sense to talk about beauty or function without also talking about the market and the way art and images are distributed. It's all interdependent. But maybe L.A.'s a decent spot for figuring this stuff out, Simchowitz implied as the night ended. “L.A. is really interesting right now, not pregnant with the ideology and restraint” that plagues a city like New York. Then he recommended we all go post on Instagram.

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