by Robert C. Morgan
Art Criticism and the Marketing of Contemporary Art
We initially created the Railing Opinion column in November 2004 as a platform for critics, art historians, and artists to voice insights and critical reflections on the nature of art, its history, and its relationship to current political and social currents. Due to the overwhelming response to the rotating guest editorship of the ARTSEEN section since February 2012 and inspired particularly by the thoughtful questions Irving Sandler posed to critics on the state of criticism in the December/January 2013 issue, we have revived and reimagined Railing Opinion as the Critics’ Page. Here we hope to foster dialogue that addresses and broadens the value of art criticism in today’s complex visual culture.
The conflict between art criticism and the escalating market in contemporary art is not a recent one. When I began writing criticism in 1979, the market presence was known, but rarely appeared as a dominant issue. It was nothing compared to the booming multi-national enterprise that exists today. With the enormous growth of biennials and international art fairs in recent years, there is little doubt as to the far-reaching consequences of investment in art, at least not among those who are predisposed to invest. As early as 1973, the omen of contemporary art’s financial potential was made visible, largely through the record-breaking prices set by the auction of the Robert Scull Collection. A decade later, in the ’80s, the evidence would become increasingly more visible. Contemporary art was given a stature that could compete with early twentieth century art and, in some cases, even French Impressionism.
With the relocation of the contemporary art center in New York from SoHo, to the former warehouse district in West Chelsea in the 1980s, much of the art that was being shown was either repetitive of earlier work or blithely conservative. At least, that was my distinct impression at the time. The art world seemed in disarray: both the galleries and the work on display. I recall an abundance of painted imagery (in contrast to actual painting) rationalized in terms of kinky retro, along with ephemeral installations filled with intense meanings symbolic of global or psycho-sociological disasters. The problem was not only in the works’ reconciled ambiguities, but also in the urgency by which these works were being chronicled, archived, and collected—as if valid criticism no longer mattered. Other less direct signs of the disarray made their appearance as well: an increased quantity of advertising in various art magazines, many of them new; and exhibitions (more than one) of overstated multimedia image/text displays discussed and defended on the basis of theory extracted from translated sources in French and German.
In 1989 – 90, I took release time from academia to direct a gallery for a year. Subsequently, this led me to various international venues where I was invited to discuss topics, such as the sociological aspects of art (a topic of interest at the time), and to meet artists in various countries whose work I deeply admired. Invariably, my critical point of view was at odds back home as I became less interested in writing about artists promoted by the New York market than artists who I believed were important for other reasons. My ideas remained independent and often ran contrary to current trends, which I learned were never so obvious as they often appeared.
By the mid-’90s, the “global” art market had seriously encroached on the New York mind-set, at least among the burgeoning audience of investors. This means that if you chose to invest in an artist who works in a city outside of New York, you still want to see results. (This phenomenon also caught on to Beijing and, of course, London.) In such an atmosphere, who really needs or cares about criticism? Gradually, it seemed the profession was being discharged for some kind of illicit behavior. Some important newspapers in the United States with regular critical coverage of the arts were beginning to lay off staff critics. As far as I know, Arts Magazine was the only art magazine in New York at the time (1993) that clearly separated editorial policies from advertising, before finally going into debt and out of business. One might concur that publications with an alternative business model preferred keeping the two together. Also it was probably better to hire “art writers”—rather than critics—who would make less trouble. To publish an overtly critical piece of art criticism became risky and therefore was discouraged for fear of upsetting clients. Predictably, revenue began to return in the late ’90s, and criticism was generally preempted as a euphemism for carefully written descriptive reviews with a catchy punch line at the end. The quality experts had shifted toward investment, not criticism; and again, the institutions, such as museums and art schools, appeared ready to meet the change. This change became an international phenomenon with very few apertures, other than high quality cultural magazines, in which criticism is actually read, and, in some cases, allowed to take an original point of view.
The problems involved in the intersection between art criticism and the marketing of art on a global level have seriously augmented since the acceleration of advanced communications technologies. This suggests that transactions in art are made faster than ever before, and that there is more art available to the market than ever before. This mitigates the probability that any reflection on the historical or aesthetic value of a particular work might be important. More attention is give to the name of the artist—the logo—than to the actual quality of a particular work. One might postulate that this is true in any field; but the subject I am dealing with here is the possible loss of any notion of a qualitative standard in looking at works of art, which arguably signifies a loss of cultural values by which we choose to live.