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Maja and Reuben Fowkes:

The Exclusive World of Art Power
Sarah Thorton: Seven Days in the Art World Granta, London, 2008.
Boris Groys: Art Power MIT, Cambridge MA, 2008

 

What these two recent books have in common is that they both set out to reveal the inner mechanisms and driving forces of the contemporary art world. While one author places the art world squarely within the arena of rampant liberal capitalism, the other positions it within the contradictory frame of post-communism. In one account the market reigns all powerful, while the other acknowledges the possibility of a position outside the rules of the market, represented by historical and contemporary forms of ‘propaganda art’. The author of Art Power is maverick art theorist Boris Groys, while Seven Days in the Art World was written by self-appointed anthropologist of the international art scene, Sarah Thornton, and despite the differences, they both provide provocative insights into the internal power relations of the art world.

Seven Days in the Art World has been praised as an ‘instant bestseller’ that exposes the secrets of the art market through the account of a spy within exclusive art circles, as well as condemned as a brazen exercise in self-promotion. The book is organised around seven chapters focussing on an auction, an art school class, an art fair, art prize, magazine, studio visit and a biennial, each chapter describing a particular day in the author’s research. Although the titles of the chapters are general, each is related to one specific event, for example, the auction takes place at Christies in New York, the art school is the California Institute of Arts, the fair is Art Basel, the prize reveals the decision-making process for the Turner Prize, the magazine is Art Forum, while biennial stands for the VIP experience of the opening days of Venice. The unlikely studio visit takes place across Japan at various workshops belonging to notoriously commercial artist Takashi Murakami.

Seven Days conveys the heady atmosphere of the art market in recent years, spurred on by the ever increasing prices paid at auction for works of contemporary art. The author describes a situation in which dealers are on a constant search for marketable young artists to feed the insatiable hunger of a new generation of collectors, for whom buying art is a straightforward financial investment. She describes the ‘feeding frenzy’ of billionaires and millionaires at the VIP opening of Art Basel and their desperate rush to reach the gallery stands before the fair is sold out. In this period of art boom, dealers are able to put collectors on long waiting lists for works and enjoy the luxury of finding the right collection or home for an artwork, rather than simply selling to the highest bidder. While the question ‘when is the bubble going to burst?’ is frequent, it does not appear to put a brake on the speculation, attempts by dealers to manipulate prices, and the endless hype and excess of the art market.

This is clearly not everyone’s experience of the art world, and the author’s perspective is provocatively one-sided. At the outset, she identifies six roles played by art world insiders: artist, dealer, curator, critic, collector and auction house expert. In the author’s opinion, it is the dealers who ‘channelling and deflecting the power of all the other players, occupy the most pivotal role.’ In this world of money and power, an artist at an art fair could be mistaken for ‘an eccentric leftwing curator who has had the misfortune to lose his luggage’, and at biennial openings, collectors and dealers show off in 5 star oases, while ‘low-budget curators and critics’ crowd into humble hotels. In this account of the art world, art historians come off worst of all, as after briefly attending the annual conference of the College Art Association in New York, Thornton comments: ‘For the cost of a work by a mid-ranking German photographer (one in an edition of six), a collector could obtain a unique art historian for an entire year.’ This picture of the art world is extremely narrow, not only because it brings an Anglo-American perspective promoted by Art Forum, lubricated by the Turner Prize and ruled by a handful of collectors and dealers, but because it excludes everyone involved with contemporary art who doesn’t make it onto the VIP lists.

The issue of art power receives a more complex treatment in the book of Boris Groys, which has a more European focus and is framed against the changes brought by the fall of communism. Along with the power of the art market, the author acknowledges the existence of art practice outside the realm of the marketplace. As a collection of essays published or presented over the last decade, the book includes theoretical reflections on the changing face of contemporary art and a section devoted to the power of totalitarian art. In particular chapters Groys also takes into consideration the role of the curator, critic and the question of artistic authorship, as well as concepts of art as documentation and the implications of digitalisation for art practice.

The author distinguishes between two roughly equal methods for the production and reception of art, one is art as commodity, the other being art as a ‘tool of political propaganda.’ In his opinion, far more attention is devoted to the history of art as commodity than to art as political propaganda, with the result that ‘the official as well as unofficial art of the Soviet Union and of other former Socialist states remains almost completely out of focus for contemporary art history and museum system.’ In what could be taken as an implicit critique of Seven Days in the Art World, Groys observes how after the end of World War II, and especially after the fall of communism, the commercial system of art production predominated to the extent that ‘the notion of art became almost synonymous with the notion of the art market,’ while the art produced outside it ‘was de facto excluded from the field of institutionally recognised art.’

However, Art Power is a no less controversial book, for example, the author characterises the role of the critic as to offer a ‘textual bikini’ to works of art that are only allowed to be completely naked in the ‘domestic intimacy of the private collection.’ Referring to the disempowered position of the art critic in the contemporary art system, he states that for the public ‘a negative review is no different from a positive one’ and that ‘most of these texts don’t get read.’ Curators on the other hand are, in his opinion, increasingly central to contemporary art and ‘when it comes to it, the independent curator does everything that the contemporary artist does.’ Exhibitions are comparable to artistic installations, in which artworks are deployed to illustrate curatorial concepts.

In discussion of the potential of art to provide social critique, Groys is highly sceptical of the ability of art produced within market conditions to offer a fundamental challenge to the system. The instances when artists and theorists are critical of the commodification of art, end up reaffirming the ‘total power of the market’, to the extent that the ‘self-critical artwork’ fits perfectly in the dominant paradigm of contemporary art and gets incorporated in it. Art, therefore, becomes politically effective ‘only when it is made beyond or outside the art market’, which for Groys means Soviet propaganda art, Islamist videos and anti-globalisation posters. Although the author acknowledges the existence of non-market art, he apparently does not have a higher opinion of it than Sarah Thornton does of impoverished curators and critics.

 


First printed in Zivot umjetnosti: journal for contemporary art no.83 (Zagreb)

12. December 2008.
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