Brian Dupont: Artist's Texts

An artist's writings on art.

Posts Tagged ‘art market

Out of Time (Part 3): A Wandering Market

… Or, Attack of the Giant Killer Robots![1]

As Forever Now has engaged the critical debate around painting through the lens of technology and science fiction, and if our current context or the paintings themselves (see Part 1 and Part 2) don’t support this argument, there may still be a way to map contemporary fictions onto the landscape of painting. Popular criticism of the show has been unable to avoid discussion of the current art market and its influences, and most of what has been written certainly has a dystopian flavor. So if the Postmodern landscape of the art world is a “Desert of the Real” and artists are working inside of this new (or really not so new) reality, then we must also consider that the structures that surround and support that art have also changed, perhaps without us knowing, perhaps irrevocably. The issue at hand in any contested environment is not only what can be done to right the mistakes that brought us to this place, but what unintended consequences we might visit on the future.

Painting functions as a barometer in the nexus of art and market. Painting’s deaths have coincided with economic downturns, and when things pick back up there is usually a resurgence of interest in colored mud hung on the wall. However these shifts are more a matter of narrative for critics and historians; it is safe to say that the best artists continue to make the work they want regardless of fashion, even pushing at boundaries further when they are out of the spotlight. The continuing upward trend in the market, whether bull run or bubble, is unnerving, and leading to art being assessed differently. Aesthetics and criticism are intertwined with economics and influence in a way that if not really any different than in past generations[2], is more apparent in our networked era of information wanting to be free. If Forever Now exemplifies our current condition, it is in the implication that the transition to Postmodernism has finally caught up with not only what art is being made, but how it is being talked about, exhibited and sold. As artists and dealers are being forced to adjust to a Postmodern art market[3], critics and historians are functioning more and more as market analysts, intertwining aesthetics and economics, and perhaps privileging the concerns of the latter more than they should. As the narrative threads are tied together, there is a real danger that art may eventually lose the individual spark that makes it more than mere commodity.

The painting being labeled[4] as zombie formalism makes the workings of the market easy to criticize, but the lesson to be learned is that what will come next isn’t going to be a return to what we used to have. Writing in the Brooklyn Rail about the less heralded Whitney Museum exhibition Remote Viewing a decade ago, Stephen Maine derided the trend of “vernacular abstraction” as

“…the order of the day, with formalists scarce among younger painters … In part, this is a response to pressures of an expanding market, wherein collectors with deep pockets but little taste for art history, impatient with the linguistic indifference of high abstraction, are provided some anecdotal avenues of approach to the work.”

It is troubling for the discourse of art that who buys the work, for whatever reason (real or imagined) affects the criticism of it. Certainly great works have had ignominious beginnings, and while charges of philistinism are routinely leveled at new money forcing its way into any rarefied market, such criticism can be just as much about reinforcing a status quo of back channel exclusivity and power as lamenting the passing of connoisseurship.

The work in Remote Viewing exhibited a strong trend towards the idiosyncratic and handmade; towards uneven surfaces that did not compromise their facture for easy decoration and did not skimp on authorial labor.[5] These qualities are not really less evident in Forever Now but they have become far less emphasized as personal expression through the manipulation of materials has come to be seen as historical redundant; if any mark that can be made has already been made, how can it be a vehicle for unique personal expression? Over the last decade painting has absorbed the values of a market that embraced artists like Jeff Koons, whose legacy and practice espouses commodification and production above all else. In “Zombie Formalism” this legacy has trickled down to young artists who emulate the slick look and easy production from the top of a flush market. There are consequences to removing the artist’s hand and head from making art. Previously every artist that turned the studio into a production line first had to figure out how to make the thing themselves; the vacuousness of the worst contemporary painting is the result of short cuts and shoddy effort, of time not spent on the work.

Likewise there are consequences to the shift to an economic Postmodernism. The rise of “art” within Western European society[6] as something for the individual was tied to the rise of the middle class. The art of the academy mirrored the ossification of a society that eventually birthed not only Marxism, but also Modernism; avante garde art ceased to be made for the middle (i.e. merchant) class as evidenced by the title “bourgeois” descending into deprecating slur. Modernism also saw popular culture embrace different media than high art, furthering the divide.[7] With the shift to Postmodernism all but complete, we are faced with the demise of the middle class’s relevance to art portending the demise of the middle class itself. As more wealth accumulates to the top 1% and the middle class shrinks, collecting art has come to be seen as a game for oligarchs and the super-rich. This perception is reinforced every time the art press puts sales figures ahead of aesthetic content, and it ultimately only serves those wielding money in the art market like a weapon.

There has been money and influence behind the form and content of art from the beginning[8], but the opinion of artists, critics and connoisseurs carries less and less weight. We’re nearly 30 years removed from Robert Hughes’ essay Requiem for a Featherweight.[9] His critique of Basquait included coupling the Whitney Museum’s interest with the economic drive for a retrospective, but instead of destroying Basquait’s reputation, in the intervening years all we’ve seen is his continued canonization and an increase in his resale prices. Setting aside the validity of Hughes’ critique, it is evident that economic interests trump the critic as lone curmudgeon.[10] Instead of tilting at windmills of artistic reputation propped up as an asset class, we would do better to provide an alternate narrative of art grounded in what we are for, not against. We do not all have to agree (indeed, we should expect to vehemently disagree at times), but we do have to make a story for contemporary art that allows the thinking and making of the work, not its price, to be paramount.

 

 

[1] Which I’ve been teasing here in the notes since Part 1; that’s why you read the notes, people.

[2] We’ve all read enough pithy references about the Medici and their influence on the art of the residence, so let’s just pretend I put one here.

[3] Best outlined by Tim Schneider in The Gray Market.

[4] It’s a label that seems very dependent on current popular culture and its fixation on Zombies (for example, with the Walking Dead). If this work had come to prominence even 5 years ago when vampires and the Twilight movies were all the rage, I’m sure we would’ve been hearing about “vampire formalism” and paintings that looked good (and even sparkled) on the wall, but were devoid of any reflection of substance or deeper content, and were ultimately sucking the life out of painting.

[5] It’s interesting to note that the only artist in both shows, Julie Mehertu, has gone against the grain in both shows; showing more highly polished and produced works in Remote Viewing, and more gestural and seemingly transitional works in Forever Now.

[6] This only applies to western art out of the Renaissance tradition; Eastern art has followed a slightly different path, although artists were still dependent on an infrastructure provided by the ruling elite. Perhaps an analogy can be drawn comparing working within the free market to academia?

[7] One of the more interesting implications in Postmodernism is so called “high” art circling back and incorporating these media (photography, film and video, digital and internet practice) into contemporary discourse.

[8] Everybody wave to the Medici!

[9] Originally published in the New Criterion, 1988 and collected in Nothing If Not Critical.

[10] See Dave Hickey as a current example.

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Written by Brian Dupont

February 15, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Loss Leaders

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[1] 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[2] produced according to a singular vision[3] its reflection is distorted for the extremity of that position compared to other cultural products.[4] 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[5] 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[6] 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.[7] 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[8] and involving interventions[9] 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[10] and is driving the current “grow or go”[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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[14], 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.[15] 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.

 

 

[1]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.

[2] And I realize that I may need to use that term loosely in describing art.

[3] Again, looking at the more popular consideration of how art is made rather than how insiders might know it to be made.

[4]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.

[5] References to it as “late stage” capitalism seem more like wish-castings on the part of certain critics more than anything else.

[6] …or someone else’s vision of what that means.

[7] Although, honestly, just getting the work out of the studio and seen is really motivation enough for most of us.

[8] In the form of both government funded programs and education, and the more direct intervention of law enforcement.

[9] 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.”

“Any questions?”

 

[10]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.

[11] Surely the analogy to certain giant reptiles of the Cretaceous period has been made by someone by now.

[12]Mass-extinction events tend to do that.

[13]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.

[14]Gallerists have probably noticed these efforts in their in-boxes.

[15]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.

Written by Brian Dupont

April 1, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Hide and Seek.

The state of the art market and the fantastic sums of money thrown into it as a part of the economic recovery[i] continue to serve as fodder to trumpet or denounce the direction of contemporary art itself. Breathless claims for art as an asset class are countered with calls that the money involved is irretrievably corrupting any aesthetic value. Add to this mix the Occupy movement casting its eye towards the art world as the only cultural arena where critical judement is almost entirely determined by the super-rich[ii], and the level of discourse gets more and more histrionic (on both sides) at the expense of actually addressing the fundamental issues or offering any possible solutions. There’s a good deal of populist rhetoric but it’s unclear how much of it is actually looking at art. Disturbingly, art is not being judged on the gallery or museum wall, but via the booths found in art fairs.

Most of the artists I know consider fairs a sort of necessary evil. Whether they go or not usually depends on if they can get in for free[iii], and if they go it’s because they can see a phenomenal amount of art in one place at one time; even compared to gallery hopping in Manhattan there’s more to see, but then the viewing is less than optimal (although compared to the free Friday evenings of most major museums in New York City, it can’t be too much worse).

Morley Safer brought out his second supposed dissection of the art world, the first having come not quite twenty years ago. This time he looked at the market through the lens of the Art Basel fair in Miami but his report has little in the way of actual investigation or exposition; there are some tossed off facts and a graph or two, but most of the issues are raised as snark and then left to quietly drop.[iv] While Safer did raise the issue of the amount of money in the art world, all too often he was ingratiating rather than critical. He has to practically beg to talk to Larry Gagosian, and instead of following up on ideas that the art market is completely opaque and unregulated and what this might mean, he spends his time poking fun at art he finds both silly[v] and overpriced. Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Anish Kapoor, and a host of anonymous art join Robert Gober, Christopher Wool, and Robert Ryman for mocking this time. To his credit, he at least goes after big names[vi] as long as they’re not in the same room; when he gets a tour of the Rubell family collection, he lampoons a work that drips honey from a box for participants to catch on bits of bread without noting that the artist in question is the Rubell’s daughter. Instead of exploring the nexus of money and privilege in the creation of art and how that affects broader aesthetic concerns we’re left with art reduced to mere absurdity, which is an easy answer. Drawing a connection with his first report, he wryly mocks Do Ho Suh’s delicate fabric recreations of elements from places he has lived by stripping them of all relation and reference, undercutting any possible meaning or engagement by treating them as ultimately little more than a commercial spot.

Safer notes a few works on view as worthwhile[vii], but the problem with his approach[viii] is the same many make:  the conflation of aesthetic value with how much a work of art costs. This is the clear cut issue with art at an art fair; not that personal obsessions are opaque (they are) or that the tussle of the contemporary scene is different than canonization (it is), but that as long as society insists on using money as the primary yardstick of “worth” it will be viewing art through a distorted lens. An art fair is ultimately about art as salable ware in a way that it is not in a museum, or even a gallery; the distortion Safer applies is that people more conversant in art manage a fair according to their own needs, while Safer presents it as the only way art is considered anymore.

Where Safer couches his aesthetic conservativism as a critique of billionaire spending, Charlie Finch seeks to align the problematic points of the art market with the economics of sports. He handles this arguably worse than Safer. For one, he should have a better understanding of the issues within the art market, but he so mangles his opening example[ix]  that it’s impossible to take him seriously; it makes me question whether or not he’s ever actually listened to a baseball game[x] and by extension just how much stock to put in the rest of his analysis. He complains that “What’s missing in both narratives is the traditional public interest that used to motivate the whole process”, but when I listen to a baseball game, I always know what the batter did, and so does everyone else. Likewise the only coverage of the fairs that I paid attention to[xi] hardly mentioned sales, but did mention that Michael Riedel’s installation at Zwirner’s booth was great. What is more problematic here is the equation of a singular aesthetic pursuit such as art to popular pastime like professional sports.[xii] To claim that Baseball is only a “construct no longer intended for public entertainment, but merely to justify the exchange of large amounts of capital between the 1% of the 1%” is to both reveal that one has never been a sports fan, but also to say that art should be merely public entertainment.

For me, the strength of art lies in its possibility for finicky, over the top elitism. What great movement in art has not been met with howls of derision and outrage from the general public? It can be the expression of a single individual that is not dependent on larger social or economic structures for its creation. The tricky thing with appealing to the taste of the general populace is while you’re never sure exactly what you’re going to get[xiii], it is safe to say that it isn’t likely to appeal to the contemporary art world. In appealing to the taste of the 99% I don’t think Finch intended to spend much time writing about Thomas Kinkade[xiv] or the latest generic Hollywood romantic comedy. Why should anyone believe a rant about how the influence of the 1% is destroying culture for everyone when the art Charlie Finch endorses would not pass muster with most majorities; aesthetically speaking, he is the 1%[xv] and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best and delusional at worst.

This is not to say that there are not economic inequalities that arise in participating in either the sports or art economy, but they are much more complicated to unpack[xvi], and the issues extend beyond just either arena to issues that affect the broad politics and economics of a city or region. In a sense this complexity is what makes it so easy to stop at just platitudes and economic name calling. The issues (and possible solutions) are less sexy when not looking at just art[xvii], and they also require the 99% to accept some responsibility for how things have turned out. I do not mean to use “responsibility” as the cudgel conservative politicians do, but whatever the problems that have come from a widening gap between rich and poor and a slow dismantling of the social safety net, these were legislated for in a functioning democracy. In such a political system it can’t be accurate to say that this was done to us; the sad truth is that we let this happen to us. Accepting responsibility is the first step towards reconstruction.

I tend to agree with John Powers when he identifies the ever widening disparity of incomes between the haves and have-nots as one of the central economic problems, and points to that providing healthcare and education as a simple leveling mechanism. While I would be quite happy to see the implementation of Scandinavian quasi-socialist economic policies designed to provide for all of the citizenry before (rather than after) splitting up the pie among private interests, I also do not think that any calls to remove art from the functions of basic capitalism and the laws of supply and demand have much credibility. Art cannot stand apart as a separate, somehow pristine economy because at its root it is interconnected with the rest of the global economy[xviii], just as is everything else. This is neither good nor bad; the issue is not working outside of capitalism, but in assessing how art can be produced within such a system.

Accepting the basic agency of supply and demand appears to be the lost key in understanding how the contemporary art market ebbs and flows. Artists tend to focus on the supply of or demand for actual artworks, but in responding to calls that “the game is rigged”[xix] one should turn to the supply and demand for labor. Finch blames the super rich for creating the illusion of opportunity, but when you get right down to it the fact is that being an artist (or at least the idea of it) is incredibly seductive. The reason there is a lot of competition is because so many people look at it as something that would be a great thing to do with their lives. Of course that image often doesn’t show the hard work or luck that underwrites the myth of success, but this is the same in a great many professions. [xx] I have actually often likened starting a career as an artist to trying to play a professional sport[xxi], but where Finch points to the failure rate and cost inherent in the system as an indication of its corruption, I see it as more and more people bringing new ideas to the table, and making art and its discourse stronger through variation and competition, debate and synthesis. Of course this strength also provides a broad labor base for an industry to draw from as new artists look to find work in their chosen field, and that pushes the value of that labor down, but it’s not realistic to expect that the art world is going to be able to support every artist. No industry provides that level of income security, and every artist has always had to work against the giant stereotype of the starving artist blinking annoyingly in the background. Even if artists saw some of their classmates offered solo shows, one would’ve had to blithely ignore the basic math[xxii] (along with most anecdotes from art history about how long it took for artists we care about today to find an audience). I don’t see any way that should be laid at the feet of art or the art market any more than all of cinema should be condemned because there are a bunch of actors waiting tables are disappointed that they didn’t get to have Brad Pitt’s career. We may have been raised to believe that we were all going to movie stars or rock gods, but if we’re pissed off by the fact that we’re not then we really have only ourselves to blame, even if it’s only for believing an advertisement.

Again, the key issue comes back to our unit of measure. Finch’s hypothetical benefit-less adjunct professor for Schlump Community College hasn’t had his work assessed in any way other than via the standing of his bank account. This is where criticism of the art fairs becomes problematic, since their entire raison d’etre is to sell art, and that helps artists (who presumably will get paid for their work). Safer and Finch ultimately get the art world they are looking for rather than the one they want because of the questions they ask. They want the work they like to be financially rewarded, but short of legislating taste perhaps the key to looking at art should be to look directly at the work rather than the price tag off to the side.


[i] Remember when the economic collapse was sure to herald in a new conceptual agenda reminiscent of the halcyon early 1990’s and the market would be corrected to a state subservient to aesthetics?

[ii] Almost any other medium for expression makes its bones on selling multiples, be it identical copies or tickets to a performance. This means that a certain amount of populism is built into the market. Where there is a singular object, that sum total concentrates into the single object, elevating it out of the price range of mere mortals.

[iii] This past round it seems like comps were harder to come by and ticket prices that rival MoMA’s probably kept some of the unwashed (i.e. non-buyers) away; with the next big event being the Frieze fair isolated away on Randall’s island, access does become a more pointed issue.

[iv] Yes, the art market and its participants do sometimes behave as though they are investing in commodities, but that is a problem why exactly? Show your work, Morley…

[v] That some cultural production could be both bad and ridiculously expensive should not exactly be news to Schafer as the same network that broadcasts his story also broadcasts “Two and a Half Men.”

[vi] We can all still agree that he might have a point about Koons though, right?

[vii] Kara Walker being the only artist so named, but pretty much anyone discussed is damned by the association of inclusion. I wonder if Safer’s viewers recognize that the quick insert of a small Picasso or large Frankenthaler are something they’re supposed to know is good.

[viii] From the standpoint of someone interested in art; trying to grab ratings by pandering to middlebrow misunderstanding of contemporary art is probably still a sound broadcasting strategy.

[ix] So let’s break his paragraph down, Finch writes

Turn on a televised baseball game, for example, and the announcer will say, “Joe Palooka is coming to bat. Joe is in his walk year, making $15 million, and his agent is rumored to be negotiating for a minimum six-year contract with the Red Sox or maybe the Rockies. Here comes the pitch. Strike One. Whether the Rangers will trade Palooka before the All Star break depends on management’s willingness to eat a big chunk of Joe’s current contract.”’

Just to start with, announcers just don’t talk this way. Being in the entertainment business, it’s generally accepted that too much talk about astronomical sums of money doesn’t really appeal to Joe Six-pack fan. Furthermore agents don’t negotiate with other teams for extended deals during the season. That would be tampering with a player under contract and MLB actually takes that pretty seriously. The player has to file for free agency for anybody to do any negotiating, and that happens in the off-season, not during the season.

Next, the teams are all wrong; the Red Sox don’t really compete with the Rockies for free agent signings (it’s the definition of a large market with lots of money, and a smaller market that can’t compete in spending), and anyways since the Rangers have been very good for the last few years, they wouldn’t be looking to trade away a good player at the deadline. That’s a salary dump and salary dumps are for good players on bad teams, they don’t happen to good players on good teams who are looking to go to the playoffs… but let’s not let facts get in the way of a nice bit of alliteration.

[x] Maybe Finch has only been listening John Sterling all these years, who is legitimately awful and barely does call the game; his pitch calling is non-existent, and he hardly interrupts his monologue to let the listener know that “there’s a strike.”

[xi] Rachael Wetzler writing for Idiom (who I also occasionally write for) and Greg Allen blogging for himself stood out in my feed, but many blogs looked at the art without getting to hung up on the money. Even Tamara Warren, writing in Forbes of all places, spent more time talking about the work than how it sold.

[xii] For the purposes of this discussion, we’re talking Baseball, which is the only sport I follow, although the issues that can be raised via Baseball can also be applied to other sports.

[xiii] As evidenced by all the cat videos on the internet.

[xiv] Although with his recent death perhaps we’ll be treated to an obituary that had all the wit and generosity of his thoughts on Hilton Krammer’s passing.

[xv] And likely so are you, dear reader.

[xvi] Just to start with the economics of having municipalities levy taxes to build stadiums and arenas for private enterprises that are both already very profitable. This trend becomes even more distorted in the face of the funding for the New Yankee Stadium, as the Yankees lack a credible threat to move anywhere else (does anyone really think Jersey is an option?) while at the same time annexing public park land in a poorer section of the city to build upon. The Yankees proposal would have returned said public lands back in trade, but only in a fragmented and less useable fashion, and they haven’t even undertaken to live up to those meager responsibilities. By comparison, funding for oversize art projects (public or private) are the super-rich spending their own money. Even if you argue that their incomes should be taxed at a higher rate, you simply do not see even major museum projects (never mind galleries or projects by single artists) making such a bald claim to privatize public funds. The unpopularity of contemporary art that insulates it as a luxury commodity is also what keeps it from becoming a larger drain on the taxes paid by the 99%. When art accrues value and prices push ever higher, the only people who are paying more and more via auction and private sales are already very, very rich.

[xvii] And thus actions like Occupy Museums have less purchase for grabbing media attention. While such tactics are good for exposing issues that should be debated and starting a dialog with otherwise indignant and closed institutions, they appear to provide less in the way of demands for change or actionable solutions.

[xviii] Money is a very pervasive technology precisely because it is so convenient. Artists, galleries, and museums still must draw on resources of power and utilities, space, transportation, and labor. These are all networked into the general economy in a way that cannot be easily segregated into a separate system based on, say, barter and good will. Any such separate economy would run into limits of scale that art, like most global markets or enterprises has long since surpassed. The genie simply cannot be put back in the bottle.

[xix] Which is a common refrain, echoed by Finch and participants in the Flux Factory Death Match linked to above.

[xx] There are a lot of things to do and ways to make a living that look really interesting, but in the end are not easy to get a foot in the door. An example that goes beyond the arts is my brother’s work to become a full time pilot. He spent his summers flying weather modification in the middle of nowhere, just so he’d have a job flying and could log flight time that he could bring to an application for an airline job. But the air line job he got still gives a great deal of weight to seniority and institutes practices that takes advantage of the fact that there is a very deep pool of labor to draw on.

[xxi] At least in pro-sports the goal of winning a game that has clearly defined rules means that talent will always trump unrelated maters. This is obviously not the case with art, but that is a strength as well as a weakness. With art we can at least define our own goals and goal posts.

[xxii] Take the number of people in an MFA program and use that to extrapolate the number of MFA candidates in all of the grad schools across the country. Then subtract the number of gallery shows available in a single given year and take the square root of that number. If the resulting number is imaginary, then so was the financial planning behind the idea.

Written by Brian Dupont

April 16, 2012 at 10:34 pm

Future Maps for these Territories

 

The New Year’s holiday inevitably brings about remembrances and prognostications. 2011 saw me celebrate a decade in the same studio, and as I sat around looking at works in progress and planning for the New Year (figuring out new works, and considering the more daunting task of trying to resolve what’s already been started, discarded, or just left sitting around) I was also considering my New Year’s day trip to the art openings in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I started thinking more and more about the (very) long-term affects of changing economic conditions, and how the seemingly continual search for space affects artists, and where that search may lead.

In a year that saw the birth and subsequent suppression of the Occupy movement focus attention on corporate machinations, it is hard not consider the footprint of corporate interests in finance, real estate, and art when considering any such potential future. The early fiction of William Gibson seems to particularly apply, with his simultaneous exploration of the corporation as quasi-governmental power[1] and interest in art and design. Any attempt at articulating a future will be more a snapshot of the author’s present[2] more than the future[3], but Gibson’s Sprawl fiction[4] presents a future for art that is in some sense already here.  Artists are measured in a stock market-like system of fluctuating points, up and down. The actual works of art are purchased by reproduction[5], and then safely crated away in secure storage, possibly never to be seen before being resold. Scholarship is privatized as well[6], with the heads of the new oligarchies serving as patrons (and also demanding favors) in a model reminiscent of the medieval kings. His setting for the market of the art world is likewise eerily prescient. Marly Krushkova[7], the disgraced owner of small gallery for emerging[8] art contrasts with Picard, the international gallery manager who treats art as any broker would their preferred commodity. Setting aside motivation, the contrast between the power and wealth available in the realm of the blue chip as compared to those working from purer motives is stark.

By comparison his artists Slick Henry[9], Rubin Stark[10], and the artificial intelligence discovered at the end of Count Zero[11] are represented in a romanticized fashion that make them seem more outsiders than careered artists. Their creative drive is an unsullied internal need. (Only Stark has representation, and fully engages the market for his creations. In this sense he actually comes the closest of the three to representing a successful artist working within today’s art world.[12]) Aside from their collage based practice and their affinity for cast off materials, these characters share an affinity for living and working in repurposed industrial spaces. These are a future version of the light-industrial lofts that became the new model for the artist’s studio in the Post-war art world.

Whether the size of these new spaces allowed or caused artist to dramatically change the scale of their work[13], what is evident is that the work produced in these spaces is peculiarly of these spaces:  just as the scale and materials of pre-war modernism seem particularly suited to a Parisian garret, the paintings of the New Yorks school swelled to match the space available in an urban center with a surplus of raw, light-industrial space. Contemporary art has seen the loft space institutionalized as grad studios in MFA programs and this as affected how the art is made. Construction is an ad-hoc affair with considerations of craft in construction[14] giving way to a direct and immediate engagement with the work that assumes that problems of logistics, transport, and storage can be solved after the fact. Artists will be keenly aware of their own space, and often build work that just fits in or out the door by a matter of inches, but these measurements are unlikely to consider future doors in different neighborhoods that the work may need to get in.[15]

I’ve always considered the migrations[16] of artists in New York to react like quicksilver to pressures relating to the cost of space.  Artists[17] form the leading edge of gentrification in the city, following the arteries of transportation through to under-used (or under-capitalized) light industrial spaces that could be taken over for idiosyncratic ends. The post-war bohemia of Greenwich Village was pushed into Soho and from there into (generally) Tribeca and lower Manhattan and out to Dumbo and through to harder to access areas like Red Hook or the Navy Yards. Another tack flowed to the East, from Village and out into Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Long Island City and into Bushwick.[18] It appears that artists are following the subway lines to anywhere there is cheap space, which was usually “the next stop out” from a popular neighborhood. Established residential neighborhoods formed a natural bulwark to an influx of artists, providing the rents were high enough. If the neighborhood tended to be lower income, or zoned for mixed-use, it was only a matter of the next financial boom until the indigenous residents who didn’t own found themselves forced out, soon to be followed by the artists who couldn’t afford the rising rents. Leaving aside the contemporary socio-economic implications and looking to the future, what sort of changes and evolutions can we expect in art and the art world as economic pressures continue to exacerbate the problem of a finite amount of urban space?

Gibson’s artists find themselves in extremely out of the way locations[19], but are able to interface with culture and patrons virtually via technology. Presently artists still feel the need to gather[20], but space is becoming more and more limited and the influx of new, young artists into the same limited, urban territory will eventually subject the makers of objects to evolutionary pressures that will affect where and how art is made. Artists never left working in their apartments, and post-studio and conceptual practices may become increasingly popular urban practices to accompany works at a more modest scale.[21] Another avenue would be a longer, more desperate migration that can be observed in other species struggling with dwindling local resources. Other smaller urban areas connected by similar transit options are one option[22], yet will face the same pressures from outside industries. These factors will only increase as rural populations contract, but with a retreat to urban centers new spaces will open to colonization by artists. Strip malls and abandoned big box stores of the twenty-first century will present similar floor plans possibilities to their light industry counterparts of the twentieth century. With a proliferation of mobile connectivity and social media artists will be able to take advantage of cheap real estate as working space trumps the ability to grab a drink or quick meal with a fellow artist.

Looking back on the crowds that crammed into Norte Maar or spilled out onto the sidewalk in front of Storefront on New Year’s Day, the implication (or threat) to artists is probably greater to the underrated social community that surrounds long hours alone in the studio rather than any specific need for space; after all artists will still find a way to make things under the most pressing limitations. Nevertheless I can already envision a future version of Loren Munk, traveling so far that he’s nomadic and without time to paint, his work documented digitally via GPS and JPEG like a cyberpunk Richard Long, trekking out to and mapping the remains of a Walmart that was once home and studio of a now famous artist…until he or she was priced out and now the space is occupied by a bohemian descendant of Sam Walton. Even in the future, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 


[1] Gibson’s future is the ultimate in corporate privatization, with national governments collapsed and corporate conglomerates wielding their own private armies. Nevertheless there must be some organizing and mediating principle, as evidenced by the wild global urban infrastructure his characters must navigate.

[2] Gibson acknowledges as much, writing that “Nothing acquires quite as rapid or peculiar a patina of age as an imaginary future” in the introduction to Burning Chrome.

[3] The Sprawl trilogy seems rather light on smartphones, and the graphics available to his cyberpunks and the animations that represent the web belong more to Atari than one where the imaging of Avatar is out of date. In this regard Neal Stephenson grafted the appropriate bandwidth onto Gibson’s corporate future in his novel Snow Crash.

[4] The novels Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the stories collected in Burning Chrome.

[5] Gibson’s holograms are a sexier antecedent to today’s JPEGS.

[6] In the future of the sprawl there seems little room for museums, and I imagine that community outreach programs were cut when the government fell.

[7] In Count Zero.

[8] In Gibson’s world, this means dealing with original works, presumably by living artists. There is little money in it, unless one gets extremely lucky, but there is the visceral, direct appeal.

[9] In Mona Lisa Overdrive.

[10] In ‘The Winter Market’, included in the Burning Chrome collection of stories.

[11] Spoiler alert.

[12] Although his work and character seems like a precursor to Slick Henry, as if the more career savvy artist had to be tamed to get along with his new neighbors and relations in the subsequent novel. Also of interest is that he has an agent, and not specifically gallery representation.

[13] Like any other nature vs. nurture argument the answer is probably “a bit of both.”

[14] Speaking generally, and certainly not of larger projects fabricated with the aid of specialized technicians, who generally need to have their shit straight to survive working with artists…

[15] This is a benefit to the much maligned practice of art going directly into storage after it is bought. Artists are at least free to make anything, and sell it, without worrying about where it is going to fit. In my experience far fewer collectors have huge garage-style roll  up doors into their residences than you might think.

[16] Or, if you prefer, relocations. The constant movement of artists has a whiff of refugee movements about it, in a distinctly first-world way of course.

[17] In this case, young or emerging artists working to establish themselves. Older artists who have consolidated their position within the art world will probably have similarly consolidated their position in real estate. Likewise they are more likely to have family commitments that keep them from the young person’s game of pioneering.

[18] And of course some also headed West to New Jersey or North into the Harlem and the Bronx, and individual outposts or colonies thrive almost everywhere, but migrations are a matter of populations, not individuals. Chelsea remains an interesting outlier as artists have been there since at least the 1940’s or 50’s (deKooning had a studio there for awhile), but despite its proximity to Greenwich Village* it has never really had a status as an “art neighborhood” until the galleries moved in. If some future historian is looking to pinpoint where capital and galleries bifurcated away from artists, this is probably the point.

* Despite the rallying cry of the time, artists did head above 14th Street. Hipsters are notoriously unreliable that way, and of course there wasn’t an art museum that far south anyway.

[19] Low Earth orbit, or New Jersey.

[20] Following the split noted between the populations of artists and galleries in #18, it is interesting to note that galleries are exhibiting the same behavior, just within their own “species”, rather than with artists.

[21] Mira Schor’s call for an new intimate art may become a reality in light of working and exhibition space reducing (which can be seen a bit in smaller spaces on the Lower East-side downsizing from the blue chip Chelsea hangar). See “Modest Painting” in “A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life.”

[22] Potentially leading to a version of Gibson’s Boston – Atlanta Metropolitan Axis.

Written by Brian Dupont

January 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm

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.[1] 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.[2]

It is my feeling that as art’s[3] 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[4] 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.


[1] #Rank, and its predecessor #Class were a source of inspiration for my own Art & the Mainstream posts here.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] See my references to Sturgeon’s Law elsewhere on this blog.

 

 

Written by Brian Dupont

March 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Parsing Cacophony: Art & the Mainstream Part 3

As I continue to look at potential models for Art’s interaction with mainstream culture, it becomes clear that the central consequence of increased exposure to the broader population is the addition of ever more bodies and voices to an already overcrowded site. Just as the population at large continues to grow, the sites of art fill up and expand. During the 1950’s and 60’s it used to be possible to for everyone in the tiny New York art scene to know everyone else, but that is clearly not the case today.

As capital exerts a gravitational pull on resources, including labor, the art world has seen immigration just like any other site of accumulated wealth. Its expansion occurred in conjunction with increasing enrollment in higher education, especially among women and minorities; as these people moved out of the lower levels of academia and into the art world they also brought the germinating seeds of progressive multicultural movements with them. Even as these artists encountered a glass ceiling within the art world, the value of their (often unheralded) contributions became apparent as critiques of privilege and power indicated a way forward beyond the prevailing historical narratives. Clement Greenberg projected a slow heat death of recycled formalism for art, and the first conservative spasms of postmodernism in the ‘80s proposed an endless recombination of previous styles. Both ideas are severely limited, presenting myopic sense of the future possibilities of Art.

If Ideas are the DNA of Art, biology illustrates the dangers posed by population extremes. A small population limited to a small site will inevitably face extinction; by contrast a rapid expansion results in increased competition for and conflict over resources. For Art the value of reaching out to the mainstream is akin to a species expanding its genetic and territorial diversity. As I noted in my previous post, the rising attendance figures in galleries and museums indicates that more people are interested in Art, and the benefit to the art world proper lies in drawing more people in to contribute resources, capital, or production as viewers, collectors, dealers, critics, curators, teachers, artists, or assistants and support staff. Most likely people in the art world are filling many of the above rolls and contributing to a diverse and roiling ecosystem.

If Bravo’s Work of Art represented mass culture’s attempt to mine the art world via mountaintop removal, reducing that ecosystem to an easy to navigate slab, then to extend the metaphor it is the job of critics and curators to act as conservationists, supporting and nurturing artists who might otherwise disappear. And make no mistake about it is a jungle out there. The common charge leveled at large survey shows (like the Whitney Biennial) is that they either lack focus or do a poor job of illustrating contemporary trends. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, the institutional weight associated with such shows makes them (rightly or wrongly) a target for anyone whose agenda is countered or not satisfied. For how long did we see references to the 1993 Whitney Biennial?

It would seem that the large art fairs have usurped the roll of surveyor, stripping oversight from the process in favor of the whims and trends of the market. While fairs offer an amazing amount of art for viewing, most are curated on some level, even if it is only at the level of which dealers are invited. This works to a degree as dealers have, by the necessity of managing their own brand, come to fill a curatorial function. In this regard it becomes necessary to acknowledge that if curation is the engine that drives the art world, introducing new artists and advancing their work, then the majority of this work will be done by galleries (and alternative spaces) rather than museums and academia.

This is not to argue that curators have been marginalized and are unimportant in the face of the vast amount of money that moves through the art world, rather it is to expand the agency of curation to the people within the art world who provide the basic organization.  That the act of organization will marginalize some artists is inevitable, but necessary. Sites that lack any curatorial direction will suffer at the expense of signal to noise.

Consider the large group shows put on by the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition; occupying a large warehouse in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, the exhibition space may be comparable to the Whitney Biennial or the Armory, but each show is essentially uncurated. Any theme suggested for a given exhibition is broad enough to apply to almost any work, and work is brought to the installation ready to hang, most often without the organizer having seen it. The most that can usually be done is to choose where to hang the works. There is no shaping or directing of aesthetic voice, and no point of view beyond what may self organize out of the crowd. The din of such pure aesthetic democracy effectively neutralizes the opportunity for a broader artistic statement. Instead of being amplifying what is being said, the noise cancels out any conversation, any subtlety of statement.

The ultimate result of any organizing effort is that some work will be discarded as the wheat is separated from the chaff. While no artist wants to wind up as “chaff”, the counter balance in empowering curation would be a reduction in noise and more focused arguments for artists and art.

I think the internal model many have for a curator is someone akin to the cool hunter Cayce Pollard in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. As a character she was blessed with a preternatural skill at identifying cultural success, and attempted to mine cultural production at its very roots, doing the dirty work of looking for the back streets and rough neighborhoods where trends and art germinate. Indeed, an industrialist she works for notes that her focus on all aspects of culture causes her to “curate” everything about her life, down to the clothing she wears. This is a comforting myth for artists to embrace, as it plays to classic ideas that they will be ‘discovered’ and quickly set on the path to recognition and aesthetic and financial success. I think the practical side of the character, that she made her (not substantial) living searching for origin points of cultural production so as to give it and its creators it’s first established venue point towards a more practical avenue, where everyone ‘emerging’ in the art world bears a responsibility for its curation. Artists need to recognize that there is hard and dirty work being done outside their studios that is just as valuable to the ecosystem as what they are doing in them.

Written by Brian Dupont

November 17, 2010 at 12:56 pm

The Luxury of Art: Art & the Mainstream Part 1

On September 10th Hyperallergic hosted a small panel discussion on the mainstreaming of art, the podcast of which will be available on iTunes. The discussion was interesting, but felt a bit unfocused. This shouldn’t be a surprise (and should be considered a good thing) given the diverse interests and curiosity of the panelists, as well as the lack of a dogmatic agenda. The format allowed the panel comment on a wide range of topics related to Art and the Art world’s uncomfortable relation to mainstream culture, including MoMA’s Tim Burton exhibition and how the comment section of blogs has opened up the discourse about art, but here I want to concentrate on what was to me the elephant in the room: Art’s status as a luxury commodity.

That Art is a luxury commodity not a new idea; panel moderator William Powhida and Jennifer Dalton’s Hashtagclass project devoted considerable time and intellectual energy to turning this idea over. In fact I think the critique of art as luxury commodity is a central concern of their project (just look at the site’s banner graphic). While I think it’s fair that the Hyperallergic panel didn’t use its limited time to address a previously examined idea, especially in relation to the recent TV exposure associated with Bravo’s Work of Art, it still seems like the central problem when thinking about Art’s relationship to mainstream culture.

Sometimes it seems as though artists, critics, and dealers will often treat that relationship just as they would the eponymous invisible pachyderm. It seems no one wants art to be thought of as little more than a collection of designer goods. Art has always been about communication, be it directly with the gods, the church or state instructing the populace, or the individual artist communicating matters of personal feeling or vision; I don’t think anyone gets that from a handbag (even one by Murakami), and the association feels like an accusation of vacuousness; it highlights the mercantile exchange at the expense of aesthetic or cultural meaning. This slight is at the very core of why art has a problematic relation to any formulation of ‘mainstream culture.’ In trying to set itself apart from other luxury commodities it is arguing for a more exclusive place within the cultural landscape, not a more general or mainstream one.

It is a question of access, and just as in any other area of human behavior where there is money to be made, it is the cost of access that is problematic. This is especially true when (say, as with politics) the ideal system is democratic and open and the existing system is revealed to be less than that. As our current global culture allows for increased mobility between economic classes, the boundaries between what is traditionally thought of as high and low culture has become similarly smeared. This smearing leaves us in a consumer culture where many luxury brands are more accessible to more people. This increases the competition for those objects, but also levels the field somewhat (the best, if fictional, example I can think of being Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones yelling at someone because she saw the designer handbag she coveted on the arm of a Midwestern housewife while she was made to wait – shades of Craig Robbins). However, by virtue of its ultimate focus on the unique, Art reinforces its link to the history of the luxury commodity.

From a basic production standpoint, the economics behind the production of a work of art grow out of the centuries old tradition of guilds and skilled craftsmen. Artists today are (generally, for the most part) making work by hand, with high overhead costs in space and materials. The base economic factors of the cost of labor and the time and experience required to meet a sufficient level of technical skill remain as factors that push the price of the handmade object  ever upwards. Similarly issues of scale apply to artists and collectors alike. Bigger is seen as more important, more desirable; having the resources to own a non-utilitarian object that takes up a large amount of square (or cubic) footage represents a considerable expenditure of capital. (This is all the more so if the work is in storage, there Art is even removed from even a pretense of having even a decorative function.) Previous attempts by artists to make work that is ‘uncollectible’ have only resulted in changing the taste of collectors, who will still find a way to own the art, sometimes at even greater expense and sometimes without anything material to show for it.

That Art is ultimately subject to the same economic forces as any other luxury commodity is an a priori condition; furthermore it is not possible to divorce Art and its production from rules of economics. Attempts at popularizing access, such as Jen Beckman’s 20 x 200 project, ultimately reinforce this condition, but it strikes me as a similar situation to almost anything else people care about these days; the situation is not ideal, but it isn’t necessarily clear what the ideal would even be (other than that one person’s ideal is probably very different than the next person’s). This is not to say that problems and grievances shouldn’t be addressed, or that options and alternatives should not be explored, only that those who care about art should not lose sight of the cultural and aesthetic values that brought us to it in the first place.

Written by Brian Dupont

September 29, 2010 at 9:28 pm