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In bed with Butler

In bed with Butler

The ‘lockdown’ caused by the crisis not only reinforces social inequalities such as the structural discrimination of women. It also threatens to turn the art market into a more exclusive and less transparent zone under the guise of “private viewings” and “private sales.” This calls into question nothing less than the value of art itself, as co-founder and publisher of “Texte zur Kunst” Isabelle Graw argues in the ninth article of our column “Notes from Quarantine.” Where social exchange is massively hampered by gallery closures and distance regulations, the institutional framing of art in the modern sense is also absent.

1. Covid-related writing problems

I spent a long time considering how I should approach writing this column. I was determined to avoid joining the chorus of (mostly male) commentators (such as Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek, Frank Castorf, etc.) who quickly provided the German Feuilleton pages with off-the-cuff responses that were mostly just variations on their established theses. [1] These commentators also seemed to imagine themselves as occupying a sovereign position in relation to the pandemic, which struck me as presumptuous. I found other initiatives to be far more helpful and stimulating, such as the talks organized by the Frankfurter Arbeitskreis, which have not only connected contemporary social analysis and theoretical propositions but, beyond that, also emphasized the conditionality and vulnerability we experience in the face of the pandemic. [2] That this crisis extends into the personal sphere can also be observed in the current increase in autobiographical or markedly authorial forms of writing: numerous academics and writers are once again saying “I,” including in those texts that have already appeared in this column. Ideally, Notes from Quarantine should serve as a platform where personal observations are linked with considerations of the current consensus regarding the validity of certain categories within social theory, such as biopolitics. [3] I thus also imagined my own text on the effects of this crisis on the art economy as being “more personal” in its approach, thereby combining diagnostic findings with social-theoretical value-reflection. My interest here was, above all, to analyze how the coronavirus-related collapse of art-world infrastructures affects the particular value-form of art. I saw myself as facing certain difficulties in terms of making a diagnosis of the contemporary situation, however, since the available data currently changes on a daily basis. It is barely possible to keep up with and process the flow of constantly updated information, causing me to frantically attempt to absorb and evaluate every article I could find on “the art market and covid,” whether published online or in print. I was taken hold by a certain restlessness, a state of restless receptivity. At the same time, however, I had in fact firmly resolved to take all the time I needed in order to think through the effects of this “crisis” on the particular value-form of art. But it seems that certain intentions can only be realized with some difficulty during the pandemic.

2. Neither time nor peace

The “time” and “peace” one would need in order to analyze the current state of affairs have, in previous weeks, shown themselves more than ever before to be luxury goods that are only available to the few. For many professional women with children, for example, their proverbial double burden (and resulting exhaustion) takes on previously unimaginable dimensions when, in addition to often providing the majority of care, they are also required to homeschool their children. As numerous authors have rightly pointed out, it is not just social inequalities that are massively increased in the course of the “lockdown,” but also the structural inequalities faced by women: according to one study, 50 percent more men submitted texts to academic journals in previous weeks, while contributions by women academics have been all but absent. [4] Many women therefore now face falling far behind in the competitive world of academia as a direct result of the responsibility for care work falling largely on their shoulders.

In comparison to this, my own current situation must be characterized as a markedly privileged one. I am already used to working primarily from my “home office” (the subject of much discussion of late, and a situation that, incidentally, once and for all abolishes the distinction between “career” and “family”), and beyond this, I am also not required to provide teaching for my 13-year-old daughter, since she is fortunately receiving online lessons from her school between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. each weekday. Thanks to an Opus Magnum grant, I am also freed from teaching duties this semester, sparing me the exhaustion resulting from online seminars and presentations conducted via Zoom. If all of the cancelled lecture trips and delayed deadlines are then added to this, one would think I must have all the time in the world. In reality, however, the opposite is the case, which might well be due in part to my tendency to constantly check the latest coronavirus news online – a habit that, as already stated above, has a decidedly paralyzing effect on one’s own work. The many stories of those who are seriously ill, fighting for their lives, or dying are heartbreaking and make it difficult, if not impossible to see the purpose of my own research project (on the “value of art”). This is made even more difficult by the fact that I am currently required to generate the enthusiasm for my projects entirely within myself, since “motivating” structures in my life and work, such as an inspiring meal with colleagues or discussions with friends following lectures, are not possible for the time being. And so despite my privilege, it is somewhat joylessly that I sit at my desk, without those structural conditions that usually serve to stabilize me but also, in the best sense, make demands on me. At the same time, however, I am tormented by my inner policewoman, who commands me to use this period of exemption from the usual social and professional obligations productively by completing my various book and text projects. And so while I theoretically have more time available, now more than ever before, I am putting myself under enormous time pressure.

But before I can bow to this pressure and begin writing, a more urgent worry forces its way into my consciousness – that of the continued economic survival of this journal. As with all print media, Texte zur Kunst is currently confronted with sinking advertising revenues that must somehow be financially compensated for. The water is not yet quite up to our necks, particularly since the written word seems to be experiencing something of a boom at this moment, but the uncertainty of the current situation is hard to endure – one simply does not know how things will develop financially and cannot really plan for anything (including any event to mark our 30th anniversary). In the first weeks of lockdown, I correspondingly spent several sleepless nights thinking about possible immediate measures that Texte zur Kunst could take, such as the “Support Editions” or this column. Of “peace” and “time,” then, no immediate trace was to be found.

3. The privileges of money

Discussing the effects of the pandemic on the global economy, the sociologist Sighard Neckel has aptly stated that the “lockdown” it has brought about represents an “interruption of chains of value production,” thereby raising the question of whether this diagnosis of a shut-down in production, investment, and consumption might also be equally applicable to the art market. [5] Is the business of art itself no longer creating value, i.e., generating profits? To me, the particularity of the art market “in the time of covid” seems to be, first of all, that artistic production – at least for those artists with the necessary reserves – is certainly continuing. Only now, the institutional events (exhibition schedules, distribution channels (galleries, museums, art fairs, biennials, etc.), and social practices (networking at openings) underpinning this artistic production have broken away from it, which in addition to an absence of reception also implies a decrease in sales. We are therefore currently dealing with the remnants of an artistic production that has largely lost its infrastructure. And if we are to follow Judith Butler, then infrastructures such as institutions, practices, and relationships are not just outer pillars of our lives, but immanent in life itself. [6] If these infrastructures are weakened (as they currently are), then, according to Butler, our lives are also endangered. If we apply this thinking to artistic production, this dependency on infrastructure as a condition of life means that no such production can survive if the infrastructures, practices, and relationships upon which it relies cease to exist. [7] And without institutional and social framing, artistic production would in any case be something different from “art” in the modern sense.

At the same time, it is at this moment not possible to say whether the infrastructures of the art world will emerge lastingly weakened in personal and financial terms from this crisis (through the rumored waves of layoffs in New York’s museums, galleries, and auction houses, for example), or whether these layoffs will instead once again prove to be the sort of drastic neoliberal “cure” that ultimately serves to help institutions save on costs in the long term also. What can already be stated with certainty, however, is that in this crisis, too, the highest cost will be paid by those in precarious occupations. Former students of mine from New York and Los Angeles, for example, have related tales to me of losing their jobs at the ateliers of successful artists due to the coronavirus. As a result, they are now left without income or health insurance, with their backs literally to the wall. By contrast, one hears that well-off artists, collectors, and gallerists have long since left cities like New York for their country estates, villas, houses by the sea, etc. That the gulf between “poor” and “rich” is especially pronounced in the art business is no new insight, but it is particularly clear to see in this pandemic.

The existential consequences of this inequality, too – its threat to life, as it were – are also being made tangible: anyone who is poor or not wealthy must remain in largely overcrowded living conditions in the city; they are therefore entirely at the mercy of the virus and so highly likely to catch it at some point. But the VIPs of the art world are particularly prone to taking their privileges for granted, as if inequality were a law of nature, rather than something created by society; it’s as if these privileges were entirely “earned,” and not dependent on the exclusion of others. [8] To take just one example of many, Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace Gallery, wrote an autobiographical account of falling ill with covid in which he expressed his gratitude to the doctors who cared for him personally at his home. [9] That those non-white New Yorkers who work in the service sector and are themselves fighting the illness could only dream of such exclusive private treatment doesn’t seem to have occurred to him at all.

Still life with weights

Still life with weights

4. Business down 90 percent?

In addition to economically precarious artists, technicians, installation assistants, project spaces, and transport companies, financially better-off galleries from the so-called middle segment of the market are also suffering as a result of the interruption of the value production chain. For them, too, cancelled art fairs could pose an existential threat, since sales generated by fairs often make up the lion’s share of a gallery’s turnover. Nevertheless, estimates currently vary regarding the impact of the shutdown on this market segment: while the New York–based art dealer Dominique Lévy, with remarkable candor, reported a drop of around 90 percent in the art market in her home city, [10] the Berlin gallerist Johann König declared that business is in fact going very well for him. [11] Insofar as gallerists tend (in my experience) to gloss over even the most dismal situation, Lévy’s unusually pessimistic assessment is possibly closer to the truth. Making my first tour of the gallery circuit last weekend (May 2), masked and under strict conditions, the mood in any case seemed to me to be one of low spirits and restraint. Even the absence of the usual greeting rituals – if one waves to others at all, it is from a distance, without really communicating with them – is emblematic of the difficulties currently faced in determining value, since this process is essentially based on social interaction. Value, as Marx formulated, is a “social relation”; i.e., something that is dependent on exchange and composed through social interaction, [12] and this is equally true of the commodity of art, which is flanked by social rituals such as openings and dinner parties not least because its value is not an intrinsic one – it does not reside in the works themselves, but must instead be constantly renegotiated according to the situation. And yet social exchange is the very thing that masks, contact bans, and distancing measures currently make extremely difficult, if not impossible. The value of art itself therefore currently stands on unsteady ground.

5. Digital showrooms, private viewings, and the conflicted state of criticism

The closure of galleries and museums has produced a veritable flood of “online viewing rooms” in recent weeks, kicked off by Art Basel Hong Kong (March 20–25, 2020). According to Dominique Lévy, such showrooms also suffer from the fact they are simply “not friendly” – they, too, lack the social element in which the trade in art is so deeply embedded. Nevertheless, I have received countless e-mails from galleries announcing they will be moving their exhibitions to online showrooms. In addition to the already mentioned friendliness deficit, this format also tends to squander visual art’s most unique selling point: the materially unique nature of its products, and the concrete manner in which they are experienced. While it’s not the case that the specificities (and materiality) of an artwork cannot be communicated at all online, they can usually only be approximated at best. Many paintings, in particular – I’m thinking here of the collage-like textile pictures of Tschabalala Self, for example – must be seen in the original in order for their rhetoric to be understood. That online “walk-throughs” of exhibitions (such as that of Hassan Sharif’s show at KW in Berlin) are ultimately so unsatisfying is also in part due to the fact that not every viewer finds her gaze reflected in the eye of the camera as it glides over the works. I for one do not want to have to perceive works in this way. Instead of trying to reproduce the analog exhibition experience in digital form, it would perhaps be better to develop online formats that make no such attempt. And instead of explaining to the viewer how an exhibition came about, which is only of limited interest, it could instead be demonstrated what specific intervention it makes in its respective social and spatial context. For it is only when it becomes approximately clear what is at stake with an exhibition or work of art at a particular historical point in time that its symbolic meaning, and by extension its symbolic value, becomes tangible. In most online viewing rooms, by contrast, works of art are presented as if their symbolic meaning, and to this extent their symbolic value, are self-evident, whereas in reality they must be negotiated. That such negotiation occurs in analog space is also not a given, of course; it must therefore be forced and staged accordingly.

To me, the increased tendency for “private viewings” or “private sales” (in galleries and auction houses) brought about by gallery closures, contact bans, and distancing measures seems to represent the opposite of such a process of negotiation. Here, artworks are either viewed in exclusive settings by the privileged few or privately sold in the gallery showroom. One could say that, through the coronavirus, the existing tendency of the field of art to wall itself off from its audience through preconditions and a lack of transparency has both been further strengthened and made invisible. With “private viewings,” the art market is transforming into an even more exclusive and less transparent zone, one that functions independently of its remaining public. Beyond this, any art whose operation spans “private viewings” and “private sales” is no longer related to the public and to criticism and can therefore no longer be described as constituting art in the modern sense.

In the course of this crisis in the art market, voices can now once again be heard expressing hopes for a long-overdue separation of “wheat” and chaff” – a sort of market correction, as if the market alone dictated the symbolic value of an artwork. [13] Earlier recessions (such as those of the early 1990s and 2008) certainly did manifest themselves in each case as a crisis of confidence in the art market, thereby bringing into question the credibility of previous hierarchies and belief systems, particularly within the auction sphere. At the same time, however, the desire to quickly get “back to normal” was, in my memory, always very pronounced; above all, it was those “winners” who were already well-positioned as such before these crises that would ultimately go on to emerge stronger from them. It has always been during crises that criticism really finds its purpose; even on the etymological level, the two are closely related. [14] But for all the desire for critical voices (or meaningful editorials in galleries’ online presentations), at the same time, criticism can be seen to be experiencing a sort of devaluation in the time of the pandemic. It gets no mention at all, for example, when it comes to listing the most important “pillars of the art business,” as when demands are made for more state assistance for galleries. [15] As an agent of symbolic value generation, criticism may still be in selective demand, but at the same time, its central role in the production of value is regularly ignored. It is currently still somewhat unclear what this conflicted situation will mean for my own critical writing on art during this pandemic. In the mornings especially, just after waking, when the new and depressing reality forces its way into my mind, I fluctuate between feelings of great remorse and a tenacious sense of élan. At such moments, art criticism seems to me to be every bit as superfluous and senseless as it is absolutely and urgently necessary.

Translation: Ben Caton

Isabelle Graw is the cofounder and publisher of Texte zur Kunst. She teaches art history and art theory at the Staatliche Hochschule für bildende Künste (Städelschule) in Frankfurt/M. Her most recent publications are The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium (2017) and In Another World: Notes 2014–2017 (2020).


[1]See Giorgio Agamben, “Nach Corona: Wir sind nurmehr das nackte Leben,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, March 18, 2020,; Slavoj Žižek, “Das Ende der Welt, wie wir sie kennen,” Welt+, March 3, 2020, See too the unspeakable interview with Frank Castorf in Der Spiegel, in which he states a vulgar and pseudo-anarchistic refusal to allow himself to be “forced” to wash his hands by Angela Merkel. His sexist fixation on a powerful woman is symptomatic here, as is the way in which he confuses democratic will with a ruler set on regulating his behavior. Frank Castorf, interviewed by Wolfgang Höbel, Der Spiegel, April 28, 2020,
[2]Here, I would above all like to recommend the “Kritische Theorien zur Pandemie. Ein Glossar zur Corona-Krise” lecture series, produced by the Frankfurter Arbeitskreis and available on YouTube, which succeeds in bridging the gap between theory formation and assessment of the present. With regard to the virus, Katharina Hoppe, for example, claims that the opposition between nature and society can no longer be maintained. Instead, there should be an assumption of “biosocial processes,” of an “entanglement of society and nature” [trans. Ben Caton]. In epistemological terms, Hoppe claims this entanglement leads us to a different understanding of what it means to be human: mankind must be thought of as consisting in dependencies – a suggestion that resonates with Judith Butler’s most recent book, The Force of Nonviolence (2020). In ethical terms, too, Hoppe claims, the virus forces us to recognize our conditionality and vulnerability, while politically, the recognition of biopolitical entanglements should serve not least to clearly name both the current defects in the healthcare system and the visible increase in social inequalities and, with this, provide a basis for demanding that reforms be made. See Sebastian Huhnholz, “Kritische Theorien zur Pandemie. Ein Glossar zur Corona-Krise,” March 26, 2020,
[3]See Sabeth Buchmann, “Im virtuellen Kollektiv gesprochen,” Notes from Quarantine, Texte zur Kunst, April 1, 2020, On the usefulness of concepts such as the disciplinary society or biopolitics, see Philipp Sarasin, “Mit Foucault die Pandemie verstehen?,” Geschichte der Gegenwart, March 25, 2020,
[4]Carolin Wiedemann, “Kinder, Küche, Corona. Die Krise ist die Bühne des Patriarchats,” Der Tagesspiegel, April 29, 2020.
[5]Sighard Neckel interviewed by Harry Nutt, “Die Polarisierung wird zunehmen,” Frankfurter Rundschau, March 24, 2020 [trans. Ben Caton].
[6]Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence (London: Verso, 2020), p. 198.
[7]On the significance of infrastructures, see the contributions to this column by Sabeth Buchmann and Tom Holert: Buchmann, “Im virtuellen Kollektiv gesprochen” (link above); Holert, “Fragilität und Nützlichkeit,” March 26, 2020,
[8]There is of course also a tendency among the privileged to declare their privilege but without then actually going on to do anything to change the structures that make it possible.
[9]Marc Glimcher, “I Had the Coronavirus. It Made Me Think about How the Art World Recovers,” ARTnews, April 7, 2020,
[10]Tanya König, “Art Basel’s Digital-Only Edition Fails to Impress Influential Art Dealer,” CNN Money Switzerland, April 21, 2020,
[11]“Was sind die Trends am Kunstmarkt? Johann König, Galerie König,” 24h in Isolation, F15´ by Forbes DACH, April 22, 2020,
[12]Karl Marx, “Ware und Geld,” in: Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1984), pp. 49–108, here p. 62.
[13]See the comments by Johann König (link above), as well as the interview with Daniel Hug, director of Art Cologne, “Re-Evaluation of the Art World Is Necessary and Healthy,” Arterritory, April 22, 2020,
[14]See Katharina Hausladen, “But Who Says So? The Algorithm We Call ‘Consensus,’” Texte zur Kunst, no. 118 (June 2020). [updated citation]
[15]See Rupert Pfab, “Galeristen fordern Unterstützung durch Kunstankäufe,” conversation with Gabi Wuttke, Fazit, Deutschlandfunkkultur, April 20, 2020,