Scams, Schemes, and Crimes That Made Abstract Art What it is Today
Now I’m certain that there are people who will take offense and feel resentment for the things I will say here, but they are all true and on record and can be easily verified. Abstract art was fueled by many people: schemers, scammers, organized crime, even the CIA, all of whom had no actual interest in abstract art other than lining their pockets with cash. It was a scam that continues today and the sad part of it is – although the stock market and other financial marketplaces have laws and regulations, the art world has very few laws and makes it a haven for those out to bilk others.
It seems to have really gotten underway with Jackson Pollack. Jackson Pollack was a drunkard and possibly even insane (his therapist mentions manic-drepression) who was dead broke and, like many people on the fringe of society, sought to live well while not having to do physical labor.
He never wanted to be an artist. He had no calling and no interest in art. He didn’t draw or study artists as a child. Taking up painting wasn’t even his own idea. It was just an opportunity that fell in his lap.
While undergoing therapy for alcoholism, his psychiatrist wanted him to make some artwork so he could be further analyzed. It was much the same thing as an inkblot test, just a way to further diagnose his illness.
Having no real interest in art, he bought cheap canvas, and he had house paint and house paint brushes from previous handyman jobs. Having no patience with it, he drunkenly splashed some paint around and whipped off a few paintings in a very short time to show to his therapist.
About this same time the WPA – the Works Project Administration – was trying to end the depression by paying people government money to do public works. Pollack, needing money desperately and not interested in doing the manual labor that most WPA projects involved, signed up to do artistic painting which was also a part of the WPA program. He thought “I got the paint, I got the brushes – sign me up!”
Then enter Peggy Guggenheim, a legendary eccentric who had some psychological issues of her own. She was a wealthy heiress who seemingly wanted to get back at her parents by sleeping with every man she met. She later claimed she had slept with over a thousand men. Her parents had collected and decorated the home where she grew up with classic paintings – so her second hobby was buying the new abstract art from nearly every artist she met, mostly total unknowns, for prices that seldom exceeded $40. She didn’t sleep with Pollack (no matter what the movies had shown to spice up their films) claiming that he just smelled of alcohol all the time. What she did do was sponsor Pollack giving him a monthly allowance and even commissioning a large mural for about $50. She quickly became frustrated with Pollack who spent more time drinking than painting and had many loud conversations with the would-be artist. But she did seek to promote him along with other unknown artists and did her best to promote abstract art as the new hot thing in art.
Because her trust fund began to run short of money, some people have even speculated that Peggy Guggenheim had invented the “Unknown Artist Scheme”.
The Unknown Artist Scheme works like this: a wealthy investor buys art from an unknown artist for very small amounts of money, almost always abstract art, and then promotes that artist even to the point of bribing art critics. Often celebrities are paid to appear at the showings to make the art more credible and trendy. Sometimes they even hire “dummy” bidders at auctions to drive up the price of the artist’s work. Then they can sell art from their collection at much higher prices, making a nifty profit.
Although she may have done this purely by accident, Peggy Guggenheim made a big financial comeback by selling art from her collection at tremendous profit.
But then Pollack got even luckier.
The government was entering the cold war and spending millions and millions on propaganda trying to show that America was superior to Russia and that capitalism was superior to socialism. Part of it had to do with art. Russia, at this time, had a number of formidable realist painters who were made to promote Socialism and the Russian government through their art.
The CIA hatched their own scheme. They would promote abstract art as being intellectually superior to realist art, and America as the land that bred these artists and the future of art. They spent millions promoting abstract art and made certain all the important critics and newspapers and magazines would go along with their own scheme. Jackson Pollack was one of the key artists they focused on promoting. Yes, millions of taxpayer dollars were spent promoting Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell in particular.
It was similar to the fairy tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In the story a huckster claimed he could weave the emperor the finest suit of clothing the world had ever seen. Of course, only elite and sophisticated people could see these clothes. The riffraff and those of poor taste could not even see them. Because the emperor didn’t want to seem to be a man of poor taste, he didn’t admit that he could not see the clothing and wound up walking around naked.
This same ploy was used with abstract art. You had to be sophisticated and have good taste to see the greatness of abstract art, and if you didn’t, you were just riffraff.
Who can really blame the art critics and art magazines? A CIA agent meets with them and says “You will take this suitcase full of money and tell everyone Pollack is a genius or … well, you don’t want to know the ‘or’.”
All this didn’t happen without organized crime taking notice. Large sums of money started moving around with abstract art and they wanted in on it. Since art was totally unregulated with no laws getting in the way, it was the perfect venue for money laundering. It was perfectly legal to have an art transaction with an “unknown” seller and an “unknown” buyer. No, this money didn’t come from gambling and protection schemes – it was profits from buying and selling abstract art.
The New York Times has recently reported that using abstract art for money laundering is on the rise. Because it is pretty much impossible to establish what the true value is of a piece of abstract art, this scheme is tailor-made for organized crime.
There have been recent arrests for money laundering through abstract art, but the FBI admits they are just catching the tip of the iceberg. And the true winners of the scheme are the artists who suddenly see the value of their work skyrocketing.
And today with galleries suffering from the internet they had to find new ways to make money of their own. Fine art prints could be downloaded and printed from computers. Thousands and thousands of fine artists were selling their work directly from their websites and skipping the galleries altogether. So they took on the Unknown Artist Scheme. Art critics working for magazines and newspapers got onto their payrolls as “advisers”. Mysterious bidders showed up at art gallery auctions bidding up the prices. Downright goofy abstract art – including a number of “minimalist” paintings which would often be a blank canvas, or a canvas with just a smeared stroke or two of paint were being sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
And, oh, how the art forgers rejoiced. It was pretty easy to fake a new, undiscovered Pollack. At least 3 forged Pollacks have been sold for millions. Even the art appraisers they hired to verify the authenticity were fooled. There was a simple test, however, to find a fake. Since Jackson Pollack used house paint, and house paint used lead until it was banned in 1978, you can take a paint chip, analyze it for lead and if there was no lead in it, it was a fake.
Today abstract art is a place where people without any artistic skill hope to make an easy living by smearing around paint on a canvas, but it really isn’t that easy. You have to have some serious cash to get promoted. Large “gifts” to art galleries greased the wheels. Many wealthy families have a son or daughter making a living as an abstract artist, and that is no coincidence. If you’ve got the money, you can be an important abstract artist.
Is there a way to beat this system? There certainly is. Realistic art is making a healthy comeback. More and more people are becoming disgusted with abstract art and are turning their heads toward realistic paintings. Collectors are cutting back on abstract art and are going more toward realism. Artists such as Malcolm Liebke, Michael Carson, and Milt Kobayashi are seeing the value of their paintings steadily increasing. You can go to a gallery that features realistic art, find yourself a bargain, and almost certainly see an increase in your investment down the road.
But wait! You have to do some due diligence. There was a large, prestigious gallery in downtown Chicago that got caught in a scam some years ago. What they had done is create an art “factory” where artists painted the same painting over and over again. While each one was technically an original, an artist can quickly paint the same painting over and over again using a template printed onto the canvas. It’s almost like a “paint-by-numbers” kit. Artists’ resumes were faked claiming they had studied at prestigious schools and won many non-existent awards and honors.
Another gallery scam is the assembly line. One artist paints a tree – passes it on to the next who paints the house, and so on.
And another is the “starving artists” sales scam. You may have seen one of these advertised on TV. These are usually held at hotels where you are told there are original works of art as cheap as 20 bucks. How is that possible? It’s not. A print with one dab of oil paint can legally be sold as an original oil painting. These usually come from China or somewhere in Asia. That original oil of Elvis or the bullfighter isn’t really an original.
If you are going to buy an true original oil painting from a genuine artist, I suggest a non-profit gallery. There are many. You can get a great painting for a couple of hundred dollars and be certain it was worth the money. It’s also a good thing to know who the artist is, or actually meet with the artist before buying. Many of the galleries have events where you can meet the artist. There are many public art shows where the artist is present during the showing. And – it is always a good thing to check their website. All genuine artists have their own website today.
Art shows sponsored by a community group or a municipality is another great place to get true art by a genuine local artist. Another is at an art school. Many art schools have art sales where you can buy an artist’s work right at the beginning of their career. And as always – buy what really appeals to you and not something you have to be told is good art. Most good art by unknown artists just automatically go up in value with time just because they are well-painted and shows true artistic skill. There are so many stories about someone who bought a painting 20 years ago for a couple hundred dollars that are worth thousands today. The three artists I mentioned originally sold their early work for peanuts.
I was always a fan of fantasy art. In my 20s I could have bought a Frank Frazetta painting for a few thousand. Back then, I couldn’t even afford that much, but I should have done whatever I could to buy one of his works. Recently, one of his paintings sold for 1.5 million. And it was definitely not a work of abstract art.
As always, question everything