Rewind nine years. It’s 2007-ish. I am standing at a mid-sized art fair looking at people looking at art. I see a well-meaning high school art teacher dropping his students off with an instruction to wander and learn. “Here kidos, look at the latest and the greatest!”
Five minutes later. Two of his students are in front of a painting. “Fuck Chinese Art” written on it’s surface. They are Asian-American. They are confused, if not offended: clearly not in the know regarding the voracious appetites of the art market and its recent obsession with all things “Chinese” and “Contemporary”. There is nothing to put this proclamation in context. Their teacher is not around. The denizens of the artworld, including your humble author, are not being particularly helpful.
I often play back this moment in my head. Partly because of my regret that I didn’t come up to these two very confused souls and guided them on a customized tour to art enlightenment. Partly…
because any real tour of the artworld would include a long introduction to art markets
…and financial speculation around Chinese Contemporary art, in the particular case I am describing of course.
Not that I felt like defending the work. I don’t think, and I didn’t think at the time, it was a particularly brilliant “Fuck You”. What I wanted, was to explain WHY this seeming attack on Chinese nationals who dared to make art was actually an attack on artworld’s crass commercial efforts.
SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU ARE A CARD-CARRYING ART WORLD INSIDER. A little background here. After the “discovery” of the Chinese Contemporary Art about two years before the “F — - You” incident and the consequent hike of prices on anything “Chinese”, “Contemporary” and “Art”, a wave of dealers descended upon Beijing and Shanghai art communities. They bought anything and everything in their path, flipped it in US and Europe, often to a number of questionable players who themselves flipped the work. Everyone was willing to bet on Chinese Art! It was, and in many ways continues to be, a market dominated by purely business interests and speculation. Again, the F You jest was easy because there were so many bad actors flocking to Chinese Art not because there is/was something inherently wrong with it.
Context out of the way, I think this speaks to a bigger problem. When the cloistered art geeks speak of the “art market”, as they often do, they are talking about the system that influences the type of work that is being sold and consequently promoted. There is a whole complex set of relationships that is created around production and promotion that starts with commercial galleries and ends with ART21. In the United States it is nearly impossible to be “an artist of consequence” without the right commercial gallery representation.
The geeks often bemoan this state of affairs and try to point to a possibility of a utopian future in which “ravenous capitalism” is taken out of the equation. I have fairly strong opinions on this topic, which will have to be aired a little later, but the fundamental issue here is that it is still a very solipsistic effort.
Any critique of the marketplace from a position within the artworld proper is completely indecipherable by the population at large.
Even parts of that population that generally listen to experimental music, watch indie movies and participate in other generally “intellectual” activities, have no access to the artworld and consequently art market (possibly the other way around). To quote Tom Wolf, “The public is not invited” — we end up with two individuals in a state of confusion staring at a canvas in the middle of an art fair.
Artworld outsiders, only hear of “art” when the auction prices are announced, which, in turn, forces one to scratch his/her head looking at the images. Their entry is through a marketplace commentary, and it’s a path that doesn't allow access to ideas behind any work… other than possibly Damien Hirst's.
But why should artist care, one asks? Aren’t we the bearers of the Avant-Garde torch that automatically makes us different from the general population and their consistent inability to decipher Contemporary Art codes? Mass appeal, the staple of Fascist and Socialist Realist traditions, is just not on the menu. Well… yeah, kinda. But we are also in a position where the overall vitality of the objects produced within the art world is greatly diminished by the distribution channels that define the art market. Instead of diversifying our distribution channels and growing the overall scope of possibilities of and around art, we are stuck making seemingly critical comments that are accessible only to the insiders. It’s a closed loop with no way out.
If we want to comment on the art market forces we can not be absolutely dependent on them to shape and distribute our ideas.
I would argue that we must broaden the the set of possibilities that defines artwork distribution. Otherwise the codes of consumption will become so impenetrable that artworks’ ability to speak to anything other than its relative price will be absolutely irrelevant. Embracing mass appeal Disney-style is probably not on the menu but unless we figure out ways to question the fundamental functions of the current market, and not just its logic, the vitality of the art efforts we are trying to undertake is in serious question.