Smoke and Mirrors
I've mangled my thoughts about this over at Artworld Salon (in response to a post about an exhibition on "Perspectives on the Art Market"), so I'll take advantage of a clean slate here to see if I can be more clear.
Via a conversation with a very smart and compassionate artist last weekend, it became (a bit) clearer to me that the scapegoating of the "art market" really needs to end. Not because I'm growing so very weary of it (although I am), but rather because it's counterproductive. Taking artists and others at their word that they'd like to see change in the way things stand, it's becoming apparent that harping on about the art market will not result in that change. Why?
The art market, like the vacation home market or even the stock market is not a self-interested force unto itself. Rather, what it looks like at any given time is a reflection of the nexus of economic conditions and the values and desires of the culture at large. In other words, the art market is us (or the best us possible given the current economic realities).
Currently, it reflects a culture in which money is valued above all else; above fairness, above patriotism, above family, above compassion, above spirituality and generosity, and above higher ideals, such as are often symbolized by the arts. Money is king, and we bow down at its throne. If our values were different, then our markets (art included) would be different.
In other words, most attempts by artists at exploring the ins and outs of the art market, per se, amount to navel gazing. There are two reasons for that: 1) most attempts at examining it are not well-informed enough to lead to real insights (the truth about the current art market is in fact so complicated it's beyond the grasp of many of the world's best economists); and 2) the root of the reason it looks the way it does is the collective set of values that led us to feed it (i.e., the culture) and ignoring that root will not change anything, despite how much energy is put into examining its result. The market is merely a symptom: the culture is what's diseased. You might find satisfaction in whining about the shortness of breath caused by your emphysema, but it's ludicrous to do so while lighting another cigarette.
So what am I suggesting here? To my mind it's now more clear that art's role in changing the art market is to reflect back to the public not the truth about the current art market (whatever that might be), but rather the truth about the culture that's given it birth, because only via a shift in our values, will we see a shift in the market. Only by quitting smoking will we have any chance of seeing an improvement in our emphysema. If we rant on about our shortness of breath, but keep smoking, we'll change nothing.
One commenter on Artworld Salon asked if I was suggesting that the art market was an invalid topic for art. I'm on record as saying there are no invalid topics for art. But, as the exhibition in question was designed to “invite a skeptical awareness of market mechanisms” and “an active engagement with possible alternatives,” it's fair, I feel, to suggest no amount of skepticism about the market will lead to meaningful alternatives so long as we're not also holding up a mirror to the underlying root of why we (us, right now) have the market we do. It's parallel to saying, between drags on that Marlboro, "Yes, I have shortness of breath...see...hu-u-uughhh...there it is...damn shortness of breath, with its wheezing and coughing and making it dangerous to climb a flight of stairs. See, I fully understand what this shortness of breath is. So why isn't my emphysema getting any better?"
Labels: art market