Art Can Kill: Crooks, Clowns & Connoisseurs – A Book Review

If you want to have some fun poking around in the underbelly, and sometimes in the dirty linen of the art world you could do no better than Bryan Cooke’s book, “Art Can Kill: Crooks, Clowns & Connoisseurs”. Winner of LA’s 2022 Best Art Services Business Award, Cooke’s Crating has been servicing the city’s prime museums, galleries and collectors for several decades, moving and storing art works from the trivial and mundane to others valued in the multi-million dollars. I knew Bryan many years ago when he was working as a handler at Cart & Crate, but we have not been in touch for many years. His book came to my attention thanks to the artist Allan McCollum and a piece of his I’ve always thought of as a “toasted handkerchief” (it’s not, he assures me, but it sure looks like one) from an early series of his work that Bryan happens to mention in his book. A convoluted tale.
Anyway, I read “Art Can Kill” and enjoyed the read. Along the way I met some old friends, chiefly among the artists who are mentioned, and some among the dealers and collectors. There are many more I know by reputation, art world luminaries and celebrities whose wealth allows them to amass collections of art and artifacts—and to require the services of Bryan Cooke and his skilled employees. Moving art around the world is an art in itself, and one that Bryan justly prides himself on having honed to perfection. It’s a more complex art that I had ever imagined, requiring knowledge and skills far beyond the business of crating things up and shipping them off in vans, ships, or airplanes. To do the job properly—even adequately—Cooke deploys a sophisticated knowledge of media and support structure, of strengths and vulnerabilities, tolerances and breaking points. I learned a great deal, and with fascination, about art works that I had never had to think about before.
Turns out the most problematic thing in the art world is the people. I think we all know about the inflated egos among artists, collectors and well-known figures from “the industry” and business, and there are any number of them here. Aside from their other questionable qualities, they all seem hair-trigger vengeful and litigious. (Cooke names some, but leaves others unnamed or names only by their first names, for reasons I was unable to determine). His book opens with a delicious and hilarious story involving Marcia Weisman, Richard Serra and Frank Gehry, an unlikely threesome if ever there was one. It is distressing, but sadly not surprising that the rich and famous treat others with a haughty contempt, especially those who provide them with essential services. In Cooke’s book, story after story reminds us of this less admirable side of human nature.
Along with the gasps of disbelief that people could treat others so outrageously, there are many moments of levity, even absurdity when all we can do is laugh at the pettiness and self-importance of so many of us in our world of disproportionate cultural privilege. If nothing else, Cooke’s stories will remind us that the values of kindness and respect, even with those who simply cross our paths to do our bidding, are as important on the human scale of value as the masterpieces we are sometimes able to create.

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