In his article, professor of economics Pier Luigi Sacco calls our attention to a crucial tension in the way contemporary visual arts operate (internationally) today. In the last few years, the global art market has been in the midst of an enormous boom. From a distance, says Sacco, this might seem a good thing, but from close by, it presents a far less cheerful vision. Despite ever more and ever richer art collectors, for most artists, everyday reality has become increasingly difficult.
Contemporary art at a crossroad
The relationship between the visual arts and patronage is a fundamental one, yet complex. Artists need patrons because, unlike writers or musicians, they cannot support themselves by selling large numbers of affordable reproductions of a master copy, such as books or records. As Nelson Goodman explains, visual art mainly operates within the autographic rather than the allographic regime. The quintessential nature of an artwork, therefore, is its originality and certification as such by the artist (supported, possibly, by his or her signature).
This also means that works of art are generally expensive and beyond the reach of most people. Artists, as a result, depend upon patronage. This can take many forms, ranging from a wealthy collector to an acquisition by a public or private institution, or a grant. Public funding for the arts is not an alternative to patronage but simply another one of its many guises. Dealing with patronage necessarily means dealing with power: economic, political, or both. Since time immemorial, one of the key challenges for visual artists has been the question of how to balance the demands of a patron with the preservation of intellectual and creative autonomy. The history of art is filled with such relationships, both good and bad, many of which have been influenced by the vagaries of political and economic regimes. Contemporary artists, however, find themselves facing new challenges in respect of patronage since the issue of the day, the topic that dominates all social, political and economic life, is that of global inequality.
The global art calendar of art fairs, biennials and museum openings is richer than ever, and prices at art auctions consistently skyrocket. Art collecting is viewed as a full-time job for an increasing number of (affluent) people. But again, this does not mean that, compared to a decade ago, the average contemporary artist stands a better chance of making a living through the arts.
Yet global inequality is nothing new and one might even argue, at the end of the day, that we are living, if not in the best of all possible worlds, then at a time of unprecedented prosperity. Compared to just a few generations ago, there has been a marked drop in the level of extreme poverty and in mortality rates – a trend that shows no sign of abating for the foreseeable future. The same can be said of education, life satisfaction and access to technology, to cite just a few key benchmarks of modern well-being. However, the comparison between historical and contemporary living standards, which inevitably results in positives, gives no cause for celebration when it comes to absolute living conditions. This is especially true when one considers that despite a surge in global wealth – the prime driver of improved living conditions in recent decades – these resources have barely filtered down to the world’s poorest communities.
In other words, however significant these advances may seem in comparison with the past, they fall far short of what could, in theory, be achieved with such riches. Any improvements remain modest or even marginal, and even more so if one takes into account the evolution in baseline living standards triggered by socio-economic development. Most of the newly generated wealth accrues to an extremely limited number of people, which means that economic power (and, directly or indirectly, political control) is concentrated in ever-fewer hands. The influence of such people, who possess a capacity to direct national and global decision-making and policies, has grown unchecked. This is coupled with a dwindling lack of concern for both the hidden and obvious forms of economic neo-slavery that are presented in the respectable guise of market flexibility. The steady disruption of even the most basic forms of welfare in socio-economically advanced countries barely seems to register. After an illusory and brief historical parenthesis, this double standard, which separates people into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ across all spheres of life – judicial, economic and social – seems to have gained ground as the ‘new normal’. Unfortunately, democracy has not proven itself to be a solid enough barrier against the onslaught. On the contrary, the very opposite is true – which explains why an increasing number of dispossessed individuals, all over the world, are persuaded to support authoritarian forms of populism.
While everything looks rosy from afar, closer scrutiny of world affairs paints a far gloomier picture. And the same can be said, although in very different terms, for the art market. The global art calendar of art fairs, biennials and museum openings is richer than ever, and prices at art auctions consistently skyrocket. Art collecting is viewed as a full-time job for an increasing number of (affluent) people. But again, this does not mean that, compared to a decade ago, the average contemporary artist stands a better chance of making a living through the arts. In fact, given the high cost of keeping up with the growing demands of the art system, for example in terms of mobility or materials, they might actually stand less of a chance. Once again, while a relative improvement can be noted when comparing the present to the past, it is of negligible benefit within the context of an ever-shifting baseline.
At first sight, the artists of today seem as combative as ever – political art has constantly been in the spotlight, is regularly featured in museum exhibition programmes, public art projects, and in the roster of biennials. But is it enough?
The people currently fuelling the expansion of the art market – namely, today’s patrons – present a far more fundamental problem. These are the men and women who stand to gain the most from the exacerbation of global inequality: that is, the happy few who control the international economy, lobby politicians, and benefit from outrageously preferential fiscal rules compared to those applied to ‘ordinary people’ (welcome back Ancien Régime). The crucial point is this: can contemporary art – whose economic (and to a certain degree social) sustainability depends upon the tastes and inclinations of this clique of privileged, ultra-powerful patrons – maintain enough autonomy and discernment to qualify as an independent, critical voice vis-à-vis global injustice? Or is art destined to become a decorative appendix to power, a sophisticated form of interior decoration for the mansions of the fortunate minority?
At first sight, the artists of today seem as combative as ever – political art has constantly been in the spotlight, is regularly featured in museum exhibition programmes, public art projects, and in the roster of biennials. But is it enough? I remember, at one biennial, seeing a photograph of a lone boy playing football in a miserable landscape of bombed-out ruins. The artist who had taken the picture was busy negotiating an exhibition of the series at an upscale gallery. In all probability, that particular photo (or one very much like it) would have ended up furnishing the living room of someone whose fortune was made in the global arms industry. Is this really so very different from hanging the stuffed head of a deer on the wall as hunting trophy? How credible is a creative practice that uses social critique to position itself within a system in which works of art objectively, and even ideologically, support the oppressor rather than the oppressed? This is the dilemma facing contemporary artists, and it is not an easy one. Artists need patrons. Yet today’s backers are more likely to be the agents of social inequality. An artist who accepts this form of patronage, therefore, relinquishes his or her credibility as a political agent in the fight for a fairer society. And if the artist rejects such patronage, then he or she must find alternative support structures. In a political and cultural context where public funding for the arts, be it direct or indirect, is increasingly questioned, this is easier said than done.
There are many possible ways of ‘opting out’, it does not mean, for instance, refusing to exhibit in a museum or boycotting all galleries. But it does mean setting priorities, and solving dilemmas, in favour of critical independence
A solution for many artists is to opt out of the market-based contemporary art system and to stop competing for the handful of places that are available in the global arena of museums, biennials, collections, grants and scholarships. It is a radical choice, indeed, but it is difficult to think of an alternative that lends credibility to an authentically critical stance. And in a sense, it is not only possible, but perhaps also necessary to escape the trap of academism which, despite the rhetoric of radicalism, increasingly plagues contemporary artistic research.
There are many possible ways of ‘opting out’, of course – it does not mean, for instance, refusing to exhibit in a museum or boycotting all galleries. But it does mean setting priorities, and solving dilemmas, in favour of critical independence whenever such issues arise. And it also implies, even more crucially, jettisoning any kind of paternalism when striving to represent the motives and positions of the oppressed. In practice, this involves adopting their viewpoint as the sense-making perspective of one’s own practice, rather perpetuating that of the oppressing agents. Viewed from this stance, many public art projects which should, in principle, stand as milestones of community involvement become involuntary manifestos of elitist condescension. In my view, Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument – a project that literally inverted the Gramscian principle of the cultural empowerment of the community as a fundamental anti-hegemonic strategy – is a prime example of such failings, and this is but one example amongst many others. The main impediment to the aforementioned project was the adoption of a limited responsibility principle, one that can be likened to the values adopted by corporations.
In the name of artistic practice, artists feel entitled to evoke the most sensitive and profound dimensions of community living, and to appropriate every single gesture of appreciation or participation from the community’s side as an endorsement that will provide credit in multiple arenas. But this reveals a complete lack of responsibility on the artist’s part: when the project is over, bags will be packed, the material traces of the project will be sanctified in a carefully selected museum or private collection, and everyone will say goodbye: it is an attitude that violates any common-sense rule of community practice, but one that is all too commonplace in the realm of public art. And how could it be otherwise for artists who are carefully managing their careers and whose imperative is constantly touring the world with exciting new projects opening in multiple locations? But this is exactly the point of opting out: making the community viewpoint, the perspective of the oppressed, prevail upon the outlook of the oppressors. In practical terms, and insofar as I wish to engage the societal point of view, this means that the agenda and priorities of the community carry the most weight.
Artists who want to preserve their credibility in terms of social critique should accept responsibility. They must join forces with the communities they approach and consider this interaction as a sort of social contract based on mutual trust. Short-term, demonstrative projects must be the exception and not the rule.
For this reason, artists who want to preserve their credibility in terms of social critique should accept responsibility. In other words, they must join forces with the communities they approach and consider this interaction as a sort of social contract based on mutual trust. Short-term, demonstrative projects must be the exception and not the rule. The rule is a long-term commitment in which the artist and the community establish a joint intention that moves towards co-creation rather than the implementation of the artist’s scheme. I am thinking, for instance, of Theaster Gates’ work in the South Side of Chicago, where he took responsibility by putting his competence and experience as an urban planner at the service of the community. In so doing, he was able to objectively counteract the apparently inexorable mechanisms of urban gentrification. I would also like to mention Tania Bruguera’s concept of Arte Útil, in which the artist assumes the viewpoint of the community and, in so doing, makes it the cornerstone of his or her poetics. And there are many more examples, but they would need a level of scrutiny that goes beyond the scope of this brief essay. What matters most is the ability to differentiate. This means, in essence, that you either accept or decline responsibility.
Absolving yourself of responsibility is tantamount to accepting the fact that disenfranchised communities will soon learn to regard public art initiatives as a threat to their own interests and causes, as another form of manipulative expropriation of their own shared identity and significance, and as symbolic trophies. This is a plausible response, and perhaps even legitimate in certain strange respects, but it is not without its consequences. In the current socio-political arena, the main upshot is the risk that these forms of artistic practices will come to be seen, at best, as irrelevant. This is poignantly argued in Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, in which the art installation of the title stands out as an alien but inconspicuous object. It is intended to be a typical illustration of the mainstream rhetoric of public art: that of providing ‘all people’ with a space for caring, for non-hierarchical and non-discriminatory interaction. As the story unfolds, the irony of this statement looms as large as the characters in the film, most notably the museum curator who is the prime advocate of the artwork’s status as a meaningful object. They constantly struggle with these precise issues. Yet they never stop to think, not for one moment, that the installation might be related to these difficulties and also to their personal lives – in other words, that the installation could actually fulfil its stated purpose. However, an unintended encounter with a young immigrant boy, whom the protagonist initially treats with a mixture of arrogance and disdain (an attitude that he would probably find despicable if the child happened to be a participant in a public art project involving oppressed minorities), provides the cue for an unexpected twist: the search for a moment of truth that, regrettably, arrives too late. Throughout this story, the only characters who genuinely respond to strangers’ requests for care are the ones who are marginalised. In other words, the people who are oblivious to contemporary art, and who are unaware of its rituals and rhetoric. Touché. The king is dead. Long live the king? Or?…
Short reading & viewing lists
Is the Art Market in Flanders Sustainable and Diverse?
By Dirk De Wit
The art market is changing drastically under the influence of globalization, because around the world, art is being considered a stable form of investment by ever greater numbers of the super-rich, causing demand to far exceed supply. The insane prices for artworks benefits a small, top layer of artists who are represented by the so-called mega-galleries – primarily Western – whose worldwide access has meant radical increases in scale.(1) They each sometimes represent more than 50 artists, including increasing numbers of estates, with staffs of perhaps 100 people, with branches in different continents. The gap between them and the great majority of artists, galleries and public institutions grows ever greater: most artists need extra jobs to support themselves, while the medium-sized and smaller galleries survive with difficulty and the limited budgets of public institutions cannot compete with overvalued market prices.
The results of that research, entitled ‘Does Passion Pay? The socio-economic position of the visual artist’ revealed that, as a group, visual artists have decidedly the lowest incomes of all the artists in Flanders whom we approached.
In the internationalization of the art world, local anchoring and diversity is crucial: it is from close by that local talent is noticed. Medium-sized and small galleries play an important role in maintaining diversity of generations and art practices. (2)
Does this worldwide trend also apply to Flanders? Is the Flemish art market diverse and sustainable for artists? In 2016, Kunstenpunt/Flanders Arts Institute conducted an inquiry into the Flemish art market and questioned Flemish artists about their socio-economic positions. The results of that research, entitled Does Passion Pay? The socio-economic position of the visual artist revealed that, as a group, visual artists have decidedly the lowest incomes of all the artists in Flanders whom we approached.(3)
Kunstenpunt’s research on Flemish galleries reveals that, in 2013-2014, of the 64 Flanders-based galleries we approached, 19 were active in the global art market, in terms of scale and/or networks and participation in art fairs.(4) Galleries whose primary location was outside Belgium were also included in this total. Flanders has no galleries with headquarters in Belgium that we could categorize as meta-galleries; they are primarily larger galleries with strong worldwide networks that still have local roots thanks to artists whom they have been following for years.
In this research, we counted 45 medium-sized and small galleries with networks that are primarily focused on Belgium, surrounding countries and Europe. The investigation showed that more than half the artists represented by these mid-sized and small galleries live and work in Belgium. That proportion is much smaller in the case of the large galleries and mega-galleries.
That same research included 87 galleries. In the period from 2005-2015, 23 of these, primarily mid-sized and small galleries, either ceased their activities or moved to a different country. This took place primarily in the years after the financial crisis. This indicates the vulnerable character of these mid-sized and small galleries, also for the future. For them, government support for the presentation of Flemish artists at foreign art markets, and such programmes as Kunstkoop, are important.
Finally, the investigation showed that in 2015, of the 633 Flemish artists included, 324 were represented by a gallery. Of these, 151 had galleries in another country. These galleries were primarily based in, respectively, Germany, the Netherlands, France and the United States. As was also true of the results for participation of promotional galleries in art fairs, Europe and North America play the leading role.
(1) Just 25 artists are responsible for almost half of all postwar and contemporary art auction sales, according to joint analysis by artnet Analytics and artnet News. In the first six months of 2017, work by this small group of elite artists sold for a combined $1.2 billion—44.6 percent of the $2.7 billion total generated by all contemporary public auction sales worldwide.
(2) Talking Galleries Symposium, Barcelona, 2018: The Future for the Art Market at the Mid-Level.
(4) Check the publication on the Flemish art market, national, international and worldwide (Dutch).