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Isabelle Graw on False Polarities and Economic Subtexts Art Good, Market Evil?

Sylvie Fleury, Dazed (Fatal Attraction), 2007

Lately, people have taken to complaining about the expansion of the art market and its allegedly devastating effects on art itself. Alarmed observers forecast that art will “fall apart” as it is “devoured” by money (Seeßlen/Metz); even a painter like Eric Fischl who hardly lacks market success makes no secret of his dismay at the sight of money “humiliating” art. Offering their diagnoses of the crisis, art’s would-be saviors invariably adopt a distinctly self-righteous tone – as though they, personally, are entirely exempt from the market developments they so deplore. Such failure of self-reflection looks particularly grotesque when the very gallery owners who were instrumental in pushing the art world toward a focus on money and celebrity now lament this same shift.

There are various contributions to the debate but all seem to share this notion that “art” and “the market” are absolute opposites: on the one side there is “good art,” which must be shielded against the encroachments of the unfettered “market,” the evil force on the other side of what is perceived to be a sharp divide. The reality, however, is more complicated than what such polarizing rhetoric suggests. True, in an art world so fixated on market success – and that increasingly mistakes the high price a work fetches for artistic significance – reminding people of the difference between the market’s demands and the intrinsic criteria of art (history) may now be a strategic necessity. It is worth pointing out, in any case, that art works that do well in the market sphere may, in fact, be irrelevant in the eyes of artists and art historians. Yet to draw this distinction, we need not subscribe to the illusion that what is happening in the market is entirely divorced from the art itself. On the contrary, even the space of the artist’s studio is necessarily marked by the requirements of the market – when, say, work is produced for an art fair, manufacturing expenses are estimated, edition sizes are determined, and particular formats are selected for paintings.

Art history and art criticism are not immune to the hierarchies of the market either. By contributing evolving assessments of aesthetic value, they generate the symbolic meaning on which market value relies. When an art critic wishes to contest the symbolic significance of a work of art, she cannot simply ignore its status in the art market, however persuasive her arguments may be; in fact, a work’s market status will influence her approach to the work, whether she is aware of it or not. Art and the market are manifestly not antithetical but fundamentally related to each other by an uneasy interdependency: neither can do without the other, yet they also never fully coincide.

The economic dimension implicit to how we think about art has a history and can be traced to the very invention of the conception of modern art in eighteenth-century aesthetics: by releasing art from its bondage to external purposes and declaring its autonomy, aesthetics created the perfect conditions for art’s marketing. After all, a work of art regarded as autonomous makes for a much better commodity than, say, a religious mural that moreover remains bound by constraints such as those stipulated by the court or guilds. By framing the modern idea of art, aesthetics paved the way for the emergence of the art market as we know it today. The more autonomous the work, the more conveniently it can be bartered and traded in an international market.

In the course of the twentieth century, the ideal of autonomy – the notion that art pursues only self-willed objectives and is not beholden to external prescriptions – proved to be a model of wider social and political application fully compatible with the much-discussed “new spirit of capitalism.” The latter, as the sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have argued, likewise swears by self-determination and self-responsibility as economic virtues. So the ideal of artistic autonomy not only facilitates the marketing of the work, it also and more importantly correlates with the values of a new economy.

Still, it would be simplistic to portray art’s frequently invoked self-will as no more than an economic function. The autonomy of art may expose it to economic exploitation, but – and this point merits emphasis – it is also an historical achievement that artists have fought for and that potentially empowers them to deflect the market pressures that mitigate their influence. Such ambivalence regarding autonomy is at the root of the art’s fraught relationship to the market: works are permeated by the demands of the market, but by the same token can insist on their autonomy from it, refusing to submit to economic considerations. Consider Marcel Duchamp, who worked and reworked on the “Large Glass” for decades, defying the fast-paced rhythm of production driven by the art market. Duchamp availed himself of the autonomy of art while continuing to be involved in the market, as he was also active as a dealer, selling works by Brancusi and others, and functioning as an advisor to the collector Katherine Dreier. Like many other artists, he adopted what we might call a two-pronged strategy, refusing to comply with the market’s demands on one level while catering to them on another.

In cases like Duchamp’s, the ideal of autonomy functions as a “necessary fiction,” to use a term introduced by the Hamburg philosopher Birgit Recki: an ideal that artists must entertain despite its illusory nature. The admixture of wishful thinking in the ideal of autonomy goes all the way back to Kant, who had excluded extrinsic purposes of any kind from the definition of art. In reality, then as now – especially now – art had become inconceivable without the outside that is inherent to it. On the contrary, external constraints, whether the fantasies of curators or the desires of collectors, consultants, and gallerists, deeply affect the production of art. Art’s freedom, then, must be understood to be essentially conditional. As market forces wield a growing power over art, we have more reason than ever to defend that residual freedom. Still, it makes little sense to discuss art while ignoring how it interacts with the market. And yet that is exactly what many involved in the contemporary market urge us to do: let us get over the fixation on the market, they say, and go back to a conversation about “great art” (art advisor Todd Levin). Putting aside the fact that such a dismissal of market realities effectively enhances art’s commercial viability, it is clear that “great art” – in itself a questionable category, given its association with male hegemony – could not exist without its economic subtext.

With Duchamp and the emergence of the historical avant-gardes during the first third of the twentieth century, another layer of complexity was established. Now it was art itself that sought to break free of its autonomy: by opening itself to the “praxis of life” (Peter Bürger), it hoped to overcome its isolation from society. Via the historical avant-gardes, the ideal of autonomy gave way to the emphatic embrace of life – art, we could say, followed its autonomous desire to become heteronomous.

This shift toward life did not happen at once, but rather in several stages and with mounting intensity over the course of the twentieth century. Broadly speaking, it started with the collage: incorporating snippets of newspaper, the pictorial space now materially and metaphorically displayed the presence of real life. The social and political ambitions of historic avant-gardes, meanwhile, such as Russian constructivism literally identified art with life; the mission of the artist-engineer was to design a way of life. And today’s cyber-artists – sharing, on social media, their efforts to optimize their own lives (for instance, by posting before-and-after pictures of cosmetic surgery procedures to Facebook) – seem to erase the line between art and (staged) life altogether. But, and this is crucial, such contemporary proposals to open art up to life veer in a different direction than their historic predecessors, and their impact is not necessarily emancipatory. Enriching art with life, they very much conform to what social scientists have termed the “new economy”: one in which the subjects and their lives are crucial to value creation. Social media index our “life events,” in Facebook’s (revealingly apt) parlance, only to offer them back to the market. In that sense, an art reaching out into life provides the new economy with the resource that sustains it. The desire for a seamless transition between art and life, in other words, can be just as profitable as the defense of art’s autonomy.

Concurrent with this transition toward life, the art system itself has undergone a sweeping reorganization, including a structural transformation, begun in the late 1990s, through which the art field has remade itself in the image of other cultural industries, such as the fashion and film businesses. The art trade – the very term suggests its organization in the form of a large number of independent dealerships – has, over the past two decades, transformed into a global and steadily expanding entertainment industry of multinational “mega-galleries” (Alain Servais): the Gagosian empire, for example, ruled by the art-world counterparts to “celebrities” who, as Adorno noted, have long drawn the adulation of the culture industries.

For a recent example of the unbridled cult of celebrity in the art world, consider Björk’s retrospective at MoMA, a renowned museum that previously provided a platform for the actress Tilda Swinton. Unlike Swinton’s performance, however, the Björk extravaganza was subject to harsh criticism. Reviewers called for a return to true high art, as though the line between “high” and “low” had not been very blurry for some time. Celebrity culture is no more alien to art than the market, as the line of celebrity artists from Dalí and Picasso to Warhol and Koons demonstrates. They groomed their image as art-world stars and adroitly cooperated with the lifestyle press. So instead of idealizing the MoMA as a temple of art untainted by celebrity – which it never has been – we should study the contemporary interplay between celebrity culture and the art world in its various specific manifestations.

One consequence of the structural transformation sketched above is that contemporary art has long come to be regarded as a luxury consumer product. For evidence, see websites such as, which offer a mixture of vintage designer objects and “art.” Tellingly, works by “top artists” are sold by size, all the way up to “oversized,” taking the structural affinity between the work of art and the luxury good to its logical conclusion. As the latter emulates the former, flaunting its brand as a token of sham singularity, the former resembles the latter in its excess over any practical application. No one buys a Rolex just because he needs a new watch, and similarly, the decision to purchase a work of art is not usually motivated by the need to cover a section of wall above the sofa. Instead, in both cases, the social prestige conferred by the commodity is decisive, in conjunction with aesthetic preferences. But unlike luxury products, works of art have been associated since the eighteenth century with higher values such as truth or epistemological gain, and so they command an intellectual prestige that no consumer product could hope to attain. In other words, differences between the work of art and the luxury good persist despite the structural affinity that links them.

Regardless of whether we champion the autonomy of artistic practices or praise them for reaching out into life, works of art reveal themselves to be “petrified forms of economic life,” as the art historian Michael Baxandall aptly put it in a discussion of quattrocento painting. Yet as Baxandall adds – and this qualification, I believe, is key – that is only one thing they are. Although an artwork carries with it the precipitates of its economic history, it cannot be reduced to these sediments. There is no existence for an artwork outside of its economic life, but other horizons may come into view within that frame. That is the privilege of visual art: rooted in market relations, it may yet set its sights on very different stakes. No such vision, however, is possible without an acknowledgment of art’s constitutive entanglement in its economic circumstances.

Translation by Gerrit Jackson.

A condensed version of this text previously appeared as “Gute Kunst, schlechter Markt? Über falsche Gegenpole und ökonomische Bodensätze” in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, p. 14, on April 30, 2015.

For legal reasons, the images that accompanied this text at the time of publication can no longer be shown.

Isabelle Graw is the publisher of Texte zur Kunst.