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Bad Analysis of the Art Market

Knife Grinder

In this otherwise mediocre — which I think I’ll poke at in a moment — take on the current state of the artworld, author David Galensen posits that

From the Renaissance onwards, artists were constrained in the extent to which they could innovate by the need to satisfy powerful patrons and institutions. The rise of a competitive market removed this constraint and gave artists greater freedom. Collectors soon recognised that the most innovative art would become the most valuable. In a market setting that rewarded innovation, conceptual artists who could innovate rapidly and conspicuously gained a decisive advantage. And here too Picasso led the way.

While it’s patent that prior to the market, artists were ‘constrained’ by the need to secure their livelihood from patrons and institutions (and it isn’t really obvious to me that this became the case in the Renaissance; medieval artists relied on institutions for their porridge), the lavish praise given to the market as motor of liberty here is pure ideology. The implication is that the personal whim of patrons, apparently, is less desirable that the impersonal adjudication of the market, since the market rewards ‘competition’. This is all cant, even when the talk is about normal commodities like mayonnaise and 3/8” screws, but when it is applied to art it simply becomes lunacy. Artists do not ‘compete’ in the way that artisans and manufacturers do; and the ‘innovation’ that successful artists manage to capitalize has little to do with their product in itself, and more to do with passing trends, the cleverness of curators, and the buzz hummed by gallery-owners. Much more important to an individual artist’s success is the set of practices that established independent galleries (which was mentioned earlier in the piece), but if we turn to that, then we’re not really moving beyond feudalism into a brave modern future; we remain constrained by patronage and personal whim — now, however, that of the gatekeepers of major galleries and other places.

Galensen also makes an odd analytical split between ‘experimental’ and ‘conceptual’ artists:

Important artists can be divided into two types on the basis of their goals and methods. Experimental innovators seek to record visual perceptions. Their goals are imprecise, so they work by trial and error. They build their skills over time, and their innovations appear gradually, late in their lives. Conceptual innovators express their ideas or emotions. The precision of their goals allows them to plan their works and execute them systematically. Radical conceptual innovations depend on the ability to recognise the value of extreme deviations from existing conventions, and this ability declines with experience, as habits of thought become entrenched, so the most important conceptual innovations occur early in an artist’s career.

Even under cursory consideration, the distinction made between these two putative art-practices doesn’t really hold. It’s gasbaggery. Of course, since the overall aim of the piece appears to be the vindication of the independent art market, which Galensen is tying to the explosion of ‘conceptual’ art, ‘experimental’ art is said to have ‘imprecise’ goals.

At any rate the piece is not all bad. It notes that the contemporary art world has its roots in the first impressionist exhibition. This is clearly true. But while Galensen just assumes that opening up of the art market has meant the liberation of artists everywhere, the reality is much sloppier: instead of religious or personal constraints, there are now the constraint of profitability, prestige, and ‘innovation’.

Categories: Asides.

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