Damien Hirst's For the Love of God, a $100 M 8,601-diamond skull.atRiFf
I'd like to discuss Andrea Fraser's article entitled 1% art which appears in the Adbusters' 100th March/April issue. Her ideas can also be found at Texte zur Kunst. Fraser calls attention to what she calls a misalignment between aesthetic phenomena and the economic conditions that shape its production.
It wasn’t just the emergence of art as an asset class, or the merging of artistic with spectacle and celebrity culture, or the direct link between the expansion of the art market and art institutions and the massive upward transfer of wealth that has impoverished billions and bankrupted public sectors globally. It was the almost total disconnect I found between what art works are under these historical and economic conditions, and what artists, curators, critics and historians say that those art works –especially works they support– do and mean.The misalignment she mentions has been discussed here. One could make the case that the first half of Fraser's paragraph (in blue) implies the second (in red). But proving that "A" causes "B" is not easy. Even good criticism often fails to go beyond mere assumptions & cherry-picking. Take the graph below as possible evidence of a "link between the expansion of the art market and art institutions and the massive transfer of wealth to art as an intangible safer form of investment":
Since the 2008 crisis, contemporary art has shown the strongest gain. Coincidence?
Let's observe that as this transference happens, art discourse becomes "delusional." Let's have it:
The works evince an unsettling mix of ebullient pride and painful embarrassment that is only heightened by the implementation of decorative chains, straps, studs, horns, and other trappings of the s/m aesthetic. With only fourteen of these dungeon effigies on view, the exhibition is stunningly sparse, creating a thrilling tension between the presented and the presentation.Take a look at the writer's "epistemic license," who uses "evince" (a firm code for seeing), to justify his hyperbole ("unsettling mix of ebullient pride and painful embarrassment"). Why has art discourse erased the distinction between selling & seriously interpreting, describing or critiquing?
In fact, art discourse has the power to turn pseudo-graffiti into sublime. One could retort that epistemic license has been a fixture of art discourse before. Point given, but since the early 2000's (with the advent of art as a culture and spectacle), this kind of discursive practice has become the norm.
What I persistently found in such perspectives was an elaboration of formal and iconographic investigations as figures of radical social and even economic critique, while the social and economic conditions of the works themselves, as cultural commodities, were completely ignored or recognized only in the most euphemized ways.
Alberto Giacometti's sculpture L'Homme qui marche sold at Sotheby's, London, February 3, 2010, $93,090 million, a world record for an art work at auction.
Some time ago, we presented a "critic's manifesto," suggesting an opposition between criticism & Criticism:
* criticism doesn't really address art, much less the art-object (which is left-aside at the periphery in favor of a theoretical byproduct that masks it).What does this disconnect between "aesthetic/epistemic" and "economic conditions" amount to?
* criticism is an abduction of critical discourse committed to clarity, specificity and honesty.
* criticism means wholesale entertainment, a waning of proactive engagement with the artwork and its politics.
* criticism embodies the platitudes of the art-market and its minions, the art media, posing as a serious option.
* criticism is opportunistic and sensationalistic. it presents the reactions surrounding the thing. art as art-for-.
* criticism stereotypes the art-object with pseudo-theories (whether pseudo-formalism, pseudo-Lacanian or pseudo-Freudian psychoanalysis, diverse forms of homogenized versions of post-structuralism, hermeneutics, etc.).
* criticism is so concerned with externalities of culture that it turns a blind eye to the dealings and mind-games of the art marker. basically, criticism is fake.
The majority of what was said and written about art started to seem to me almost delusional in the grandiosity of its claims for social impact, particularly combined with its disconnect from the reality of art’s social conditions. As I suggested in 2008, the primary site of the barriers that separate the aesthetic and epistemic forms that constitute art’s symbolic systems and the practical and economic relations that constitute its social conditions may not be the physical spaces of art objects, but the discursive spaces of art history and criticism.
Movers and shakers @ LACMA: Eli Broad, Edyth Broad, with Lorenzo Piano, Michael Govan, and Jeff Koons
What are the "physical spaces of art objects" if not "discursive practices?" Objects are discourse. The former are shaped by the latter; our conceptual evaluations of the world. To assume a clear cut between aesthetic/epistemic & economic realms would be to side with Kant's idea of the aesthetic as a realm of disinterestedness. So, why is art such a commodity? This is how economist Arjo Klamer presents what he calls the value of culture:
Elementary economics tells us to see things like paintings as commodities that are costly to produce and have their value determined in the interplay between demand and supply in the marketplace. Economists presume that people are reasonable enough, that they never pay more for a work of art than they consider it worth. People pay nothing for art that they do not value and they do not pay infinite amounts for priceless art. William Gramp, an economist, concludes from this that price is the best indicator of the aesthetic value. It is a shocking perspective (if you care about the value of art). But try to prove him wrong.1Fraser takes ARTnews' 200 top collectors. What's new here is that she goes behind the scenes to expose these characters' foul-smelling personal dealings. These art collectors make one's flesh creep:
1- Bernard Arnault (listed by Forbes as the 4th richest man in the world with $41 B in capital, controlling LVMH, which reported a gain of 13% even during the crisis of 2011).
2- Roman Abramovich, with 13.4 B, "who has admitted paying billions in bribes for control of Russian oil and aluminum assets." 3- John Arnold, who got his start at Enron "who recently gave $150,000 to an organization seeking to limit pensions." 4- MOMA, MoCA and LACMA trustee Eli Broad (worth $5.8 B) "and was board member of the notorious AIG." 5- Steven A. Cohen (estimated worth, $8 B) founder of SAC Capital Advisors, "... under investigation for insider trading." 6- Guggenheim trustee David Ganek, "who recently shut down his $4B Level Global hedge fund after an FBI raid." 7- Noam Gottesman and former partner Pierre Lagrange earned $400 million each for the sale of their hedge fund GLG in 2007, making them amongst the worlds biggest winners from the credit crunch. 8- Andrew Hall whose $100 million in compensation in 2009 led Citigroup to sell its Philbro division, where he was the top trader, after pressures from regulators to curtail his pay right after Citigroup $45B bail out from the federal government. 9- Damien Hirst (worth $215 million) who, as artist, is now at a par with his patrons. 10- Peter Krauss who collected $25 million for just three months work "when his exit package was triggered by Merril Lynch's sale to Bank of America with the help of US funds." 11- "The firm of MoMA chairman Jerry Speyer defaulted on a major real estate investment in 2010, loosing $500 million for the California State Pension Fund and up to $2B in debt secured by the US federal agencies." 12- Reinhold Würth (worth $5.7B) has been fined for tax evasion in Germany (Würth has compared taxation to torture).
The $25 million in bonus Peter Krauss earned for his troubles @ Merril Lynch was just enough to allow him to afford to buy Carl and Barbaralee Spielvogel's apartment at 720 Park for $36.63 million, twice what they paid for it two years ago.
Fraser mentions a Dimitri Mavrommatis the so-called Swiss-based Greek asset manager, who paid £18 million for a Picasso on June 21, 2011 as thousands of Greeks were rioting against austerity measures. One could say that Mavrommatis example is not a ilegal or immoral per se, though it shows a blatant disconnect between aesthetic and economic events. Paradoxically the apparent disconnection hides the fact that both, Mavrommatis' investment and the Greek crisis happen too close in time and space.
Art is turned into value-charts: Cy Twombly's total sales for the period 2001-2010
Is the art world so corrupt? Let's not declare guilt by association. The list does not expose a necessary connection between art collecting and fraud. What Fraser brings to attention is the obvious porosity of two spheres (aesthetic and economic) which the elite of the art world has kept separate (for very a importan reason). And that's enough. 2
Art and money have become a standard fixture of the art world. By that I mean art practices: discourse, production, presentation & consumption.
As art becomes a spectacle of culture, the aesthetic/financial separation is erased. Art's blazing contradictions appear:
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.The critic & the curator are tacit allies of the market: framers, apologists of goods, middle-men who translate pictorial codes into a clear language of commodity exchange. It's so sad seeing artists themselves (in spite of protests to the contrary) happily rallying behind this fake legitimation process.3 In private, these hyperbolic practices are criticized as laudatory at worst, just at best, but necessary, in fact, to make a decent career.
I mean, who wouldn't like to be written about by a critic in a publication, or included in a show?
Fraser realizes this contradiction.
Progressive artists, critics and curators face an existential crisis: how can we continue to justify our involvement in this art economy? At minimum, if our only choice is to participate or to abandon the art filed entirely, we can stop rationalizing that participation in the name of critical or political art practices or --adding insult to injury-- social justice. Any claim that we represent a progressive social force while our activities are directly subsidized by, and benefited from, the engines of inequality can only contribute to the engines of that inequality.
Increasingly, it seems that politics in the art world is largely a politics of envy and guilt, or of self-interest generalized in the name of narrowly conceived and privileged form of autonomy, and that artistic "critique" most often serves not to reveal but to distance these economic conditions and our investment in them. As such, it is a politics that functions to defend against contradictions that might otherwise make our continued participation in the art field, and access to its considerable rewards -which have ensconced many of us comfortable among the 10%, inf not the 1% or even the 0.1%- unbearable.Even accepting Fraser's self-questioning, let's not pass on this obvious redundancy: Artists use the *system* to succeed, so, the *system* has appropriated the discourse artists use to succeed. As perverse as it looks, Fraser's soul-search can be successfully appropriated by the *system*.
Imagine an exhibition in any museum addressing this very issue, with catalog and artists & curator panels following the show. Let's say for now that the *system* subverts the presence-absence divide: It shows as it disappears!
For example, Edward Winkleman of Art World Salon falls for presence.
Er…uh…the critique of institutions is alive (*cough* #class) and well (*cough* #rank) by artists like William Powhida (whose new show opens Saturday) and Jennifer Dalton (whose current show ends this Saturday. (Full disclosure, I represent Dalton, but that’s why I find the notion that institutional critique is being discouraged so out of touch, it’s also why I can report that BIG money seems to get and does indeed buy such art as well).Wilkleman doesn't get it (or doesn't want to?). Within the *system* the critique of institutions is institutional through&through! 4
So, what can we do about the *system*?
A broad based shift in art discourse may help precipitate a long overdue splitting off of market-dominated subfields of galleries, auction houses, and art fairs. If a turn away from the art market means that public museums contract and ultra-wealthy collectors create their own privately controlled institutions, so be it. Let these private institutions be the treasure vaults, theme park spectacles and economic freak shows that many already are. Let the market-dominated art world become a luxury good business it already basically is.Why not fight it?
I welcome Fraser's advice:
It's time we began evaluating whether art works fulfill, or fail to fulfill, political or critical claims at the level of their social and economic conditions. We must insist that what art works are economically determines what they mean socially and also artistically.Isn't it cynical to keep selling art while presenting it as -primarily- aesthetic? Yet, as much as I sympathize with Fraser's position, this last point seems indistinguishable from the kind of art-discourse she is fighting against:
If we curators, critics, art historians and artist, withdraw our cultural capital from these markets, we have the potential to create a new art field where radical forms of autonomy can develop: nos as secessionist "alternatives" that exist only in the grandiose enactments of artists and theorists, but as fully institutionalized structures, which, with the "properly social magic of institutions" will be able to produce reproduce and reward non-commercial values.The phrase in purple takes us back to a Schiller-like, Kantian-like space of strict autonomy.5 Even thinking it fails to imagine it. Art was never really autonomous, rather, it was defended as such by various theories of art. I can see an apologist asking how can I reject autonomy and still defend the idea of good and bad art? The same way one can tell the difference between good and bad wine.
It's time to talk about what's next, but not now. We'll be back with more soon.
1 Arjo Klamer, The Value of Culture: On the Relationship between Economics and Arts Contributors, (Amsterdam University Press, 1996). 2 How can one separate say, art production or art consumption without taking into account the *system*, i.e., art world as a a whole? 3 A well-known artist has told me that there is no difference between good art and bad art today. He is right. 4 That doesn't mean that the *system* can preempt all subversive actions from within. This is a topic that we need to address soon. 5 Even as Baumgarten and Kant defined art as an independent sphere, it was being used as a religious, and political cipher. I'd like to bring up Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. Adorno's critique of aestheticism suspects any separation of the aesthetic from the bigger picture of society (which does not mean that one has to fall into a mirror-like reversal of social reductionism).