"Then came the 2000s and money and Chelsea, which is the equivalent of a suburban mall: a business disrtict, a consumer zone." --Holland Cotter
Most galleries today have websites that feature the artists that they represent. While there is clearly no substitute for viewing art first-hand, looking at art online can nevertheless give one a general idea of what artists are doing. Whether experienced first-hand or in a virtual mode, the abundance and diversity of the art being made worldwide today is nothing short of astonishing. All manner of media and approaches are in evidence; new styles are being introduced while tried and true genres and art forms are being re-invented (or, perhaps less charitably, regurgitated). On the face of it, the variety of art being made seems very encouraging: artistic diversity seems to be in full stride, creating a sense of infinite possibilities; a situation that would seem to ensure the creative vitality of contemporary art. It would seem that all this activity, this vast production of art, trumpets the success, indeed, the hegemony of “democracy,” at least in the West. For some of us, however, there is a nagging suspicion that the “diversity” of all this art is too neat, too categorical; that diversity in a deeper sense is actually being undermined, principally by the art market.
Sometime ago I discovered the website of influential international art collector, Charles Saatchi. Through Saatchi’s largess, an online exhibition site has been provided to artists, at no cost, where they may display a few images of their work. I suspect that Saatchi’s generosity is based on the hope that his electronic venue will expose new talent, which could ultimately benefit the very market that financial lions like Saatchi dominate. Thousands of artists from around the world have participated, many showing work that could not be seen anywhere else. Over the course of a few days, I viewed the work of a couple of hundred artists on this website: painters, photographers, sculptors, mixed-media artists, and others (painting seemed to predominate). The work ranged from the naïve (and often poignant) to the sophisticated and included all manner of agendas and or philosophies. Based upon, admittedly, the scant evidence of a few images per artist, the majority of the work seemed mediocre at best; for the most part, nothing distinctive or particularly memorable revealed itself to my eye. Most of the work was competent; some of it even polished and professional, but little struck me as out of the ordinary or truly unique. Occasionally, however, a rare work of promise did bubble to the digital surface, only to be swallowed by a sea of conformity, however varied this collection of art appeared. What struck me, then, was the inherent sameness of most of this work. Irrespective of the quality of individual artworks, there was something that bound all this stuff together, something at the time that I couldn’t put my finger on.
Whatever it is that most of the art on Saatchi’s website has in common, one thing seems certain: it is probably the same thing that is behind much of the art being shown in the majority of commercial galleries. It is no coincidence that a great deal of contemporary art today has a certain veneer; a feel or “look” that often seems in step with the Fashion industry or the Advertising world, or both. I’m not talking about work that merely apes advertising or fashion. What I’m getting at here is work that seems designed to appeal to what seems fashionable, au courant, regardless of its form or content. The problem here is that it is ultimately the market that defines what art is relevant; that all developments outside the art market, including significant advances, will be ignored if the work in question cannot find a niche on the supermarket shelf. The work can be as controversial as the artist likes, but if the artist desires to have the work exhibited firsthand, and this is a critical point; shown somewhere even beyond the commercial gallery system, the art must first be market friendly. In other words, the vast majority of contemporary art selected for exhibition outside the commercial gallery system, for example, in exhibitions at public institutions, is either represented by a commercial gallery or in line to be. I hasten to add that most market friendly art is thoughtful and engaging, offering more than merely visual appeal. Some of it might even provide ironic insight into the shallowness of a lot of commercially motivated art, although given that its apparent criticality only reinforces its status as a commodity, indeed, a high order one, the efficacy of such art is problematic. The full promise of art in terms of fostering freedom and independence, for artists and audiences alike, will not be fulfilled if the art market continues to essentially limit that freedom and independence.
There was a time when the art world enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy; when artists, art dealers, curators, critics, and even collectors, were not faced with the market constraints of today. Artists experimented more freely; art dealers could afford to be more open and inclusive; curators were more responsible to both artists and the art viewing public; critics had sharper pens and broader agendas; and collectors focused more on the creative spirit and less on the comings and goings of the auction house. Consider the ramifications of the loss of all this in terms of personal expression and creative freedom. Many artists today take the art market for granted; many consciously or unconsciously make art to somehow appease the market. Some artists and others will regard this viewpoint as either hopelessly out of touch or cynical, or both. I can only shrug at such a response; the fact is that for many in the art world today marketability has become an unspoken measure of artistic success. Thankfully, not everyone subscribes to salability as an indication of artistic importance; including many of those who believe that aesthetic and commercial value are two different things. And indeed, they are. What is involved here is a fundamental misperception based upon momentary tastes and a kind of insular “logic” that all markets are vulnerable to. If this viewpoint is largely true, how did this happen?
This did not come about simply because artists, dealers, curators, critics, and collectors have slavishly followed the dictates of the art market. This is a simplistic and naïve view. An internalizing of the values of the art market is more to the point. A clue to what is going on comes from a wonderful little book by the philosopher, E.E. Selinis. In “Art and Freedom,” Selinis argues that art basically “frees us from the commonplace and merely instrumental,” that it frees us “from habitual and routine modes of perceiving, thinking, feeling, and acting that arise from activities needed to sustain life.” 1. Selinis proceeds to argue that any uncommon or non-instrumental action can free a person from routine, such as idly skipping stones across water, but this sort of freeing is trivial. A non-trivial sense of freeing, according to Selinis, involves, “overcoming resistance or inertia or loosening fixed patterns.” 2. The author goes on to say that when art frees us in this way we are reformed as human beings; we can become as a result more independent in our outlook, more open to fresh perspectives. It seems to me that “resistance and inertia” and the “fixed patterns” of art that results from this aptly describe today’s contemporary art market.
Markets in general, but particularly those influenced by a corporate model of doing business, it is fair to say, require a good deal of consistency in terms of products and services. The aim is usually to expand market share. When it comes to the products being offered, variety combined with a certain familiarity is also highly desirable. Successful products, those that generate profits, do not even need to be durable or of high quality. Durable and high quality goods that can be produced at a profit is the ideal for most businesses, although given increasing production costs and other expenses many businesses fall short of this. The long-term value or usefulness of many products that do not disrupt habitual or routine modes of consumption is overridden by the short-term profits that they generate. With the contemporary art market, of course, the situation is more nuanced and complex because the commodity status of the “product” is usually downplayed and not offered up for mass consumption. While this is true, the business model increasingly relied upon by commercial galleries is basically the same as any big retailer. If, as many assume, the commercial gallery system has taken the cultural lead in providing venues for what is deemed “the most significant art of our time,” then the problem should be obvious. Whether we agree or disagree with what the gallery system deems “significant art,” the fact is that it is this system that is calling the shots and not the artists or the critics. It is true that outside of a few notable exceptions, individual artists and critics never had much say when it came to the business of the gallery. However, there was a time when artists and critics, particularly those with international reputations, could actually influence the powers that be and be instrumental in securing exhibition opportunities for talented artists outside the loop who were otherwise not well connected. Without a strong counter balance of publicly funded alternative venues, the commercial system will continue to determine what art is and isn’t important and undermine the vitality of contemporary art by insisting upon an approach to art making that is not in keeping with its deeper significance to our lives.
It may very well be that one of our fundamental freedoms, in this case, freedom of expression as it applies to the work of artists, is being seriously undermined by a market system that no longer serves the long term interests of our culture. Those who support the status quo will object that this is nonsense; that artists in this country are free to express themselves in almost any way whatsoever. True, but being an artist also involves opportunities to show work first-hand (not just in a virtual mode), irrespective of the work’s marketability. Art deemed unacceptable from a market perspective is today all but ignored because the edicts of the art market seem to take precedence over all else. The fact is that the contemporary art market has become very conservative; driven by the convenient assumption that “the market” is the most efficient, productive, and democratic (!) way of advancing culture, both broadly and narrowly construed. This tired conservative belief (which, incidentally, is often held by self-proclaimed “progressives” in the art world) is no more true here than anywhere else in our society. For those who buy into this belief, capitalism, especially corporate capitalism, is the standard bearer, indeed, the very reason for culture. And this is a problem for all who would raise the banner of art.
1. E.E. Sleinis, Art and Freedom, University of Illinois Press. 2003. p. 5