I don’t know anyone who pays attention to the art world who is not dismayed with its increasing stratification, with concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of a tiny few. It’s a turn of events that has seen Art increasingly treated like an investment asset, just another high-end luxury good or status symbol. Edward Winkleman posted an essay on his blog that puts the onus on artists to take the lead in saving art and John Powers answered from an artist’s point of view, countering that instead artists need better data to make the proper decisions. While everyone involved has been motivated by wanting art to thrive and not see it’s aesthetic and social value choked off by the market, suggestions as to real solutions are more difficult to come by.
My feeling is that the art world, and more specifically the art market, essentially reflects the capitalist economy we are all enmeshed in. Yet art is set at an acute angle to the culture as a whole; as an object produced according to a singular vision its reflection is distorted for the extremity of that position compared to other cultural products. It is held to a higher standard not only for its legacy within culture, but for offering greater hope for change by providing an undiluted voice, and it is immeasurably darkened if it instead saccharinely manipulates those expectations. We might know that these expectations are messily built on fictions, but they don’t make any of us love art any less. What art allows us to express is something that no one who loves it wants to see transformed into another dumb commodity, but that also doesn’t mean we can excise art from the rest of the global economy and set it aside in its own crystal lined utopia. The problems ascribed to the art market are at their core problems of a certain trends of capital metastizing around art: increased prices leading to increased and watered down production, top galleries conglomerating and poaching talent to enclose the market in a near monopoly, speculators flipping art works at a high profit and to the detriment of artists’ careers, focused elitism alienating art from mainstream society; all easily map onto other markets, other bubbles. Any discussion of change must somehow account for this reality.
Powers likened this position to “cosmic background radiation” and I must say that I agree; the cosmic background radiation permeates the universe in a way that the current incarnation of capitalism has spread throughout most aspects of the global economy. If you look deep enough it is always there. Likewise, art can be separated from other markets only to a superficial degree: real-estate, fuel, and other commodities represent real costs to anyone operating a business. So if dealers must follow the laws of the jungle in order to maintain their business, why is the calculus any different for artists? They are running a small business, and if they are to make their practice sustainable (if not sustaining) then falling on their economic sword in the name of art is not necessarily attractive. This is where Power’s comparison of artists to the young drug dealers chronicled in Freakanomics is the most apt. As the lowest rung in the art world’s economic ladder, artists economic power is diffused over the broadest population, and if there’s always another dealer willing to pander in the name of a dollar there are ten artists dying to have their work shown, eager just to get the work out of the studio and maybe start to recoup the cost of an expensive studio rent and maybe start to pay off student loans. If an entry-level drug dealer’s best option is to quit, not play the game, and go work in fast food, where does that leave artists?Altering the market for drugs in Chicago required a host of changes, many coming from the top down and involving interventions and incentives unavailable to most artists. Art dealers have a more concentrated economic stake, and are better poised to recoup the benefits of a change to the system. Dealers of course operate at different levels, and I suspect that everyone at the market’s pinnacle is quite happy with the situation as it stands. That leaves change to emerge from the bottom up, and out of the middle. It’s all well and good to ask artists to lead, but actual change will require the organization of the entire community; not just artists, but also dealers, critics, and collectors.
The art world has evolved to an imperfect symbiosis with its own market, and perhaps the most relevant question is if it is even possible for it to survive independently? The influx of money is at the root of the symptoms; it has pushed the tiny world of contemporary art out of its confines where everyone knew everyone else and is driving the current “grow or go” phenomena that magnifies the distortion of the largest galleries and secondary market. But this growth has also allowed space (admittedly often small) for other voices to become viable and alternative narratives to gain purchase. When Winkleman notes that dealers in the middle are exhausted and finding it hard to climb above a certain level the thing that stands out to me is just how much climbing is built into the system for everyone. As our culture and politics turn more nakedly Darwinian, and the art world with it, I don’t want to see the realities of the market acknowledged because I agree with someone like Stefan Simchowitz, but because suffering its collapse would drastically reduce the diversity of voices. A certain amount of churn is desirable to avoid stasis and ossification; the pressure to “keep climbing” helps birth new ideas, or rediscover old ones, but also raises the distinct possibility that change may not take a form that we envision.
I think that absent a profound shock to the system it is more likely that the art market continues to progress along its current path with the general economy rather than retreats to a form from the recent past that is more comfortable. However this is not to say that those of us who love art should not be engaged in arguing for art to move according to our vision (unified or not), but we must know what we are asking for. To make work that is less “flippable”, less of a commodity, flies in the face of art’s recent history, where anything can be sold. It is no different a request to ask artists to somehow reject the market as it is for a dealer to ask for something smaller that also happens to be a pretty color. Either option comes at a cost to the artist and their work, and the consequences of such decisions should be properly weighed.
If we accept that everyone is climbing I would argue that artists are already leading. Granted, I think most artists move instinctively towards gallery representation and the popular notion of a career, but where that path has not been open they can still be found working to expand their voice in other ways; engaging in the debate waged with things by also curating, writing, and creating their own exhibition spaces. Whether these projects become a core component of their practice or something to be left aside as they gain traction in the art world, they remain as the base of the art world that is committed to art for its unique value of expression and as a form of knowledge, not as an expensive bauble. Perhaps it’s time for gallerists, critics, and curators who want things to change to dig in their heels and start working with artists with whom they share this commitment.
For the purposes of this essay I am leaving out any specific aesthetic debate; changing the economic structure of the art market is a separate issue from arguing how to be sure that ‘good’ work is what is being supported. We all like different art, but are working within the same economic system. Arguing about aesthetics is a second front, and we all know how multi-front wars tend to go.
 And I realize that I may need to use that term loosely in describing art.
 Again, looking at the more popular consideration of how art is made rather than how insiders might know it to be made.
I’m thinking here of cultural productions with dedicated industries like film and TV that necessarily are collaborations from inception. Art (and art by “art stars”) has tended towards this style of production and is one of symptoms under discussion, but what makes “art” truly the art of our time is that it can still be produced from start to finish by a single person in a single room.
 References to it as “late stage” capitalism seem more like wish-castings on the part of certain critics more than anything else.
 …or someone else’s vision of what that means.
 Although, honestly, just getting the work out of the studio and seen is really motivation enough for most of us.
 In the form of both government funded programs and education, and the more direct intervention of law enforcement.
 Although the PSAs would certainly be entertaining:
“This is your art.”
“This is your art, over-produced and made by someone else hanging in a Gagosian gallery somewhere.”
Starting roughly when America became (or declared itself) the center of contemporary art in the 1950’s. You can chart other milestones like the Scull auction or the rise of Soho and then Chelsea, or the explosion of art fairs down the long winding road to our current hell.
 Surely the analogy to certain giant reptiles of the Cretaceous period has been made by someone by now.
Mass-extinction events tend to do that.
It is worth remembering that for all of the horror that greeted the return of painting and its market in the early Eighties, history has largely corrected itself.
Gallerists have probably noticed these efforts in their in-boxes.
Some of my favorite programs in New York are in artist run spaces: Auxilary Projects, Centotto, Minus Space, Pierogi, and Regina Rex have all been started by artists; the number would multiply exponentially once one starts to consider other spaces, and in as much as artists are always concerned with space, forming their own exhibits in their own spaces has an august history.