Art Fairs & Evolution. (Where I Defend the Market…)
Seasons change, New York is starting to get slipping glimpses of spring and as Armory week rolls into NYC, and right on cue the art world starts to fidget about naked displays of commerce. Or at least part of the art world does. Organizers and participants have likely been a bit too busy with the reality on the ground, leaving the broader social implications to critics, theorists, and self-proclaimed contentious objectors. The feelings of ambivalence that artists have towards fairs (and the larger commodification of their work) were raised by Jen Dalton’s and William Powhida’s #Rank project during Art Basel in Miami. But where #Rank cast a wide net addressing the unease emerging artists have with fairs and considered both the reasons for and possible alternatives to the art fair model, Charlie Finch has launched a broadside at the entire economic structure of the art market.
I’ll admit to finding Mr. Finch’s writing largely problematic for its curmudgeonly insistence on snark as an argumentative coup de gráce. As a current example he compares the (rather standard) desire of artists for gallery representation to be the equivalent of a child pleading for its Mommy. While ‘the credential of representation’ is no longer provides the guarantee of a stable career (if it ever did), it is still a step that moves the artist’s career forward and (at least, hopefully) better positions them to spend more time making work as opposed to working a day job to pay the rent. His justification for this infantilization is only that it leads to the affront on his ideals for art by virtue of enabling the volume of transaction in the art market. The sentiment that the structures underlying the production and distribution of art have sometimes unsettling political implications always seems to be in the background when critiquing the primary market, but where Mr. Finch departs from most others (including the discussion at #Rank) is with a hard and fast proposal. Of course his proposal represents his particular sense of idealism; He calls for new funding that would remove art from the agency of the rich by enabling a new WPA style system that would make art a local, grass-roots enterprise.
Of course this plan is utterly unrealistic in this fiscal day and age. If any segment of government could or would actually “tax the hell” out of the super-rich enough to start a new WPA, artists will not find themselves the beneficiary beyond the likely promotion of the labor they would do as a day job. (In fact many would see a decline in their circumstances given how many (who lack representation) make ends meet by working within the art services sector.) The closest thing to a new WPA was likely found in the stimulus package, and that did not do much to promote a new vision for art. My interest is not so much in Mr. Finch’s plan as the assumptions that underlie any sort of need for it.
Mr. Finch’s assertions that art has “become formulaic and debased” and it is in need of the rise of a new avant-garde to save it assumes that the present situation hasn’t always been the case. Art since the Renaissance has served a primary function of reinforcing the tropes of the powerful, anything else was secondary. That the art was meant to instruct or inspire a populace in the pews seems more like the frosting in a press release; the grand architecture and decoration is much more about reinforcing the church’s Earthly authority. The end of feudalism and rise of capitalism has changed whose authority is being flattered and promoted, but art’s service to that end has remained as constant as the flow of money.
It is my feeling that as art’s ties to the church as it emerged as autonomous from the craft work of the guild system is what has led to the idea of art as an arena for transcendence or spiritual fulfillment. Aesthetics and a narrative of the personal vision of the artist may have replaced the strict doctrine of organized religion, but the elevation of the physical matter to something that may nourish an individual’s soul has continued along as part of the discourse. While I very much do think that art and aesthetics have a value that may not be easily quantified or understood, I think it is the specific link to past iconographies and power structures has largely been to art’s detriment. It has confused the real value of artist’s labor and its necessary relation to power so that when these realities are brought to the for it causes anxiety with idealists and puritans alike. This microscopic (or myopic) view obscures the advances art has made on a timeline that takes a Macro view.
It is within the context of the narrative of art’s advancement that Mr. Finch’s call for a new avant-garde is in fact particularly retrograde. The ultimate historical progression through Modernism to the present has essentially removed any and all constraints on artists and the art object, allowing the artist the freedom to pursue their own interests rather than be yoked to moving a narrative progression forward by working in opposition to the fashion of a dominate practice. This atomization of direction and the end of the master narrative within art has been facilitated by the art market as more voices and ideas find their way into the market. Base motives are tied to evolutionary drives and needs; if someone can find a niche and profit from bringing new voices to the market that increase in population should be seen as a net positive. I would expect that someone whose major listed publication is entitled Most Art Sucks would display a greater consideration of the roll volume plays in cultural production and it seems to me that the only way to return to the dialectic opposition and progression that a cultural avant-garde requires is for a mass extinction within the art community. Such a near apocalypse may very well push the cause of art back far enough that Mr. Finch would have a new avant-garde to fight for, but it would also likely remove minority interests that have found a voice in recent decades and see the reinforcement of power in the hands of white males. Culling the market to save art is tantamount to aligning with the new conservatism of the Tea Party movement, turning back past victories in order to give the critic something to do.
I think the issue is not that the supply and demand of the art market functions as Darwin’s forces of natural selection, but that what is being selected for does not meet the higher values commonly ascribed to art. Mr. Finch would remove the ugly economic struggle for survival on the forest floor that is the art market with central planning from the government. Any attempt to remove art from the larger global economic system is a fool’s errand, and think what you will of the results, the matter of Capitalism vs. Communism has largely been decided. It is not an issue of political values as much as it is of accepting the inherent messiness of an emergent, bottom up process, and the results might not be what was expected. Allowing art to function and continue to evolve within the mess of the market will ultimately be what moves it forward, even if it has to leave a (non-existent) soul behind.
 #Rank, and its predecessor #Class were a source of inspiration for my own Art & the Mainstream posts here.
 Other structures, such as how artists move into the professional ranks, have also adapted and changed to fit historical and technological advances, but that hasn’t altered the overall relationship to funding by the elite.
 Speaking specifically of Western art as it has progressed from the Renaissance through to the emergence of Modernism and Post-modernism, and the hegemony these strains of art exhibit within the current global art market.
 See my references to Sturgeon’s Law elsewhere on this blog.