What the hell is going on? The art world is out of control, with living artists’ works selling for tens of millions, and dead ones’ for hundreds. For decades, it has been declared a bubble on the verge of bursting, but it just keeps self-inflating and proving the naysayers wrong. It’s a very complicated (many would say incestuous and corrupt) monde de l’art that has evolved over the past 50 years or so, but there seems little chance of it returning to an innocent past.
In the good old days, things were simple. An artist was commissioned by the church or the aristocracy or a wealthy patron to create a work of art. Art conformed to the agreed upon standards, materials, imagery and prices of the day, and there was very little room for deviation or innovation. Artists were seen for the most part as skilled labourers or artisans—not thinkers or innovators. Imagery was generally religious, historical, mythological, landscape-based or figurative.
Then came the Royal Academies and Salons, who declared themselves the national authorities on taste. Although conservative by today’s standards, the Salons did introduce some new ideas, in a rather incremental way, some more daringly than others. The slightly more progressive works shocked the public and drew large crowds to the enormous public exhibitions. Still, all was dictated by appointed members and boards, and the public was spared from the unkempt avant garde that lurked in the derelict studios, just outside smelling distance from the Salons.
With increased liberalism—political, social and economic—came a dramatic change in the status quo. Progressive artists who could not get into the Salons started organizing their own exhibitions. At the same time, commercial galleries and auction houses began to dot the landscape, challenging the status quo. As independent businessmen, the gallerists could show what they wanted to, and the more daring ones took on some of the Impressionists and their progressive progeny. The private dealer had found his niche, and his word and advice were now sought after, coveted and influential.
Some critics embraced the new kids on the block, and as popularity and sales of this new art inched upward, so too did prices. A true commercial art market developed, essentially reflecting the laissez-faire ideas of supply and demand, with a large dash of expert opinion to keep the machine well oiled. Art was suddenly given value if it sold, and if it sold to someone of importance—someone whose taste and opinion mattered—its stock would rise. The seal of wealthy or critical approval was all anyone needed.
All of these events converging at the same time radically changed how art was bought and sold, how artists were promoted, and how the art market functioned as a whole. By the early 1900s, dealers were combing the back alleys and squalid studios of Paris and London in search of the next Monet, or Matisse, or Picasso.
After the Second World War, a new generation of artists such as Andy Warhol emerged and introduced the idea of the artist as celebrity and media darling, and used new media and technology to make themselves famous—some for only 15 minutes, as Warhol had predicted, others for entire careers.
Warhol’s most radical lesson is reflected in the work of artists of subsequent generations who have infiltrated the publicity machine and the marketplace as a deliberate strategy. Keith Haring, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and others achieved stardom in the eighties and nineties, and they did so by embracing and utilizing Warhol’s tactics. These included referencing consumer products, practising corporate-style branding and self-promotion, even engaging in factory-like production—often in the unabashed pursuit of wealth or, at least, celebrity.
Unabashed self-promotion combined with critical and curatorial approval, media attention, price manipulation through unscrupulous dealer and auction transactions, and much-publicized sales to tycoons and and celebrities all have launched the careers of so many very average or suspect artists into the stratosphere.
Of course there are artists who continue to make art for art sake, and there are honest dealers, critics and curators who champion them, and all is good and fair in Artdom. In a parallel universe of sorts, however, another art market flourishes, unfettered by the monitoring, regulation and constraints imposed on most other industries.