Monday, September 19, 2016

The art publicist: the new associate of the art market

The culture industry does not sublimate; it represses…Works of art are ascetic and unashamed; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish."-- Theodor Adorno.

Alfredo Triff

Since the deregulation of the media in the mid-1990s and the corporatization of art market in the 2000s criticism has waned to the pòint of extinction.1 There's a new focus in the practice of art reception. Writers do not feel they have to evaluate anymore. Instead, they produce eleemosynary commentaries. What happened? 

There is no art, only "art events"

Corollary 1: Art is defined and consumed by "how," "when," and "where" it is presented. The "event" is (controlled by) the market. 

Damien Hirst's For the Love of God, a $100 M 8,601-diamond skull.  

This is how Isabel Graw, professor of Art History and Theory at Stadelschule Art Academy in Frankfurt describes it:
I think that we are actually dealing with a gradual shift concerning the relationship between art and the market, and this shift is reflected in the market's increased power of definition over what is regarded as a meaningful work of art. In other words, what has changed for artistic production since the '60s and '80s is the very structure of its universe -which has become a mass corporate industry embracing the logic of celebrity culture. 2a
James Panero writes:
The art market has a unique talent for promoting art about the market. Since exhibition history enhances value, the collectors of what we might call "market art" have a vested interest in seeing their work take up space in traditional public collections. They often have the financial leverage to make it happen. In this way, the hedge-fund collector Steven A. Cohen could place Damien Hirst's shark tank on temporary loan at the Metropolitan Museum. The oversized trinkets of Jeff Koons start appearing at the same time in the museum’s rooftop gallery.
During the Twentieth Century, art criticism was defined as a practice of judging. The phenomenon of the art market was mentioned only tangentially -as appreciation or depreciation of the artwork's value. This value was seen within the classic Capitalist picture of  supply and demand. In this version, the market is a transparent medium, an invisible hand reflecting the artist's overall worth in a world of free consumers. Something else added to the market mystique: Both Kant and Marx's elucidation of art as non-instrumental and non-productive respectively yielded the art market as spontaneous catalyst of human interests, a necessary vehicle to distribute taste (Kant) or propagate culture (Marx).

At the receiving end, critics were outsiders to the dealings between collectors, curators, gallerists and museum-directors. Profit and its political ramifications never got addressed in the writing.2b The real productive and speculative dynamics behind the art was ignored. Two very different discourses were taking place: the public ramblings of the critic and the private behind-the-scenes money-talk of art transactions.

Was the critic aware?

 Clement Greenberg, the quintessential Modern critic.

Until the 1970s, the art market kept this old-school Fordist touch of conventional respectability. Collecting was a practice of the very rich. Artist's marketability was measured in terms of constancy: producing, showing and being collected over time. "The art market is boiling with an activity never known before in history," wrote Eric Hodgins and Parker Leslie in an article published for Fortune Magazine in 1955. "Against the rising demand for art, the available floating supply of Great Art is an ever shrinking quantity" (my italics). Hodgins & Parker predicted that this market would not only grow but would "turn increasingly to modern and contemporary art" (in hindsight, a pretty sound projection). The magazine listed "speculative or "growth painters" (their version of today's "emergent artist"): Kooning, Pollock, Baziotes, Motherwell, Still, Reinhardt, and Kline, amongst others.

This is the Greenbergian moment of art criticism. A moment of trend-setting and discovering "high art," which bathed the critics, artists and market in a glow of prestige. Then the market exploded at Sotheby's Scull Auction of 1973, the event which marked, not only the rise in prices, but also the dominance of money in any discussion of contemporary art.

Critic Barbara Rose, reported the 1973 auction for The New York Magazine:
They (The Sculls) learned how to turn themselves into objects through packaging (Mrs. Scull appeared to have had everything lifted for the occasion), media exposure, and sheer, unadulterated chutzpa. The Sculls transformed their banal, nouveau riche selves into personalities by not being afraid to own up to being all that was considered lowbrow, déclassé, grasping, and publicity-seeking. They made a thing out of being vulgar, loud, and over dressed. They were, in short, shameless; and it was their shamelessness that finally got them the spotlight they ached for. 
Rose's personal account of the whole episode misses the real reason behind the sale: What happens with the Scull Auction is that the aristocracy's dominance of the market is over. After 1973 the art market explodes and goes "public." It shifts from individuals actors selling and buying and collecting to new techniques of profit.

Accumulation gives way to speculation.    

Andy Warhol's 200 One Dollar Bills sold for $49 M in New York (i.e, a plain demonstration of the magic of the market: each Warhol dollar is now worth $245,000!).

If art accrues meaning according to how it's talked about and presented, then one could see the art-publicist-turned-"critic" as a tacit ally of the market: a framer, an apologist of goods, a middleman who is apt to translate pictorial codes into clear a language of commodity exchange. From the 1960s to the 1990s, as artists happily rallied behind this legitimation process, collectors were happy to invest and museums to acquire and to show.

The critic got displaced by a better trained creature in the art of legitimizing art. This description of the curator by Michael Brenson is worth a treasure:
Not only an organizer, but a person that can think imaginatively about the points of compatibility and conflict among the different artworks. They must be at once aestheticians, diplomats, economists, critics, historians, politicians, audience developers, and promoters. They must be able to communicate not only with artists but also with community leaders, business executives, and heads of state. They must be comfortable with people who have devoted their lives to art and culture, with people who neither like nor trust art, and with people who may be willing, if they are convinced that art serves their interests or is sufficiently connected to their lives, to be won over by an artist or an exhibition. 3
The artist as financial-chart (taken from For the first time, the market unapologetically presents artists as commodities.

Curators become the publicists of art par excellence. Here is how Panero characterizes the curator's attitude to the market:
Curators defend such expensive contemporary work as relevant to the commercialism of the age: the market gives meaning to the art. The public meanwhile gravitates to such contemporary art because the public sees its own profligacy reflected in it—an attitude that the public then feels justified in maintaining.4a
Today, as the art market bypasses the critic, the writer regurgitates the supply side, blind to what's going on behind the scenes. Critic Stephen Melville explains:
The critic mostly does not travel in these circles, does not get about these ways, and is now more often than not a distinctly belated arrival in front of the work that has already been received, swathed in discourse, located and described, and often enough, sold. 4b
The market needs fresh stock.

Corollary 2: By ignoring art's political alignment, the critic misses the best part of the story. 

As critic Boris Groys puts it, "what matters in a review is which artists are mentioned, where and how long they are discussed. Everything else is everything else." 5 Being already squeezed out the market side of the equation, the critic-turned-art/writer has no choice but to get closer to his public, to become a "cultural commentator." Meanwhile, the public is ignorant as to why they were presented this or that art/product.

Is this dumbing down of art discourse the market's version of "cultural education" for the masses? 6

Corollary 3: The critic art publicist no longer affects what is seen and discussed. He/she is a hired scribbler.

It makes (Capitalist) sense! As the market creates new desires for mass spectacle, it keeps circulating newer art/products. The media, as the market's selling arm, repackages art commodities as "art/events" to a public avid for cultural spectacle. Art/writing legitimizes cultural commodities.

Pamela Anderson arrives @ Miami Art Basel (with David La Chapelle).

"art experience" = "cultural phenomenon."

"emergent art" is a carefully orchestrated assembly-line choreography.

so, "art experience" (the opposite of what it presupposes) simulates and disguises the reality of what is being shown.

Have direct access to culture!

Pamela Anderson's (photo-op performance?) at Miami Art Basel.

Corollary 4: How do the media presents the market's case? Fabricating a narrative and making it familiar. What is accessible and heavily promoted becomes desired.

The art publicist is a mouthpiece of the market.7

The predominant art/writing style in journalism (newspapers, weeklies, non-specialized magazines) consists of a formulaic pottage between commentary and descriptive platitudes. A frustrated critic puts it this way:
As we read the review of the art show, we are told of its social flavor, made by incidental side comments. We understand the writer's intentions and preferences. So we are presented with the artist's judgments, not the critics'.  Why is judgment shunned? 8 
Onajide Shabaka, photo, (2008).

Contemplation of art takes second seat to the enjoyment of the art-spectacle: 

Friends With You Art Parade, Art Basel, (2006).

As the market gets bigger, it has a way to become omniscient. Take for instance  Mark Spiegler, co-director of Art Basel. In this interview one can tell how hard he tries not to become identified with the market he represents, to distance himself from it, to avoid words such as "speculation," "volatility," (to suggest that people who collect don't speculate).

The market always presents itself as "OTHER." 

Corollary 5: Being outside, consumers feel they are "free" to make choices, to -even- reject the market. 

Here is a bit of another interview:
Steven Kobler: With the hype art has been experiencing for a couple of years now, the market has taken over the final say on the relevancy of an artist to a museum. Are the market mechanisms dangerous for the function of art in society?

Mark Spiegler: We don’t agree that the market replaces museums in determining the relevance of an artist. In fact, one could argue the reverse: Major museum shows have an enormous impact upon the market of an artist. And when it comes to determining which artists have a lasting relevance, it is not the art market but rather the artists themselves who play the largest role- followed closely by those writing art history (my italics).
Does Spiegler need to say more?
1 This has been the central argument of media critic Ben H. Bagdikian, for whom the media in general, and newspapers in particular, are increasingly controlled by "a new kind of central authority over information -the national and multinational corporation." So, how independent is the media today when profit and shortermism rule editorial policies? See Who Owns the Media? Competition and Concentration in the Mass Media Industry, Benjamin M. Compaine, Douglas Gomery Eds, (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000). 2a"Art and Its Markets," Artforum International (Volume: 46, April, 2008).   2b I had this experience recently. After being commissioned to write a review for Darby Bannard's retrospective in Miami, I submitted my review. It was rejected by the Miami Herald editor because it was "more about me than about Bannard." I had to provide my readers with a picture of "Bannard the person" (the person was more important than his pictures in the show!). 3 "The Curator's Moment", Michael Brenson, Art Journal (Volume: 57. Issue: 4, 1998).  4a Boris Groys, "Critical Reflections," Art Forum (October, 1997). 4b"The Art Market Explained" James Panero, The New Criterion, (Volume 28, December 2009), p. 26. 5 As a writer, I always felt as an outsider, having the choice of looking at the art -or look at the dealings behind the art presented. For reasons that I cannot pursue in this piece, I decided for the former.  "Is This Anything", in The State of Art Criticism, (Routledge, New York, 2008), p. 114. Art Basel Miami Beach, was triggered by a willful group of Miami collectors. They lured curators, which lured the investors. In all these art transactions, the critic is always left out. Getting too close to the work has its dangers: criticism eventually disappears, as buffer of taste between the art and the much needed evaluative practice of art. Think of the media mobilization behind Art Basel/Miami Beach, our yearly 3-day art-extravaganza. ABMB brings much needed revenue to Miami. More importantly, it brings cultural cache. Imagine what this mobilization of resources means for the institutionalization -and homogenization- of the market in terms of curatorial & museum practices. 7 Take for instance the "Best Of" practice of weeklies, such as The Miami New Times. Who makes the call for what's Best Of? If the writer, it presents a serious conflict of interest. The paper's editor's conflicts come with the territory: It's called "art assignment." Full disclosure: While I worked at the Miami New Times for almost 7 years, I never participated in "Best Of" decisions. How about the conflicts of interest between the curator/writer, the curator/artist, the curator/artist/writer/promoter? There is also the collector/writer. He gets the best of both worlds!  8 Tom Romley, "Who is the critic?" The Evening Standard (London, May 2007).


MC said...

MB: As much as they happen everyday, one seldom reads about these conflicts. The art world can be pretty hermetic. Thanks.

Matthew said...

I appreciate the view from the inside but the general picture is pretty disappointing.

R.L.R. said...

Triff keep dissecting the whole thing. It´s good to know what are we being part of so one can decide where to stand without getting too much shit.

Feminista said...

Nice piece!
Ouch. It hurts to be an artist. My students are having lots of fun!


Why don't we do this in Miami.

NinjaSol said...

Very interesting post, I work in the heart of the "Design District"...... where Art Basel and "2nd Sat Gallery walk" spread their flambouent wings....and I must agree that it is more of a "cat-walk production", a chance to dress up and pretend to have valuable comments about art while sipping on complementary drinks and ordourvs. In the end not many people have truly evaluated or remotely argued the work let alone remember the artist names. The media seems to prefer the promotion of an art “party” not the art itself. Yes, perhaps critics are not welcomed by the media due to some kind of behind-the-scenes politics. However, art is still art whether it has a critic or just a promoter. I've seen a quiet, deserted side of town flourish with local artist and designers who are anxious and excited for public viewings. A grimy, rough part town splashed building to building with vibrant colors and powerful images by street artist, graffiti artist and even well known artist simply painting the streets not for money, but simply because it's art. Though critics may be silenced by editors, people will always communicate how they feel about a piece of art with sheer expression. No matter how it’s packaged, presented or written about, art doesn’t really care for judgments it’s simply there to exist.

miamibourbaki said...

MC: Indeed, the art world can be esoretic.

Thanks, Matthew. Let's try to bring some change.

RLR: :)

AQV: A $90,000 grant to write more of the same?

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, Ninja. A lot gets lost amidst the glitter. Right now, I'm a bit cynical. The social pull, the desire to "be seen" and partake the spectacle is dominant. Of course good art is still produced.

No art critic said...

Hey Triff, I've been following this with increasing curiosity. I agree that we usually dismiss the money side of the equation in art, but I still think that there is a relevant discourse that you seem to dismiss. I mean art is also an activity that is not only a human need, but also one that enlightens people.

Even before critics existed, art served other purposes than making money.

Franklin said...

The remarkable fact in the Panero quote (full disclosure: James is my editor at TNC) is not that the market is so powerful, but that institutions as mighty as the Met are ready to roll over and play dead for it. In doing so, the institutions become the reputation-laundering arm of the market. Any rich man's folly can be given a veneer of respectability by placing it in a museum, and the museums' willingness to participate in the scheme transforms culture from a shared heritage into an insular, cynical transaction. There is not a wide readership for commentary about insular, cynical transactions, especially ones built around the academic framework that usually accompanies the tokens of these transactions. By the time the critics arrive on the scene, it's already too late for them. The market is going to pursue its own interests. That's what it does. But the institutions lack the nerve and imagination to contradict the will of the market's representatives on its boards of governance and in its donor base, and this complicity is more insidious than anything the critics could muster.

Feminista said...

We're living in times of a generalized market imperialism where the market dictates artistic relevance. That's the sad truth.

No art critic said...

This is going in circles. I'm an artist interested in criticism but I don't believe in the critics. I find that they contribute very little to art.

Next, the market makes money, I don't. So tell me how I am part of the market. Only a small bunch of artists are relevant to the market. I refuse to believe that I'm a puppet of anything, much less the market.

miamibourbaki said...

Feminista, being a university professor, you can make a difference.

NAC: By all means, don't believe in the critics.

miamibourbaki said...

Even before critics existed, art served other purposes than making money.

Agree. The problem is now. The market has engulfed almost everything. Sure, art is relevant, so much so that I have to write about it. Thanks for your visit.

...the institutions lack the nerve and imagination to contradict the will of the market's representatives on its boards of governance and in its donor base, and this complicity is more insidious than anything the critics could muster.

Right on, Franklin (and don't forget the curator). That's food for another post. And thanks for visiting.

alinabrouwer said...

My deeeer AT,
First and foremost, I Love Pam.
Second and last but not least, lets talk about "freaggin culture here peeeepss"..:)
Of course, your piece reflects some of the rules of engagement of this game of betting on the value of anything, everything or nothing at all. But ultimately, the hands of the critic will play a key and estrategic role in positioning the artist and the value of the artist's work.

Anonimato said...

"How do the media presents the market's case? What is accessible and heavily promoted becomes desired."

Not to me. I open the paper and the reviews are so lame. Nothing of real interest of substance is being conveyed. Does anybody care?

Leo Alonso said...

"How do the media presents the market's case? What is accessible and heavily promoted becomes desired."

Not to me. I open the paper and the reviews are so lame. Nothing of real interest of substance is being conveyed. Does anybody care?

Everybody cares. While we may from time to time dig deep into culture/entertainment for something that would call out to us, I'd argue that this is in fact rarely the case. While accessibility and promotion may not create a direct desire, they set up the conditions in which a desire can arise... it may still not be what one is looking for, but ultimately that is easily forgotten after repeated exposure to where ones original sentiments might change to "Well, maybe it isn't that bad..."