How do you think your research into the art market would differ if you approached it in the eyes of an artist?
One of the arguments I make in Art After Money, Money After Artis that in order for ‘the art market’ to function almost everyone in it needs to be acting in a kind of bad faith. The thing that gives ‘art’ its market value is often its hyperbolic rejection of that value: art is ‘art’ because it is supposed to be allergic to economic value and obeys some transcendental calling. For this reason, a urinal with the artist's signature can be worth astronomically more than the same model without it. Even when art is explicitly anti-capitalist it still ends up participating: the antagonism to pricing is precisely what guarantees price.
Artists, gallerists, dealers, collectors and everyone in the art food chain need to be involved in maintaining the illusion of this antagonism. The critic has an important role in legitimating things as ‘art.’ We scout out the rebel margins of the art world to signal new frontiers for the art market. For instance, in championing the work of outsider and radical artists. So I'm not outside of the economy of which I speak.
I suppose in some way the only thing that sets my perspective apart from an artist is that the piece of this puzzle I am tasked with producing is haunted by the spectre of truth, rather than of beauty. I think plenty of artists have reached much the same conclusions. Some have made art about it; many have ‘quit’ art and are working in other fields; others keep doing ‘art’ but really only as a means to redistribute the wealth that unfairly accumulates in the art world towards radical anti-capitalist objectives.
Many artists are concerned about the fragile economy we are entering in the post-pandemic world; how do you think the virus will affect museums, galleries and art institutions? What impact will this have on emerging artists?
I think the reality is that the vast majority of people working as artists have never made any substantial money, at least not from their art. The market for art is really only structured to sustain the most popular artists, not artists as a whole. Ironically, the outcome of the pandemic is likely to be even greater disparities of wealth in society, more super-rich, and therefore an even bigger art market, once the initial jitters calm down.
Artists who have other sources of wealth—for instance from their family, from patrons or from other jobs—might do alright, but in a way this has always been the case: the shameful secret of the art world is how many artists have always survived thanks to one kind of nepotism or adjacent wealth or another. The rest are best of recognising themselves a proletarians and organising things that will benefit them in general. By this, I mean recognsing themselves as people dependent on capitalism for their survival.
Museums, galleries and institutions are likely going to need to rely more and more on private donations, which always have their price. Arts administration workers are also likely going to continue their rebellions and insist that industry can't be built on the backs of their exploitation and burnout, which frankly is all that's keeping a huge number of such institutions afloat.
That all may sound pessimistic, but I am actually optimistic because it means that the old ‘normal’ of inequality, overwork and precarity is coming to a close, or at least being revealed for what it always was.
What would you propose as an alternative ecosystem to contest the commercial art market? And, can you see this being as influential and viable as the current structure?
I have an unpopular opinion here which is that I think the job of artist should actually be abolished. By this I mean the idea that some people are designated as art-makers and paid for it. I would like to live in a society where we used the powers of automation, imagination and justice to abolish work as we know it for everyone. By doing so, everyone, including ‘artists’ would have the time, creative freedom and support to develop their creative powers.
As for the art market, I just think the whole thing should be abolished. I believe generally in reclaiming and redistributing wealth currently misappropriated by the rich, so that doesn't leave a huge market for art anyway. There is a market for art between public institutions, but this can surely be managed a different way.
In the short term, I am generally skeptical of efforts to build alternative art markets or new platforms for emerging artists. Ultimately, the tendency is for such para-market initiatives to either collapse or, worse, get incorporated into the art market. I explore this theme at some length in Art after Money, Money after Art, and it has been discussed by others including Stevphen Shukaitis and Marina Vishmidt. Capitalism learns from art in strange ways: yesterday's radical avant-gardes inspire tomorrow's restructuring of work and exploitation.
So I'm sure that some artists or art intermediaries can devise schemes to bypass, replace or reengineer the way art is marketed and sold. But I am equally sure that this will not actually represent any substantive change in the system as a whole, which will still be rife with exploitation.
Ultimately, we're at a historical turning point where I don't think artists and those who care about them should be thinking about how to try navigate the art market or really any scheme based on the commodification of art.
What advice would you give artists who are relying on unsteady income and are about to tackle the overwhelming nature of selling and trading their artwork?
At risk of sounding flippant: protest for the dignity of all people, and stand with all those whom capitalism makes worthless.
Success in the art market to the point where you might not have to work another job or rely on someone else is like winning the lottery: it's as unlikely as it is grossly unfair to everyone else who has to lose for you to win. Success in the art market means you've won the favour of people who are destroying the planet. Why strive for that?
Continue, by all means to make art, please. But let go of the idea of it being a ‘job’ on which you are dependent to make money in order to buy what you need to survive. Instead, join in struggles to abolish the need to work for all you need to survive as a human being. This doesn’t come from the art market, it comes from society at large.