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Who Is the Art World For?
Art today often aims to shock rather than inspire. How did that change happen?
Ever since the rise of secular art, markets have accompanied artwork. In his new article for Palladium, David Gelland looks at the functional and dysfunctional ways art has been distributed throughout society.
During the early modern period, art commissioning and dealing was handled by professional connoisseurs who worked directly with artists and patrons. But after the French Revolution and the liquidation of many aristocratic estates, the ensuing market flood led to a great deal of market volatility. Many post-revolutionary, new-money buyers bought art solely to flip it for a higher price.
It is mainly in the nineteenth century that art becomes a romanticized, intellectualized commodity, and by the twentieth century the opinions of critics like Clement Greenberg were so influential they were able to influence the productions of the artists they worked with. Greenberg saw art as a civilizational project—envisioning new aesthetic worlds to bring to Earth.
Greenberg and intellectuals like him were not operating in a vacuum. Because art is associated with status and cultural achievement, intelligence agencies have been known to influence the art market in certain directions. Greenberg, for example, was a member of the American Commission for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded cultural association:
The CIA used institutions like the ACCF to funnel leftist artists and intellectuals into forms of socialism that were anti-Soviet. Pollock and other abstract expressionists were ideologically useful to promote because the art movement was based on the artist’s highly individual and intellectualized personality. Their non-representational “interior landscapes” directly opposed the proletarian kitsch of Soviet socialist realism.
Throughout this period, even the most avant-garde artists and critics maintained a sense that their work served a social and aesthetic mission. Today, that “civilizational” level of importance has disappeared. The two factors at play seem to be the increasing financialization of art markets on the one hand, and the decline of critics as arbiters of taste on the other. Infamous shows like Sensation (1997), which launched the career of many famous contemporary artists like Damien Hirst, were almost completely devoid of intellectual justification.
The algorithm ran like this: shock art was put on display, public figures not “in on the joke”—like Rudy Guliani during his time as mayor of New York—would react with outrage, and the performative scandal would generate press. Because any publicity is good publicity, the value of the art went up.
What’s important here is that the figure of the critic no longer commandeered standards of taste and relevancy. In a hyper-financialized art market, attention from the public and from wealthy buyers are what push up the value of an artwork. Any rewarding of real artistic talent with fame and wealth is incidental.
But art doesn’t have to be just a financial game. Even if they were financially leveraged into the art they were promoting, critics like Greenberg took on the task of interpreting art so that others could uplift themselves to new ways of seeing the world. Greenberg’s work was made possible by the publications he wrote for and cultural associations that protected him, and it was his financial resources, talent-scouting, and movement-building efforts that put artists in the Western artistic canon. By cultivating that spirit of connoisseurship, authority, and organizational discipline, we can help put ours back on track.
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Who Is the Art World For? By David Gelland. Art today often aims to shock rather than inspire. How did that change happen?
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That’s all for now.