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Essay

Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton (Norton, 2009)
Artworld Prestige by Timothy Van Laar and Leonard Diepeveen (Oxford, 2013)

 

HOW MANY CONTEMPORARY American artists have you never heard of? Apparently a lot, if surveys are to be believed. A 2005 study by the NEA found that the number of artists in the US had tripled between 1970 and 2005, while the population as a whole increased by roughly a third. A follow-up study in 2011, using census bureau data, found 2.1 million people whose occupations were in the broad category “art.” Almost 40 percent of those were designers. Fine artists were lumped in with art directors and animators, and totaled 212,236 people. I hope it is not demeaning to those people to say that the great majority lead lives of artistic anonymity. Surely they and their work are appreciated by circles of friends, coworkers, and students, as well as clients or collectors. But they are not subjected to much critical scrutiny, nor destined for inclusion in art’s historical memory. Their work might be good, but few are really “heard of” beyond their circle of support and occupation. “Heard of” is a category belonging to a larger world, where quality, significance, and achievement are judged to be noteworthy, and reputation spreads far beyond immediate acquaintance. Most of the artists we have heard of we will never meet.

The NEA surveys make no judgments about what is art, or anything dealing with art’s quality or meaning. They are based on the analysis of census data and Bureau of Labor reports, and are about demographics, employment figures, and related information. Such a survey is oblivious to the notion of an art world, which is the place where issues of art’s purposes, meaning, and merit are debated and worked out. An “art world” is a relatively new concept. The words art world only appeared in literature in the nineteenth century, and increased during the twentieth. The current widespread usage of the concept can be traced to a 1964 essay, “The Art World,” by the late philosopher and critic Arthur Danto. The essay was, as the saying goes, a game changer.

In it Danto argued that we are no longer able to recognize art as marked by certain inherent visual qualities. He saw that the long reign of imitation and representation in western art had drawn to a close, and we were entering a time when art might be made from anything, and look like anything. The occasion for Danto’s insight was an epiphany in front of Andy Warhol’s pile of faux Brillo boxes. To Danto, the boxes were indistinguishable from what you might see in a supermarket, as they possessed no unique identity as art. Thus, the only way to know the boundary between art and other stuff was to be found in ideas about what art is. Danto wrote, “these days one might not know he was on artistic terrain without an artistic theory to tell him so.”

The logic of Danto’s insight has increasingly animated visual culture in the half century since it was written, and today undergirds the most prevalent notion of what art is, the “institutional theory.” That theory was first articulated by the philosopher George Dickie, and in essence argues that for an artifact to be considered art, it must have that status “conferred” on it by members of the art world. Those members would include artists, critics, educators, gallery and museum personnel, an interested and literate audience, and collectors. The process can be contentious, and has no easily accessible rationale behind it. Why some objects are considered art can be mysterious, opaque, and even seem fraudulent to people who don’t know or care about the discourses around modern and contemporary art. How do you explain why a 1961 work by the Italian artist Piero Manzoni, Merde d’Artista, one of an edition of ninety sealed cans, purportedly with the artist’s excrement inside, sold at auction in 2008 for about 150 thousand dollars? That might take a bit of theorizing.

Two recent books about the art world—or artworld, as it has come to be written—are dedicated to describing its practices and examining how its judgments are made. Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton, is written as an “ethnographic study” by a “participant observer.” Thornton has a BA in art history and a doctorate in sociology. She is the chief writer on contemporary art for the Economist, as well as a contributor to other publications. Seven Days has been widely read and reviewed, and translated into fifteen languages. It is a sharp, entertaining read, full of perceptive vignettes about the activities and ideas of the captains of contemporary art. The conceit is that each day, or chapter, represents an important institution—or ritual—in the artworld. The book has chapters on an auction at Christie’s, a marathon graduate crit at CalArts (in which students are subjected to sometimes excruciating public critique by their teachers and classmates), the awarding of the Turner Prize by the Tate in Britain, and closes with one about the Oscars of the international art scene, the Venice Biennale. The chapter called “The Magazine” is set in the offices of Artforum International, one of contemporary art’s heavyweight publications of criticism and advertising. Like the other chapters, it is written as though its events occurred in a day, but it is actually the result of more than a month with the magazine, during which time she blogged for it.

A few reviews have been a bit snarky, accusing Thornton of gossip-mongering, or pandering to art elites. It can sound like fashion journalism: Nicholas Serota “always wears a dark suit and a white shirt. On this occasion he wore a muddy asparagus green tie.” “Charles Guarino emerges from behind a bookshelf in jeans and one of his many black zippered cardigans.” “Yoko Ono is slowly mounting the steps of the podium. She wears trousers, a top hat, and Lennon sunglasses.” But beyond creating strong narrative pictures, this also establishes the overlap of the artworld with fashion, wealth, and social preening. While it is evident that Thornton enjoys the scene and her access to its privileges, that does not stop her from making clear-eyed appraisals of the way things work. Regarding the conflation of money and art, she relates that a friend at Christie’s told her, “After you have your fourth home and a G5 jet, what else is there? Art is extremely enriching. Why shouldn’t people want to be exposed to ideas?” Thornton continues, “In a digital world of cloneable cultural goods, unique art objects are compared to real estate. They are positioned as solid assets…their visible promise of resale engendered the idea that contemporary art is a good investment….”

Thornton wants to narrate a full picture of the artworld. During her interviews she asks everyone—artists, educators, gallerists, curators, critics, collectors—what they think art is, or what makes something great. Predictably, there is little agreement. Idealism, cynicism, intuition, erudition, raw ambition, and the genuine love of art all make appearances as people explain their views, and their understanding of the artworld. Thornton believes that each chapter represents a different subculture (her doctoral studies were on subcultures), and that ideological strife and anxiety over one’s place in the artworld fuels contention between the subcultures. There is no agreement—and yet there are deeply shared values and beliefs. For instance, in an afterword she notes that “the art world is a social sphere where rule breaking is the official rule—not just for artists, but also for curators, dealers, collectors, and, to a lesser extent, auction houses.” Of course, this reveals a conventional pattern of predictably “artistic” behavior. And really, how could it be otherwise, and still be the artworld?

But what accounts for the ascension of some artists to star status, the artists that everyone hears about and who are so sought after?

Timothy Van Laar and Leonard Diepeveen’s Artworld Prestige: Arguing Culture Value sets out to describe how artworld prestige is established. The book has a different approach to the artworld than Thornton’s. As befits two educators—Van Laar is a professor and chair of fine arts at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and Diepeveen is the George Munro Professor of Literature and Rhetoric in the English department at Dalhousie University—a close reading of texts figures prominently in their book. The book deserves its own close reading, but even browsing will yield wry amusement from the examples of shifting artworld reputations, as well as a more informed understanding of how critical judgments are shaped.

Their contention is that while the artworld has critically scrutinized its relations with power and wealth, it has been strangely silent about how prestige is conferred on artists. Thus prestige is an unexamined force in the creation and maintenance of artistic reputation. Their examination of the phenomena of prestige is thorough, and beyond full description here. Briefly, they argue that prestige is unstable, and not subject to the efforts of an artist to gain it or keep it, since it is something given by other members of the artworld. Everyone in the artworld contributes to prestige through the social aggregation of thousands of little critical judgments of approval, disdain, or disinterest. But, not all artworld members are created equal, and some judgments count a lot more than others. The judgments Van Laar and Diepeveen are most interested in come from the same artworld that Thornton describes, but they focus on theoretical underpinnings. Danto, Dickie, and a host of other explainers and assessors are analyzed.

As an example of the quick and vertiginous changes that can occur in artistic prestige, they relate the story of the American sculptor Frank Gallo, born in 1933, who made smooth, slightly abstracted fiberglass figures and reliefs of young, sexy women. His work is a bit like Tom Wesselmann’s nudes, but without the ironic smirk. Gallo’s career took off after his first New York exhibition in 1964. Work was acquired in short time by the Whitney, MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn, the Met, and the LA County Museum. His sculpture was selected for exhibition at the American pavilion of the 1968 Venice Biennale and was on the cover of Time magazine in 1969. But by the early 1970s critical reception had soured. Gallo’s Swimmer, the piece the Whitney had bought in the 1960s, was moved into offsite storage in 1984—a kind of cryogenic deepfreeze for art objects needing critical resurrection. Van Laar and Diepeveen visited the piece at the storage site, where it awkwardly resides on a crowded shelf, a label attached to one toe, as if it were a stiff in a morgue.

Death is one of the topics Van Laar and Diepeveen consider in their analysis of prestige, since to announce that something has “died” is a cultural assessment that deflates and delegitimizes practices or things no longer believed to be significant. They devote a chapter to a study of the “death of painting,” where we learn that the French painter Paul Delaroche first used the phrase in 1839, in response to the invention of the daguerreotype. Since then, a steady parade of artists and critics have written obituaries for painting, which might seem strange given how many painters cheerfully continue the practice. The assertion that painting has died—or will die, or ought to die—has many sources. It can come from convictions about the trajectory of art, which the authors note continue the Greenbergian belief that only certain forms or practices are alive to, or congruent with, their historical moment. Others, like the critic Benjamin Buchloh, think painting has been fatally corrupted by its long association with bourgeois values, and thus is socially and ethical unfit for the radical nature of serious art.

Seriousness is a primary critical value. An editor for Artforum tells Thornton, “You have to understand the pieties. Seriousness at Artforum and in the artworld in general is a commodity. Certain kinds of gallerists may want the magazine to be serious even if they have no real coordinates for distinguishing a serious article from the empty signifier of seriousness abused.” Van Laar and Diepeveen note that “questions of value are more bound up with estimations of seriousness than anything else—not class, not race, not gender.” They go on to assert that, “There is much at stake here, for whoever controls the definitions of seriousness controls the definitions of value, of prestige.” You might wonder how artists like Andy Warhol or Takashi Murakami (who got a full chapter, “The Studio Visit,” in Thornton’s book) pass muster as serious artists. If you don’t follow the artworld, you could be forgiven for thinking there is an evident lack of seriousness in the way they choose and approach their subjects.

The critical move that anoints an artist as serious takes place when their work is judged to be about something. Van Laar and Diepeveen point out that it is far better for a work to be about an abstraction than something concrete, because abstractions more easily relate to theoretical discourse. “Thus, a work has a theoretical edge if the work is about the figure, rather than being mere figuration.” And a bit later, “it is a more likely strategy to claim your installation of stuffed animals culled from the home of your great aunt is about death than it is about Aunt Millie.” Warhol once famously described pop art as being “about liking things,” which sounds easy enough, and fun. But critically Warhol’s work has been seen as being about serious issues. So, when an editor at Artforum proclaimed in the 1960s that Warhol’s choice of imagery “forces us to squarely face the existential edge of our existence,” Warhol had summited artworld seriousness.

Van Laar and Diepeveen’s discussion of “aboutness” involves another categorical contest rarely discussed directly in the artworld: the distinction between professionals and amateurs. They argue that theory, historical awareness, and self-consciousness are markers of artworld professionalism. By contrast, amateurs still cling to old ideas like emotional expression, sincerity, and making things well. Amateurs are unconvinced by the claim that artistic practices can become exhausted, so that no further moves can push their historical development forward. For the amateur, portrait painting is still possible, and painting a portrait need not be a critical reflection about the category “portraiture.”

It is not very surprising when Thornton states in her introduction that “contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion for atheists.” She explains, “for many artworld insiders…concept-driven art is a kind of existential channel through which they bring meaning to their lives. It demands leaps of faith, but rewards the believer with a sense of consequence.” Other than that, religion makes no appearance in Seven Days unless you count Murakami’s large sculpture Oval Buddha of 2007, which is also a self-portrait, as religious. Even though Murakami’s dealer exclaimed on first seeing it that people would be praying to it in five hundred years, I think that was a wishful hope about its future prestige, and not about its inherent transcendence.

There is not a lot about religion in Artworld Prestige either. Really, religion doesn’t have prestige in the artworld, especially if it is Judeo-Christian and concerned with orthodoxy. But in Van Laar and Diepeveen’s concluding chapter, religion does appear, in a discussion of how the artworld has treated a deeply religious artist, the late Howard Finster. [See Edward Knippers’s essay in Image Issue 19.] Finster was a kind of rock star in the artworld, exhibiting in a prestigious New York gallery, painting an album cover for the Talking Heads, appearing on the Johnny Carson Show (worth watching on YouTube), and included in the 1984 Venice Biennale. Finster, a southern, rural, poorly educated Baptist minister who was given to visions, saw his art in explicitly evangelical terms. In artworld terms, he was an “outsider.”

The artworld is unable to take outsiders’ word for what they are about, since their goals are direct, un-theoretical, and sincere. So Finster had to be theoretically cleansed and reborn, so to speak—for art’s sake. In one particularly egregious quote used by Van Laar and Diepeveen to demonstrate such critical cleansing, Finster’s work was described as dissolving the membrane “that separates the subversive, subcultural, antisocial impulse from the organized social body,” thus reducing “our culture’s self-perpetuating veneer of health, normalcy, and well-being….” They view this assessment as ethically troubling, since Finster’s stated Christian intent is recast as a socially subversive act. While that fulfills the artworld penchant for social abrasion, it ignores Finster and sidesteps a careful reading of his work. Ironically, if recollection serves me well, the only organized social body Finster ever talked about subverting was the “heathen” artworld.

Both Seven Days and Artworld Prestige are written to describe that body and its beliefs. All three authors see the bittersweet humor in artworld jostling for position and attention. But their aim is not to deride. They are explaining something they find intriguing, and are comfortable being within. Certainly Thornton is a consummate insider, and to a lesser degree Van Laar and Diepeveen are, too. For those who are interested in, but don’t have the time to read and decode major critical and theoretical texts, Artworld Prestige is a wonderful book—mixing narratives about artists with the critical ideas that have nourished—or poisoned—their public reception.

It is easy enough to see that theorizing is important to the success of contemporary art—but really, no image lives without its explanations. To me, the critical question is how important it is for one’s work to be seen as art, if by that we are limited to the dominant contemporary discourses about art. The pernicious limitation I see is the belief—a faith really—that historical progression necessarily eliminates past practices, forms, and beliefs as direct, living resources. Surely we can draw on the past without our work being “about” the past in the sense Van Laar and Diepeveen describe. The great cultural historian Jacques Barzun argued that there is a “radical ambiguity” in modern art, as it rejected old values like beauty, profundity, and the capacity to move people, but sought to retain art’s past significance and authority. He thought we couldn’t have it both ways.

Speaking as an artistic “amateur,” and as a believer, I reluctantly think he may have gotten it right. To enter into the artworld that Thornton, Van Laar, and Diepeveen describe means—to some degree—using the values it celebrates as a compass, and adjusting one’s ambitions accordingly. It may be—given the inherent mutability of the institutional theory of art—that the artworld’s institutions will someday confer prestige on work that has radically different coordinates. Or, it may be that more new, alternative institutions like Image will arise to support work that seeks to be beautiful, moving, or profound. It is worth remembering that the concept of an artworld isn’t that old. But it also may be that whether something qualifies as art or not isn’t the most significant issue. You don’t need art to make a great image—do you?


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