There has been a great deal of speculation about how the Covid-19 Pandemic will affect art and the art world. This question is, of course, somewhat insignificant as communities around the world continue to face a dire health crisis that leaves more people dead each day. Many businesses remain closed to help fight the spread of the disease while consumer behavior has been fundamentally altered in ways that may have long-lasting effects that will take years for businesses to adjust to. As a result, the economy remains deeply depressed, unemployment remains high, and many people struggle to meet financial obligations.
In light of this crisis, how art is produced and consumed might seem superfluous. At the same time, art has historically been something in which people have taken solace. It has provided a critical reflection on the world, human emotion, and values. The capacity to exist over time and be cared for by subsequent generations has allowed art to provide continuity, shared responsibility, and a sense of identity. Such art, however, has not always been for the majority of a people. While it once might have served the purpose of creating an image of a religious figure, as an independent discipline, it may not have been something that most people appreciated. Instead, it was something for the connoisseur. Although art has certainly become far more accessible to the general public, it still remains a reified entity. It exists in elite museums around the world and in the homes of wealthy collectors. In recent decades, the art market has been overwhelmed by speculation on artworks leading to a rapid inflation of value and a decline of critical engagement with the ideas, motivations, and historical context driving the artwork. This has led some to write off the art world as an elite space out of touch with the concerns of a broader world reckoning with discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, a changing climate causing increasingly severe weather events, an economy that has benefited a small fraction of the global population, and enduring conflicts that have led to war.
The way the market for art behaves, the artwork that is produced and sold in that market, and the isolation of art within a reified sphere do not have to remain fixed. The upheaval caused by Covid-19 has, for many, provided a chance to speculate on how the Pandemic might affect the art world while also creating an opportunity for that world to change. Some have speculated that the Pandemic will lead to a new Renaissance, others that it will lead everyone to abandon New York City for the suburbs and create an opening much like what occurred in the 1950s that led to the cheap rent and the blossoming of a generation of outstanding artwork. Still others speculate that small galleries will close and artists will be consolidated in mega galleries. In other cases, people predict that the Pandemic will decimate the economy and leave arts institutions hollowed out with little chance of recovery for decades to come.
While some of these predictions may come to pass and although some have come from authorities in the art world, they are often offered somewhat casually as knee jerk reactions to a rapidly unfolding situation. Taking a deeper look at the past and present nature of the economy of art might offer a way of predicting what might happen in the future with greater clarity. Moreover, it might make sense of some of the levers that control that economy and how they might be affected to drive the future of the art world in one direction or another.
As a first step, it is worth noting the distinction between the art market, the economy of art, and art being produced. This essay will primarily be concerned with the art market and how examining the art market can help us to understand an economy of art. The motivation behind this investigation is to understand how artists can benefit from an evolving art market so that they are able to support their practice of making artwork. In this sense, the ultimate goal is to use an analysis of the art market to create a set of tools and tactics that artists can utilize to enhance their practice and drive their success. In many ways, this may involve taking greater control of their own fate, leaving less to the whims of the market, and perhaps, in the process, remaking the art world.
Although the Pandemic has altered how people gather and, by extension, the parties, art fairs, cocktail hours, and general celebratory lifestyle that fueled a great deal of art consumption, the fundamental nature of the art market has not changed at all. It is still based on the same set of relationships that existed prior to the Pandemic. At the same time, these relationships remain just as problematic as they were before the Pandemic. Women, African Americans, and Latinex are under-represented in the art world. The canon remains dominated by white men. With a few exceptions, the highest prices paid for artworks are for those by white men. Mega galleries often absorb artists from smaller galleries that have done much of the hard work to help build careers. The list goes on. With this in mind, it is worth considering some of the fundamental aspects of the art world that remain unchanged as well as how each of these presents a problem and opportunity that artists might take advantage of in the future.
The value system that drives the art market is relatively simple and can be broken down into seven areas of focus: collectors and collections, transactions, scarcity, community, intersectionality with other value systems, intersectionality with banking practices, and the emancipatory or transcendent capacity of the artwork. Each is comprised of a range of actors that work as part of a system to undertake a task that will provide input into the broader art market or art system. They behave both independently and as constrained by this broader system of relationships governed by norms, history, aspiration, and desire. In what follows, each of these areas of focus will be examined in order to understand those constraints on behavior as well as those who participate in that area of focus. Ultimately, this will allow for an understanding of how those areas relate and what the broader norms governing the market might be as well as how they might evolve in the future.
The notion that the value of an artwork depends on it being owned by a particular collector has its origin during the Renaissance. Noble patrons began collecting Greek and Roman sculptures beginning around 1400 when notable sites of antiquity began to be uncovered. These works of art formed the inspiration for many of the sculptures that would be carved during the Renaissance. The ability to engage these artworks was largely contingent on being affiliated with a patron in whose collection these sculptures resided. This model of royal courts employing artisans and artists led to a tremendous amount of artwork being produced throughout Italy, the Flemish States, France, Spain, Portugal, and England. As this patronage system evolved and leading artists emerged, collectors coveted these artists and sought to have their artwork in their collections. Reciprocally, being part of a notable collector’s collection such as the Borghese, Medici, Charles I of England, among many others gave the artist significant credibility. This was enhanced by the fact that these notable collectors often also supported scholars such as the relationship between Winckelman and Cardinal Albani. It also meant that artworks would be cared for from one generation to the next (fig. 1 and fig. 2).
Connecting the value of an artwork to the collection it exists within places a great deal of weight on the patron over the value inherent to the artwork itself. It places value on who that collector was within the broader world. It valorizes their taste and habits while also creating room to express how those tastes reflect a relationship to the world at large. In some sense, this makes it possible to locate societal values within a particular collector that might be compared and contrasted with collectors from other communities. These collections would in turn support the creation of national repositories of artwork in museums. Future artworks considered worthy of being added to these museums would often require a chain of ownership that included noteworthy collectors. This model drove the rise of the importance of provenance of an artwork in part as a means of ensuring that the artwork was authentic rather than a forgery. This approach to value, naturally, places a lot of weight on an elite class of collectors, connoisseurs, and scholars. It has driven what has come to be known as a person’s ‘cultural capital’ that in turn is connected to their status in society. The contemporary patronage system of museums by such patrons makes the expression of status possible on a grand scale befitting the tremendous wealth that has been generated over the last several decades and concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of billionaires – many of whom take to collecting art as one means of spending and growing their wealth (fig. 3).
The art market is driven by the exchange of artworks for some form of compensation. These transactions have occurred dating back to antiquity when artists and artisans were compensated for their labor with money, food, and, in a less tangible sense, the prestige given to them for the creation of significant artworks valued by society. The transaction of the artwork after initially being commissioned and paid for, however, was less common as the artwork was often considered a terminal commodity. Following the death of the original patron, however, the work would often pass to their heirs or, perhaps, be sold to another collector. The advent of a more formalized market with gallerists, dealers, brokers, etc. did not arise until the 1600s when a growing base of nobles began collecting and trading with greater frequency. This capacity to trade artwork with greater frequency was tied in no small part to the decreased cost of canvas and pigment that made it possible to use oil paint on a portable surface rather than painting directly on a wall – which naturally would make exchanging the artwork much more difficult.
With increased trading of artwork and the sale of artworks between different geographic regions, it became important to guarantee the authenticity of the artwork. More broadly, it was important to create a framework for a transaction that both parties could trust. They had to be able to trust the respective currency that was going to be used and that the other party would deliver on the terms agreed to. This capacity was supported by the rising frequency of global trade, the maturation of the global banking system, and the increasing interconnectedness of European nobility. At the same time, certain cities such as Rome, Florence, Paris, Amsterdam, and London were becoming cultural centers to which the aristocracy would visit for leisure and perhaps to acquire art and antiquities. This trend led to the rise of a more formalized dealer and eventually gallery system that in turn supported the rise of a price system associated with the work of art. More recently, this trend has led to a broader economy of art and entertainment that still remains driven by the specific monetary value assigned to something to be sold to a patron of the arts (fig. 4).
The scarcity of artwork is instrumental to the process of exchange. In many ways, it is connected to an underlying notion of quality inherent to the artwork. Those artworks that are said to be of a higher quality are often scarcer. This is a function of the material quality, the craftsmanship, the narrative quality, and the ideas contained within the artwork. The material is largely a function of capacity to procure expensive raw material – historically pigments. The craftsmanship is a function of the extent to which the artist has acquired skills from a previous generation of artists and been recognized as excelling in the use of these skills. The narrative quality is a function of the artist’s ability to work within a narrative tradition that historically depicted biblical scenes while also offering some level of innovation that makes the way the picture is created identifiable as belonging to a particular artist. Finally, the ideas inherent to the artwork are a function of the artist’s ability to think outside of the constraints of a single artistic discourse and connect to or offer for consideration a universal truth – or at least the possibility of such a truth.
These factors come together to determine the scarcity of the number of artists considered to produce high quality artwork. The extent to which one of these artists is prolific further determines the number of artworks available. At the same time, the extent to which a particular artwork is considered to be seminal in the arc of production of the artist adds another layer to the scarcity equation. The way that a broader society relates to these seminal works and to the biography of the artist adds a further layer in how that artist is evaluated. This process of connecting the quality of a particular artist and of particular artworks in their oeuvre ultimately plays a significant role in determining the quantitative values assigned to the price of an artwork as well as to the overall value of a particular collector’s collection. This process of evaluation becomes somewhat challenging in the context of an art world that has produced an abundance of art without necessarily supporting a system that can make true sense of scarcity. Instead, the system relies on a false sense of scarcity either through creating narratives that convince collectors that it is the case or by directly constraining the supply of artists who were quite prolific by hoarding their artwork in private collections (fig. 5).
The production and consumption of artwork – as well as exchange, pricing, and collecting – brings communities together. These communities play a significant role in creating artwork as well as giving that artwork value. The role that community plays is distinct from membership in a collection, exchange, or scarcity in that it lends the artwork an intangible element through the discourse that forms around the work that communicates its value. Such discourse creates continuity and meaning between various artists and across generations of artists and artwork. It forms boundaries between different groups engaged in this evaluation. In the process, a politics of friendship and stewardship forms. In some cases, these friendships lead to direct support of a given artist’s work through helping them pay rent, purchase materials, or make connections in the art world. Doing so makes it possible to form cohesion around a particular way of making artwork and ideas about how artwork should be made. This in turn creates a point of focus within the art world that draws attention form galleries and collectors.
The communities that form around a particular way of looking at art or a particular locale help to define “movements” that can be used to create a narrative that explains the history and present state of art being made. This narrative can in turn help to explain the purpose and meaning of the artwork, why it has value, and why a collector should own a particular artwork. At the same time, the communities that form can use the power of their collective status, wealth, and reputation to confront issues that are not historically or directly a subject of the art world. This occurred with the AIDS activism of the 1980s and continues today with activism around gender and racial equality as well as social justice and criminal justice reform. Socially engaged art practice emerge from this trend. These practices are less concerned with producing an art object to be exchanged in the market and more concerned with the performative act that occurs in the world towards the benefit of a particular community either directly or through how the action sheds new light on the situation. The rise of these practices is due in no small part to the deficiencies of how the art world operates and that are being discussed here. In particular, this frustration is tied to the extent to which artists benefit less than galleries and collectors and the extent to which artists with progressive beliefs may find themselves supported by a system of patronage fueled by an elite whose values are deeply out of line with their own (fig. 6).
The communities that form around particular artists, places, and ways of making art often intersect with other evaluative, representational, production, and societal trends. On one hand, these can be material and, on the other, conceptual – which still, in the end, will always be manifested materially in some way or another. The material may include adjacency to new manufacturing techniques or products that can be incorporated into an art practice. It could also be proximity to advertising, fashion, or music that will become integral elements of a practice. Conceptually, the intersection might be with a theory or academic discourse such as post-colonialism or gender studies that describes a broader material condition, but that only finds concrete expression through writing. More broadly, this could include myth, history, race, labor, and geography among others.
The capacity to ground the value of an artwork in how it relates to and is informed by discourses with which it intersects makes it possible to extend the boundaries of art beyond the traditional limits of the art world and to all aspects of society. This has allowed artists to make art by tracing the boundary between one territory and another with a can of paint, to make artwork whose material is surveillance itself, and to turn the polemical lecture into a performative work among many other ways of addressing an expanded field of art production. The value of the artwork is derived from its relationality rather than from an inherent optical quality tied to the dominant tradition of Western Art. In doing so, artists working in this manner address the crisis of representation that followed World War II as well as the hegemony of a largely white male art system. In doing so, they stake claim to the notion that the politics of representation, as well as production and reproduction, that drives governments and how people are accounted for as part of a land, country, or nationality is no different than representation within the field of the art object, art performance, or art concept. This claim helps to make sense of the utter failure of governments to represent their citizens as well as the cases where these governments actively erased those citizens. In doing so, a ground is created that might allow art practices to serve as a guide for how a new form of representational democracy outside of the tradition of the parliamentary or congressional system might come about (fig. 7).
Beyond intersectionality with discourses and material trends, the relationship that art has developed with banking and banking products has had a significant influence on the art market. While art was once considered a terminal commodity largely outside of a collectors portfolio of stock, property, or other readily exchangeable assets, trends in banking and finance have made it possible for collectors to borrow against the value of their collection in order to enhance their personal liquidity. This has allowed them to significantly expand their collection through continued acquisition and speculation on what artists and artworks will appreciate significantly over time. It has also made it possible for major collectors to use the art market and the escalating prices paid for significant works as a means of laundering money or evading sanctions that might be placed on them. At the same time, this system of tying finance and art has played a significant role in how estates are valued and how property is passed from one generation to the next. During the Reagan era, the tax code was written in such a way that major philanthropists could use tax deductable donations to foundations and cultural institutions as a way of offsetting gains elsewhere in their portfolio. Through establishing their own personal cultural foundations, they could effectively retain control of vast art collections while effectively not paying any taxes on the significant gains when they pass the artworks to the next generation.
The capacity to blend artworks within a broader portfolio of financial assets has significant implications. On one hand, the way the tax code is written makes it more likely that arts institutions in the United States will receive support from private donors than the government. In the process, these donors accrue significant cultural capital that can benefit them in myriad ways from networking with other donors to supporting a public image of a patron who supports culture and the values of cultural workers – even if their wealth is derived from practices that are at odds with those values. On the other hand, it makes it possible to think about ways that artists can take advantage of this system and use the capacity to borrow against artwork, as well as the capacity to intersect artwork with venture funding and other entrepreneurial practices, to extend a social mission or vastly expand the scale and scope of an artwork. In doing so, they have the capacity to affect a much greater community and address societal concerns that might have been impossible within the traditional gallery and museum context. The ability to do so, however, requires that the nature of the return on investment be worked out within a traditional financial context and that lenders are willing to take a risk on artist rather than collector-directed initiatives (fig. 8).
The final contributor to the value of an artwork and a major driver of the market is the extent to which an artwork can inspire a feeling of emancipation or freedom. This could be called the “evental” capacity of the artwork in the sense that it creates a moment when the receiver is transported beyond the here and now to another dimension. Referring to this quality as emancipatory or evental is to frame the transcendent quality of artwork on non-religious terms. This transcendent quality is what historically elevated religious art through the extraordinary beauty of the artwork as tied to a broader narrative of god and god’s beauty and love. These artworks were the focus of devotion and developed an aura around them as they provided hope in an often bleak world. Through the attention they garnered – often in significant architectural locales that enhanced their power – they became invaluable and, to a certain extent, removed from the general art market. As such, they set an upper limit of value to which others might aspire.
The emencipatory dimension of artwork can be seen in a range of modern art movements from the Constructivists to the Feminists and Earth Artists. Even the radical architecture of the late 1980s / early 1990s by those such as Koolhaas, Hadid, Mayne, Diller and Scofidio, Woods, Holl, Eisenman, Libeskind, and Tschumi – often drawing on the earlier emanicpatory work of movements such as the Situationists and Constructivists – sought to develop a spatial language that would provide a rupture from the past rigid and corporately controlled space in order to create greater freedom and room for a new way or relating, behaving, consuming, and generally being together as a society. It can also be seen more recently in socially engaged art practices ranging from those of Thomas Hirschorn to Paul Chan, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Theaster Gates that seek to use their practice as a means of transforming the world around them through working with the medium of society itself. In each case, they posit the capacity to create value by combining elements that exceeds the conventional sum of those elements. While all art could in a way be seen as doing this, these emenacipatory practices create value that resonates well beyond the value of the specific art object and has the capacity to influence a much broader community and economy (fig. 9).
The previous characterization of the art market is problematic for a number of reasons. On one hand, like so many methods of describing the economy, it places the primary source of value in the market, the transaction, and what the buyer is willing to pay. While some of the areas of focus have looked more closely at the production of the art object itself, the community of artists, and the capacity for the art object to provoke broader interest and economic growth, the process of deriving value during production and discerning appreciation of the object has largely been left aside. In many ways, those questions should remain within the discourse of aesthetics.
The second problematic aspect has less to do with the means of characterizing the market and deriving value and more with the trends of each area of focus prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic. These trends have been pointing in divergent directions. This is somewhat distressing as, historically, they have each been integrally related. The divergence, however, may lead to a broader break down of the market and the possibility for something new to emerge that is more equitable and, perhaps, based on a value system less tied to transactions and purchasing power of collectors and more tied to an aesthetic discourse, community values, and the transformational capacity of art as a means of making the invisible visible to draw attention and provoke change.
Deriving value by being part of a specific collection has led to placing an inordinate amount of focus on mega-collectors and museums whose taste may not conform to broader societal or artistic trends and that may even actively seek to hide practices that are critical of a particular politics, country, or history. After Covid-19, private collections will likely become more private. Collectors might rethink the merits of donating their collections to large public institutions and instead might consider building their own space accessible exclusively to their friends. At the same time, an increasing reliance on the virtual might enhance the capacity to present this artwork digitally to a broader public – albeit diminishing the physical encounter and creating a hierarchy of access in the process.
The derivation of value through transaction and price has led to a mega-gallery system that concentrates selling and buying power with a small group of people who become ever more focused on price and less concerned with the inherent quality of an artwork. After Covid-19, there is likely to be a continued interest in the acquisition of artwork as more people remain home and invest in their personal surroundings. At the same time, this trend will diminish the buying experience and may cause people to make fewer purchases. Further, the inability to host large gatherings or entertain may lead those who buy art mostly to show off to purchase less. In the process, more room might be given to collectors genuinely interested in the art for its own sake – perhaps driving down prices as a result.
Deriving value from scarcity is particularly problematic in a world where more art is being produced than ever before and where a considerable amount of art is grounded in an anti-authoritarianism that resists being incorporated into established art world hierarchies and power structures. After Covid-19, and given the huge proliferation of artwork over the last several decades, it will be increasingly hard to derive value from scarcity. On one hand, the increasingly social isolation of many has created an ideal situation for artists to produce work. On the other hand, a shift towards the virtual has created more opportunities for artists to showcase their work. In the process, the availability and capacity of gallerists to frame an artists work has been demystified. This will likely lead to a general democratization of the art market.
While not necessarily problematic, deriving value from the community of artists, as well as those interested in the artwork, has led to increasingly socially engaged art practices that value engagement over the object with the effect of leaving the market altogether and finding financial support from other arenas. After Covid-19, and given the extreme financial pressure that has been placed on artists and freelancers, it is likely that more sustainable support systems and strategies will be put in place to make the community of artists more resilient during times of crisis. This will largely be the focus of Part II of this essay.
A relational approach to valuing art has found its own problems as each once independent system begins to destabilize the others to the point where value even as a category becomes uncertain. After Covid-19, there will be less room and patience to equivocate on meaning and purpose. Relationality and intersectionality will have to be examined and utilized with greater criticality. This is particularly important as many institutions confront a legacy of institutional racism and sexism. The result of this confrontation cannot merely be a surface affect. Instead, genuinely hard work will have to be done that will require a considerable investment of time. In making this investment, it will be important to consider who will pay for it, how we will find the time, what we will read and learn, who we will meet, and how we will change. This process ideally will grow from the community and be supported financially by funds raised specifically for this purpose.
The use of financial instruments as a means of leveraging the price-based value of a collection has further enhanced reliance on this system while also raising the financial stakes considerably to the point where the art objects functions more within the general market of goods alongside yachts and private homes than within the art market as a unique space. After Covid-19, there is no doubt that speculators and mega-collectors will continue to use art as a means of inflating their fortunes, evading taxes, transferring generational wealth, and even avoiding sanctions and limits of capital outflows from countries. It may even be the case that as people travel less, more art is locked within the vaults of freeports. This might invite an opportunity to explore the meaning of this split between art appreciated on the walls of homes and public venues versus art locked in vaults and valued purely for the price. Perhaps a collective action might be taken to reject the latter and focus only on art that is in the open for people to see?
Perhaps both the least and the most problematic is deriving value from the emencipatory quality of art as, on one hand, this capacity could be said to be highly subjective and thus largely incapable of a broad effect, and, because of this charge, something desirable as it has the capacity to remove the art object form much broader considerations and return it to a personal encounter – though leaving a broader value system in question in the process. After Covid-19, there is little doubt that even more interest will be placed in the transcendent capacity of artwork. So much pain has been unleashed by the Pandemic and art is uniquely suited to help a society heal. The question remains whether this will occur collectively or whether people will be pushed further into isolation.
These trends, of course, do not have to be the direction that the art world and market takes. The various components do not have to continue to diverge and instead a more integrated and cooperative art world might arise. This would be desirable because the unique contribution that each can make will be shared by all the various constituents rather than having each only be able to access the value they can produce from within their milieu. Further, it would allow for more value to be created through the translation and transaction between each. It would support trust between the different sectors of the market and also create a much healthier, clearer, and distinct relationship between the art market and broader market.
If this is going to be the case, each constituent has their part to play. Artists have a vital role as ultimately who decides what to make. This is particularly important in the context of over production of largely banal work that many have chosen to quickly inflate without making a genuine investment in content, quality, or even in ways of maximizing the impact of new artwork. In many ways, this state of affairs reflects the problematic trend of the areas of focused examined here. In considering how artists might behave in this context, the capacity to manifest community is essential. This capacity is now, perhaps, more powerful than ever as many other sectors of society struggle to sustain and create either virtual or real communities. Moreover, their capacity to engage a politics of representation from a vantage point other than electoral politics, the law, or academic discourse gives them a political agency that few others have.
Focusing on the agency of the artist in the world and effecting the political, social, economic, and aesthetic as the primary source of value has the capacity to reframe each of the areas of focus that have been discussed. Doing so might begin by looking at the community that already exists across these areas of focus who are interested in and practicing this form of agency. This community could then be cultivated. In Part II, what this cultivation looks like and how it might take place will be explored. This will involve asking what the values will be? Where is the space of this community? What is the economy of this community? How does that space get inflated sufficiently in order to put pressure on the current market, attract interest, and, ultimately, replace the deeply flawed current system? In many ways, the first step will be looking at the media that artists work in, what is produced, what value is added in this production, and how this practice – often performative – supports broader mediation in the world that reconciles forces and, in the process, creates genuinely new opportunities that people can work with and that, in turn, they can earn money from to invest in a broader economy that grows as a result.
If Part I was concerned with the current characteristic of the art market, Part II will explore whether this form is something that should continue and, if it would be advantageous for the art world to change, what that might look like. With this statement comes the conflation of the art market and the art world. This is not an accident, but an expression of one large part of the problem that artists, collectors, and institutions face. The art market has, in many ways, become the art world. The structure of how value is created, artworks exchanged and collected, and histories of art written is increasingly defined by the money that flows through the market. Although grants certainly exist that support artists, the primary source of revenue comes through sales. Moreover, these sales often benefit a huge industry comprised to a high degree of those who are not actually making the art to begin with. Through these secondary sales, a huge amount of wealth has been generated that will never benefit the artist, often living, who made the artwork.
In this context, it is important to look back at the seven characteristics of the art market discussed in Part I, look at the current state of each, and ask whether this is the art world that should exist. 1) Should the art world be based on those collectors who can afford to spend $50K+ on a work of art? Should it be driven by their tastes? Should the collective interest that ultra high net worth individuals place on a particular artist and style drive the market? 2) Should mega galleries that cater to these collectors and that set the price for art works by a particular artist be the primary beneficiaries of value creation in the art market? Should wealth become increasingly concentrated with the owners of those galleries? And, should the market be driven by large art fairs? 3) Should the focus of the market be on continued interest in and exchange of a select group of largely white male artists? Should the goal be to continue to drive up the value of these artists on the secondary market? Should art be sold on the secondary market at all? Or, should there be more focus on addressing the massive over-production of art in the market and expanding those who feel comfortable collecting in the art world? 4) How should the community that makes the art world exist and be represented? Should it be concerned with parties around openings and art fairs? How should the discourse of art exist within this world? How can it support the elevation and enhancement of ideas over and above the elevation of price? How can the community of the art world support a broader community? 5) How amidst increasing collaboration and interdisciplinary work can art remain distinct? What should it be? What role should it play in our lives? Is it to remain a purposeless thing of disinterested contemplation? Or, should art workers play a more active role in society? 6) Should the current financialization of art continue? Should collectors be able to use the value of their collection as collateral for loans? How liquid are these collections? And, what would happen if a major collector flooded the market after defaulting on a loan? To what extent do such habits expose the art market and value of art works that many artists depend on for their livelihood to the same risks that speculation has opened in other markets? 7) How often is art able to serve its function as a liberating entity? Where is such artwork encountered? To what extent has it become largely removed from the daily lives of the majority of those living today?
One might ask why this critique should be framed in this manner. Markets and worlds exist because the people who drive and inhabit them want them to be that way. At the same time, the behavior of the art market and its cooption of the broader art world could be said to be anti-democratic, exclusive, and a tool for maintaining broader societal power structures. At the extreme, it could be said that the art world is racists and sexist. Again, one might counter by saying “so what?” The art world has always existed as a tool of the most elite members of society and has never been a vehicle for supporting inclusion, broad expressions of perspective, or equity in any way. This perspective, however, is increasingly losing currency as a range of industries and society as a whole are forced to reckon with a racist sexists colonial past as well as the institutions from the church to higher education, law enforcement, and government that have maintained this system for centuries. As this occurs, it would appear that more and more people are rejecting the former path and looking for a new direction. As a community whose primary producers are generally liberal, educated, progressive, and interested in improving the lives of those less fortunate, it is incumbent on those with power in the art world to look deeply at the structure of that world and, instead of simply showing a few black artists or lauding progressive causes, consider being a model for the broader world by changing those fundamental structural components that support the art world and art market.
In light of this long overdue shift in how society generally speaking values equity, inclusion, and justice, a new character for the art world should not grow directly from a critique of how these various areas of focus have evolved or what is seen as the negative aspects of the art world. This approach would likely only lead to a reactionary evolution still deeply pegged to the current state of affairs. Instead, a positive approach should be pursued based on the fundamental character of art and on what art has done in the past and what it might do in the future.
There are five primary characteristics of art that can serve as a basis for how the art world might evolve.
1) Artwork whose focus is representation. This concern is not just with the reproduction of a likeness, but with accounting for who is important and conveying why this importance exist as well as who the person is behind this title. In many ways, it is a means of accounting for a community and making a record of that community across generations. If one were to visit many of the great museums of Europe, they would encounter countless portraits of the most important members of society. This concern with representation should be considered beyond portraiture and within the context of a crisis of representation of human life that came about during the 20th century and the current reconsideration of a politics of representation.
2) Artwork whose focus is landscape. This concern focuses on the context of those within the portrait and with the question of home. It is concerned with the cultural milieu. Landscape painting has been used towards colonial ends in an attempt to take control of land through representation within a particular style. This politics of landscape painting should be taken into account when considering this capacity of artwork.
3) Artwork concerned with the performative dimension of making the artwork. Such work has the capacity to bring people together around a particular movement and motivation. It also has the capacity to extend participation in the creative act to a much broader community of people who may not themselves be artists.
4) Artwork concerned with the archive. In many ways, the archival dimension of artwork grows from representation, landscape, and performance and gives them a much deeper temporality than the initial point of concern. It is, in a way, an ur-ground from which the work grows.
5) Artwork as concerned with being an alternative asset to money, gold, or property. Such a conception of artwork is based in part on the scarcity of that particular art object and the desire to possess that object by members of a community.
Each of these characteristics can be realized with a range of tools and tactics – abstraction, color, form, medium, scale, duration, material, mode of presentation etc. None of these characteristics is particularly surprising. It is important, however, to be reminded of exactly what we are discussing and why the art market exists to begin with – namely, to support the proliferation of the best examples of art and create a link between the producers and consumers of art. Moreover, it is important because they offer a baseline or ground from which to consider the direction that production and presentation of artwork has moved in and how this has led to the current state. In the next section, an alternative path for each of these characteristics will be explored.
Much of the artwork being produced and sold today is concerned with many of these aspects. Each, however, has been affected by the trends of the market discussed prior such that their progressive capacity has been stunted.
1) In the context of representation, the radical critique of representation inherent in some artwork has been normalized by the market and has not been allowed to help address a broader crisis of political representation (fig. 10).
2) In the context of landscape, the practices that engage landscape in a physical and material sense are relatively isolated and need to be amplified (fig. 11).
3) The performative and temporal has been denigrated in favor of the spatial art object that can be consumed and traded outside of the temporality of the artistic practice (fig. 12).
4) The archive has been institutionalized and it has lost the capacity to perform and contribute to the physical constitution of space. Art practices have been denied the capacity to directly influence urban form in favor of engineers, economists, and politicians (fig. 13).
5) Artists have been denied active control of the financialization of their own art and denied the capacity to create opportunities to fund and expand the effectiveness of art production.
There are five primary limitations that are making it difficult for the work of art and art practices to attain their full potential and power.
1) The art world and the market is fragmented. Artists enter a field where individualism is championed. They are encouraged to spend large sums of money on an art education that promises them access to the art world and then told to retire to their studios, work diligently on their personal vision, and await a series of studio visits that will grant them a place on the wall of the right gallery for their vision. This unique vision is thought to be more important than making a contribution to a broader purpose or cause. This is a direct result of the focus on the new and the contemporary. The result grounds artwork in a false temporality.
2) Artists are told that they must contribute to The art world. The concern is that there could be, and perhaps are, many art worlds. Maintaining this focus on a singular art world gives inordinate power to those who maintain this illusion. In the process, the artist is removed from the problems facing the world and increasingly concerned with problems facing the art world. The result grounds artwork in a false spatiality.
3) The expertise of the artist has been denigrated. It has been confined to the realm of pleasure and outside of the concerns of the world. The artist is thought to be someone lost in fantasy and unable to accomplish pragmatic tasks. This misconception of the skills required to manage the production and marketing of artwork is tied to a Romantic notion of artwork grounded in non-purposiveness, disinterested interest, and genius. The result segregates artists within society and makes them even more reliant on either the art market or the fringe of the broader economy – i.e. the gig economy.
4) The power of art is also limited by a legal and property system that prevents art from entering the world. Art practices that engage physical space are often limited from crossing boundaries and making the invisible visible. They are limited from creating community, calling attention to overlooked places and situations, and making investment in those places that don’t “make sense” based on the theory of value of other disciplines, but that do makes sense from the theory of value of art. Such investment strategies can, ultimately, contribute to new investment and elevation of a community.
5) The most constraining aspect, however, is lack of access to capital. Investors with capital are comfortable with other theories of value and not inclined to take a risk on an alternative strategy. Ultimately, they would much rather simply acquire an art object and leave it at that.
These various hindrances can be overcome. This can occur through active advocacy rather than passively letting the market evolve. The power of the market can be countered with an alternative form of power wielded by the collective of artists working across disciplines, styles, areas of focus, geographies, levels of fame and recognition, races, sexual orientation, and age. In this context, it is important to note that a handful of artists are engaging in practices to overcome the limitations of the art market and maximize what art can accomplish. Some examples include Joseph Beuys, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, General Idea, Christian Boltanski, Thomas Hirschhorn, Francis Alÿs, Allora & Calzadilla, Catherine Opie, Glenn Ligon, Hito Steyerl, Theaster Gates, Latoya Ruby Frazier, etc... While these practices are exemplary, there is a need to extend some of their success more broadly into the world. The following will look at a few ways that this might occur.
To begin with, it is important to examine the current state of the community of artists, gallerists, critics, curators, collectors, and others involved with the art world. From this perspective, it will be easier to understand how artists, in particular, relate to the broader world, how their community is formed or not formed, and what they want from their community. This, of course, cannot be a monolithic undertaking that seeks to immediately find consensus as to what the goal should be. Instead, the work should first be with building the network itself. This network should be built outside of existing networks and institutions that serve a specific purpose. It should occur beyond exchange and the goal of supporting a market.
The goal of building such a network outside of the current structure should be to give artists direct control of the space of representation in which they exist. It should be a space that removes the intermediaries that have historically come between the artists and the ultimate owner of the artwork. It should do so, however, while still adequately framing a practice and specific artworks so that those who might purchase and enjoy this artwork can understand and situate the meaning of the artwork within a broader context to which they feel responsible and connected. To overcome the challenge of accomplishing this goal of adequately framing artwork by a network controlled and owned by the diverse nature of the field of artist working today, it would be important to structure the network in such a way that it is still managed by a centralized resource that incorporates critics and curators. This centralized resource would also ideally provide a range of services to artists in a more efficient manner than currently occurs. Such resources might range from legal, accounting, financial planning, and asset management to marketing and offering a central point of interface with galleries and collectors.
This space of representation would neither be strictly physical or digital. At first, it would simply be a set of connections that form between different artists. This network should form around a particular motivation. This motivation on one hand would be to reshape the art world to benefit artists more than is currently the case. At the same time, it should be around a set of principles that resonate broadly within society. On one hand, this might be engaging movements that support equity and on the other hand might involve investigating those forces that drive us apart and fuel the perpetuation of antiquated power structures. Ideally, this collective interest will lead to an alignment and coordination of those who form the network. Such alignment will help artists and creatives more broadly take direct control of their image –both of what they produce and of how what they produce is represented. This should occur both from a technical perspective and from a commercial perspective that takes the form of a publishing platform where those who utilized the platform are supported by a range of services. This ultimately will help form a market that artists can control and benefit from more directly.
Those who see this problem have the capacity to form a core group that can help build this space through investing in technology, through advising artists, and through advocating for an alternative to the status quo. The space to be built will be one where they can completely control their product. It will be 100% user owned and be designed in such a way that everyone will benefit from the success of the network and platform. Everyone will collectively maintain this network. It will not be something that can be sold. At the same time, it will be a repository of value that operates in the key areas of focus that make up the current art market. Gradually, it will have the capacity to become a collection of assets that those who maintain the network contribute to. As such, it will become something akin to both a collecting institution, an art fund, and also a market place. Those who are members of this network will have ample room to form sub-networks and for areas of focus to form that might in turn lead to focused collections.
In order to balance the collective production of the members and the platform that allows them to transform the form of that wealth, it will be important to create a management company to guide the process. It would essentially be a governing body that allows the field to benefit collectively from growth in the market while also allowing for guidance, strategy, and direction. Beyond the network itself, the centralized management company would be instrumental in developing a platform that makes it easier for art practices to exists and impact the world beyond the walls of the art gallery and museum system. It would take them outside of the conventional comesticity that has driven art production for centuries. It would interrogate what it means to have and inhabit that home to begin with. In the process, an openness to a much broader community would be created. This process would resonate both with the changing nature of where one wants to encounter culture in a post-Covid-19 world and a desire for greater equity and inclusion following the most recent in a long line of evidence of the continued racism that plagues the United States.
Such a platform should be driven by analyzing the expertise inherent in a particular practice, connecting that to a community outside the market, and cutting through the bureaucracy that would traditionally make it impossible for that confrontation, intersection, act of mediation, and reconciliation to occur. This is particularly important because it is precisely this act of reconciliation that generates value that resonates across levels and spheres of our world. To do so, it will be essential to develop a financial model by and for artists who want to extend the impact of their artwork. This model should be grounded in leveraging the community and capacity to aggregate, invest, and market art from a centralized platform. Ideally, this network and platform will be the interface by which art enters the current market. In this sense, the goal is not to replace the current market, but supplement that market and organize the artists working in that market. In doing so, a route by which the existing value system can transform to a new system with minimal pain will be created. It will also be essential to actively develop investors in specific deployments of practices, sub-networks, and those interested in specific locations, histories, and social challenges. This would ideally form an investor base defined by groups for specific projects – sharing risk and reward in the process. These initiatives can be used to develop and expand a collector base that cuts across a much wider range of society. This will be driven by engaging those interested in the transformation of the world in which we live. It will create a route by which they can invest and own a piece or trace of this transformation. This might be facilitated through a shared ownership tool like Blockchain. This process could be developed in coordination with the existing gallery system as a way of absorbing those collector bases gradually while also creating a way for them to get these new works into their collection. In doing so, continuity with the art system that this network critiques would be maintained while also legitimately creating a pathway to a new system not based on a reactionary critique of the present.