The Art Market: Affluence and Degradation – Ian Burn

Impending economic crisis has forced many deeply lurking problems into the open. Art sales are declining and there is an air of pessimism. The sense of opulence of the 1960s has gone to dust. As artists, we have tended to understand the art market only in its reward capacity, preferring to ignore the ‘dismal science’ of economics. But no longer, it seems. While it may once have seemed an exaggeration of economic determinism to regard works of art as ‘merely’ commodities in an economic exchange, it is now pretty plain that our entire lives have become so extensively constituted in these terms that we cannot any longer pretend otherwise. Not only do works of art end up as commodities, but there is also an overwhelming sense in which works of art start off as commodities.

Faced with this impasse, we need alternate historical perspectives in order to throw light on some of the most basic of social relations, to perceive the lacuna between what we think we do and what we actually do in the world. The historical relations of up-to-date modern art are the market relations of a capitalist society. That much I believe is obvious to everyone. What we have seen more recently is the power of market values to distort all other values, so even the concept of what is and is not acceptable as ‘work’ is defined first and fundamentally by the market and only secondly by ‘creative urges’ (etc.). This has been the price of internalising an intensely capitalistic mode of production.

Given this, shouldn’t we be scrutinizing certain historically unique aspects of our market relations? How have these wrought fundamental changes in the ‘art’ produced? I know many of us are grateful beneficiaries of this market. None-theless, we have all ended up victims of its capriciousness, the ‘principles’ of modern art having trapped us in a panoptical prison of our own making. Simply, this is the realization that if the arts were really democratized, we as producers of an elite art would no longer have any means of functioning – wanting to abolish elitism in modern art is tantamount to wanting to abolish modern art itself.

Putting this into a familiar New York perspective: we have all been enticed by the prospect of endless market expansion which it seems, oddly enough, we have internalized in the idea of an endlessly innovative avant-gardist growth. This supports the power of the market by providing subtly pervasive means of cultural and intellectual control, through implicit direction and the supplying of a categorical check on the ‘evolution’ of art. In addition, the unprecedented concentration of capital invested by the market in this avant-gardist elite has successfully had the effect of reducing ‘unnecessary’ competition, if not eliminating it altogether. Today it is surely beyond any doubt that this popular idea of a ‘permanent revolution’ in art is actively designed never to fulfil any personal and social relationship. From this point of view, it is a set of empty gestures which threaten none of the market requirements and end up being a sheer celebration of the new individuality, arrogantly and, finally, stupidly set against the idea of sociality. [. . .]

In case it appears I am overstating the role of United States capitalism in all this, let me emphasize the obvious, that the history of modern art from its beginnings was nurtured within a number of industrialized societies, not just America. Looking closer at that history, with its unrelenting emphasis on an ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ ideology, we become conscious of the ever-increasing role played by a neutered formalism – at the expense of our possibility of content. The stress on exclusively formal innovation had the aftermath of content in its last gasp being reduced to such vacua as ‘colour’, ‘edge’, ‘process’, ‘ideas’, ‘image’, etc. plus a lot of fatuous jargon about qualities symbolized through these (cf. especially Greenberg’s account of modernism, but also most issues of Artforum and other magazines). This is formalism taken to its ultimate empty conclusions: it is what we have lauded as pure art . . . the impossibility of content, of saying anything whatsoever. The tradition of formalism has left me largely incapable of expressing through ‘my art’ those very things about which I have the greatest misgivings – and so incapable of changing anything through ‘my art’. These ideological fetters have conclusively eradicated every possibility of a social practice in relation to art, even the thought of it – the expression of modern art has become the rejection of society and of our social beings. Now, obviously the United States isn’t to blame for all of this, but it certainly deserves a lot of the credit for bringing it to a remarkable and unprecedented pitch. No longer just producing an art for a privileged middle-class, it has burgeoned into a spectacularly elitist art, remote even from its own producers’ actual lives and problems.

What can you expect to challenge in the real world with ‘colour’, ‘edge’, ‘process’, systems, modules, etc. as your arguments? Can you be any more than a manipulated puppet if these are your ‘professional’ arguments? Moreover, when you add to this picture thousands upon thousands of artists in all corners of the modern art empire tackling American formalism in the belief that it is the one ‘true art’ – that’s when it is possible to see how preposterous and finally downright degrading it has become!

Needless to say, it is easy for me to identify with some points of the classic nineteenth-century theses about alienation. There it was argued that alienation is the process whereby human values are projected outside of us and achieve an existence independent of us, and over us, and this is an essential condition for the functioning of capitalism. We are all familiar with the romanticized notions about the work of art ’embodying the soul of the artist’. Well, perhaps historically this has taken on mythic proportions, but there is a very real sense in which everything produced ought to bear some personal relation to who makes it. However, once my work of art enters the art market, it takes on a power independent of me and this strikes me as a form of estrangement from what I have produced, an alienation from my own experiences; and the more I produce the more I deprive myself of my ‘means of life’. Yet I find I can only maintain myself by continuing in the same fashion. So, while I may retain economic ownership over my labour and means of production (thus giving me a sense of ‘freedom’), I am still psychologically and socially alienated from what I produce. Once entering the market, it becomes an object foreign to me – but without the market I don’t recognize it, because it is defined via the market which I have internalized. Don’t we all experience this to greater or lesser degrees? As a result, myself-as-an-artist has become a stranger to me, a figure over whom I have little power or control. This is today’s blunt reality of alienation. No longer merely having lost the product of our labour, our ability to create is profoundly impaired . . . and this is also expressed in my relation to you, and burgeons in the relation you can have to what I produce.

Often-heard remarks implying that it is not enough to be ‘just an artist’ are merely public admissions that, as a role in society, ‘artist’ is a sterile one. More pointedly, this sheds light on the prevailing concept of ‘artist’: it has become an integral part of the meaning of the concept ‘artist’ that it is politically conservative (or, at its more adventuristic, reactionary), and that remains its sole possible political role – hence its continuing great value as propaganda for an imperious . This is clearly reflected in the desperation of more and more artists to escape their political impotence, in their attempts to reconcile the paradoxicality of their lives wrought by being hopefully ‘radical’ in politics but necessarily ‘conservative’ in art. 1

The inside story of this is that there is no ‘radical theory’ in the arts today, and there can be none while the present state of affairs prevails. That also explains something about the extreme poverty of ‘critical theory’, since a critical theory which sets itself the task of revealing the various forms of conflict and exploitation needs to be informed by some (prospect of) radical theory, something which denies the current ideology and economic class values embodied in modern art. Current and recent art criticism has become at best a means of policing and regulating, at worst a sheer celebration of the impotence of the status quo.

In this light, most of the chatter about ‘plurality’ in the contemporary scene comes over as so much liberal claptrap. What use is a sort of ‘freedom’ which can have no other effect than reinforcing the status quo? [. . . ]

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Whatever we are able to accomplish now, my point is that transforming our reality is no longer a question of just making more art – it is a matter of realizing the enormous social vectoring of the problem and opportunistically taking advantage of what social tools we have. Of one thing I am certain: anything we might call radical theory in the arts will have to be solidly constructed in all its social dimensions. But even then it may not be a question of how much we might accomplish, since it might take something as catastrophic as a collapse in the economic structure of this society to have any substantial effect on the careening superstructure of modern American art.

This point can also be made concerning the contradictions apparent in looking at art produced by feminist artists, black artists and various underprivileged groups: while their social thinking is radical, fertile and engaging, what we see of the art produced is too often as embarrassingly dull, uniform and bureaucratic as evervone else’s.

Artforum, in April 1975.

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