Who Is the Art World For?

Nick Pryde/National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

This February, I woke up one morning to a seemingly urgent text from an artist friend of mine. It was an RSVP link to an installation show with a persuasively enigmatic accompaniment: “Reserved a spot. The warehouse is downtown. Might be the last chance to see it. Worth it.”

In L.A., there’s a certain pressure to know what’s fleetingly relevant. “When are you going,” I asked. “Yesterday.”

I drove through the downtown sprawl to arrive at a hangar-sized warehouse on a busy street. A parking attendant ushered me into a lot that was already full. Stepping out of the car, I heard an odd thumping, almost like a faint whale call, emerge from the building. Anticipating more of the exhausting showiness I had just endured at Frieze, L.A.’s largest art fair, I was surprised to see that most of the attendees streaming toward its source seemed like normal people. The line moved fast, and soon enough I was inside.

In the middle of the warehouse, sitting atop an elevated scaffold platform, was a life-sized forest made entirely of plastic and paper mache. A path cut through it, leading to a yellow one-story home. As I rounded the corner, I found the crowd dispersed around a few windows and portholes, peering in. Trash and shattered bottles were strewn everywhere, and some kind of feces were smeared on the curtains. Two naked blue corpses lay in the carpeted living room.

I noticed a millennial couple circling the building with their toddler on their shoulders. I followed them, and we came to a crowd before four large screens that took up an entire wall of the warehouse. The screens projected footage of a girl cosplaying as Snow White relieving herself on a countertop, her giggles reverberating throughout the room. The mood was severe, and the people in the crowd laughed nervously among themselves. They could not look away.

A row of occupied school desks sat before another screen, where Snow White was now asleep, naked atop her sheets. The seven dwarves entered, excitingly muttering to one another. About six hours of footage remained. What the hell was I watching?

I left the warehouse, passing a line that had now grown to hundreds of people. Two Teslas got into a honking match for my parking spot. I couldn’t swat away the incessant thought: what does making people feel like this accomplish? Why was everyone coming to see this?

Boilerplate reviews from critics about how the exhibit, White Snow, relates to the “economic, social, and climate breakdown…and the putrid residue from ignoring what frightens us within ourselves” don’t quite capture it. A more straightforward answer would be that the show had a great deal of backing. And indeed, it was promoted by some of the most public-facing art institutions not just in L.A. but the world, like the Getty, MOCA, and LACMA.

Why do prestigious art institutions back shows like White Snow? Many people have walked away from a modern art exhibit wondering the same thing. I’m often asked that kind of question because I’ve worked in varying degrees of proximity to the art world for the better part of a decade. My first job involved brokering customs releases for wealthy collectors. On other days, I was tasked with convincing our gallery’s mobbed-up neighbors that our alleyway was an unsuitable place to host dog fights.

I learned quickly that money is behind nearly every decision made in today’s art world.  The art world does not discriminate between virtuous dealers and collectors and someone just in it for the money, and in fact, it does not discriminate between good and bad art anymore either. But while this is a unique period in the history of the art market, what gets presented to the public for consumption has always been the result of behind-the-scenes manufacturing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

What Is an Art Movement?

If art markets today are accused of serving as covers for money laundering, fixed bidding, and sanctions evasion, they are still nowhere near as seedy as when they first appeared in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Before then, art had usually been sold by knowledgeable connoisseur-dealers directly to noble patrons or auction houses, where they ensured stable pricing. But after 1789, auction houses were sanctioned by the government to regulate the liquidation of the aristocrats’ private property.

Widely-publicized “estate sales” flooded the houses with artifacts of dubious origin, fixed bids, and market volatility. Art dealers themselves began to get outbid by a new class of buyers—entrepreneurs, industrialists, and other recently-elevated petite bourgeoisie who would then flip the work for tremendous profit.

By the 1850s, a new generation of gallerists had emerged to take advantage of growing unease with this way of doing things, responding to the feeling that “There is too much talk and gossip; pictures are apparently made, like stock market prices, by competition for people eager for profits.” One of the reformers was Paul Durand-Ruel, regarded today as the inventor of the modern art dealing model.

Durand-Ruel understood that times were changing. The ancien régime was dead, and bourgeois buyers were essentially trying to imitate its cultural forms by buying up the ancestral possessions of long-gone aristocrats, convincing no one. Leveraging his strong financial backing to collect large quantities of contemporary artists instead, Durand-Ruel sold to a network of entrepreneurial new-money collectors.

By buying contemporary art from dealers such as Durand-Ruel and then strategically placing their acquisitions on the auction market, they were able to benefit financially even as they demonstrated their cultural sensitivity. Durand-Ruel’s circumvention of the auction house helped him avoid price crashes on the art he sold and build trust with his clients. And because he was willing to exhibit the work of avant-gardists, he became known as an economically reliable conduit for promising artists, and, more importantly, an arbiter of good taste.

But Durand-Ruel, whose inventory consisted of paintings in styles that had no historical precedent, had to be inventive in convincing buyers of their value. It had always been easy for collectors to justify an expensive purchase from one of the old masters—many were originally commissioned by patrons that belonged to the nobility, tying the art directly to high status. The paintings usually depicted scenes from the Bible and antiquity, making them easily digestible. And most simply, because of their age they were considered to have an illustrious provenance and technical details that could be authenticated by professional dealers. Rarity was always correlated with a reliable financial return.

Most modern artworks had none of these crucial factors in common, and so the ingenious solution was to create value by intellectualizing the art itself. Durand-Ruel and other dealers were able to finance their own publications like the Revue internationale de l’art et de la curiosite, which were instrumental in writing contemporary artists into history. Art writers were commissioned to write elaborate biographical entries of artists into auction house catalogs. Artist biographies by writers such as Philippe Burty, who wrote for La Chronique des Arts and La République Francoise, were instrumental in backing the rising prices of “risky” schools like the Impressionists. His biography of Paul Huet approvingly reproduces the painter’s philosophy:

 [Capturing] nature in its deepest expression, in its most intimate sense, in that thought that elevates all beings to a more sublime life, this is the holy mission of all arts. Can a simple and exact copy of nature lead to this goal? Just as an inscription in a foreign language, copied by a scribe who does not understand and has laboriously imitated the unintelligible characters for him, it is miserable, awkward, and forced! It is thus that certain landscapes are only correct copies of an original written in a foreign language. The artist initiated into the divine secret of art hears the voice of nature telling its infinite mysteries through trees, plants, flowers, waters, and mountains.

Such biographies were instrumental in the formation of the cult of genius that began to be associated with rising artists. Burty would go on to write the catalog essay for the first auction of Impressionist works in 1875, which was organized by Durand-Ruel. While it was initially a commercial failure, this self-promoting feedback loop that Durand-Ruel and Burty created was a fundamentally new market framework.

Leveraged into the value of the artists they enjoyed, their publications and promotions were vehicles for their own commercial success as well. As biographical work became a tool for facilitating sales, a side effect of this was the legitimization of art history as a respectable or even necessary academic discipline. While in our time it is unraveling, the interdependence of academia and the market was cemented at a very early stage.

This sales formula often had to shape itself with little reference to the technical details of an artist’s style. For example, buyers found it difficult to differentiate the artists of the Barbizon school, who specialized mainly in pastoral landscapes. But biographies helped shift artistic meaning to be a reflection of the artist’s personality. Jean-François Millet’s religious fervor could be seen in the laborious toils of peasants, while Theodore Rousseau’s stubborn and unbending virility could be found between a grove of sunlit oaks.

Patronage, historical precedent, and scarcity were no longer the governing concerns when it came to ascertaining the value of an artwork like it had been with the old masters. The template for the new art market had taken shape: dealers and intellectuals allied to imbue art with meaning using the artist’s persona, and the new-money investors consumed biographies of self-originating creative geniuses—and then enjoyed the social prestige of contemporary patronage.

There were discrepancies between the surface-level agendizing of the art market and the beliefs of the players themselves. Even though Durand-Ruel was successful in pushing the libertine values of the artists in his inventory, he himself was a fervent Catholic and monarchist—in 1876 he publicly called for the abolition of the Republic, and during World War I he financed religious pamphlets to be distributed to soldiers across the front. But two years after the end of the war, at the ripe age of 90, he reflected on how his persistence had paid off

At last the Impressionist masters triumphed just as the generation of 1830 had. My madness had been wisdom. To think that, had I passed away at sixty, I would have died debt-ridden and bankrupt, surrounded by a wealth of underrated treasures…

Over the course of Durand-Ruel’s life, economics became the basis upon which artistic movements were formed and promoted. But as Europe entered a new century colored by ideological world war and cultural anxiety, a new type of figure would arise to explain which art was bad, which art was good, and how a new way of seeing the world could save civilization.

Clement Greenberg and the Great Flattening

Civilization, sentimental art, and “truth and beauty” were, in the mind of many disillusioned artists of the post-World War I period, the problem that led to the conflagration in the first place. After witnessing such a titanic upheaval of the world order, many believed other revolutions in human affairs were still possible and even just around the corner. This often meant a turn toward ideologies like fascism or Marxism, but revolutionary ways of thinking about man’s place in the world naturally entailed revolutionary transformations in thinking about art.

As artists came up with increasingly novel ways of representing people, objects, and concepts, an increasingly baffled public struggled to keep up. This led to the increasing dominance of the art critic as a way for the consuming public and collectors to assess the value of a work. One of these critics, Clement Greenberg, was one of the most influential, and it was his thought that set the tone for much of the art world during the mid-century.

Most well-known for making the abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock a household name through his critical writings, he built up his prestige in Marxist publications of the 1930s like the Partisan Review, promoting the avant-garde and bashing “kitsch” art. By the 1950s and ‘60s, he wielded an authoritative grip on what could be considered high art. Because of his strong connections across the market and its institutions, Greenberg had the economic and social backing necessary to reify his aesthetic preferences and make or break the careers of artists of his choosing. And because his intellectual writing was taken as the final word on what was artistically relevant, he was basically free from the market pressures that art dealers usually had to reckon with.

Even if the art world was a machine oiled by money flows, the power and prestige necessary to direct this flow were decidedly non-financial in origin. If Durand-Ruel and Burty’s model was more collaborative and oriented toward movement-building, Greenberg leaned hard into building an unshakeable reputation for taste, and he only chose to promote the artists that related to his own aesthetic vision. Reportedly, he would remind artists of the ease at which he could decimate their careers should they step out of line with his programming for them. The critic was now in the driver’s seat of art, not just the market.

Greenberg’s art criticism is cerebral and typically omits discussion of anything other than rigid formalism, but his main concerns were ultimately social. Influenced by Marxism and civilizational historians like Oswald Spengler, he believed the West was undergoing “decline on its highest levels,” namely in “the arts, in standards of taste, in some departments of learning, and many aspects of manners” due to the rise of capitalism and its industrial logic. He believed that this would eventually culminate “in the collapse or paralysis of Western civilization, in accordance with the pattern followed by all other high civilizations so far.”

Articles in the Partisan Review are what kickstarted his art criticism career, but after the Second World War he came to disagree with communism’s focus on material plenty and mass culture instead of taste, learning, and manners. “Today we look to socialism,” he had written as early as 1939, “simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now.”

But by the 1950s, he was promoting the work of another ex-Marxist, Jackson Pollock, for its individualist, “Apollinian” aesthetic vision. Other big players in the art market had helped to shift his stance. At the intersection of wealthy elites, culturally influential artists, and political radicalism, the art world was a natural hotbed for spycraft, and intelligence agencies were now funding art institutions. In 1950, Greenberg joined the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded cultural organization aimed at fighting the “cultural Cold War.”

The CIA used institutions like the ACCF to funnel leftist artists and intellectuals into forms of socialism that were anti-Soviet. Pollock and other abstract expressionists were ideologically useful to promote because the art movement was based on the artist’s highly individual and intellectualized personality. Their non-representational “interior landscapes” directly opposed the proletarian kitsch of Soviet socialist realism.

But for the movers and shakers of the art world like Greenberg, the ACCF was useful for expanding personal networks and orchestrating media campaigns, be they promotional or defamatory. In 1951, Greenberg accused an editor of The Nation of writing what amounted to “Soviet propaganda,” and was then sued for libel to the tune of $200,000 dollars. It was the ACCF that defended him via media campaigns that included articles like “The Liberals Who Haven’t Learned.” It would even end up funding the Partisan Review, shifting its editorial stance in an anti-Soviet direction.

Even when he wasn’t targeting other critics, Greenberg’s untouchable tastemaker stature brought a lot of ire. Looking at the splashed paintings of artists like Pollock, many felt that Greenberg was just imbuing his work with qualities unknown to the picture itself. Yet for all of his problems, he sincerely believed that the art he promoted fit into a greater schema of cultural development, even though he would later come to regret his role in promoting abstract expressionism as too “futurist.”

All throughout this period, what remained from Greenberg’s Marxist worldview was a belief that a sufficiently advanced avant-garde would be instrumental in birthing a new civilization. In his view, the flattened image plane of artists like Pollock or Willem de Kooning was the battleground for a new civilizational aesthetic. 

And it is this civilizational frame of thinking about art—how it is capable of depicting aspirational realities or inspiring new cultural forms—that would go on to disappear from the art world as we know it today, even though it remains the basis for its claim to social relevance. Just as economies of scale intersected with big personalities to generate the art markets of the Third Republic, new structural forces have reshaped the art world once more, and this sea change has cast critics like Greenberg out with it.

A Land of Plenty

Today, artists don’t seem to like working in artistic movements. Instead of publishing manifestos and banding together for exhibitions like the Impressionists had with Durand-Ruel, they prioritize getting the attention of collectors. But in a way, this is a reflection of market conditions, as it always has been.

The past five years have been the hottest the art market has ever seen, intensifying a trend that has been ongoing for decades. When the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report published its 2022 findings, it reported $67.8 billion dollars in worldwide art and antique sales. Christies, meanwhile, experienced a 12 percent increase in sales executed over $10 million. As investment has grown among the ultra-wealthy, the market capitalization has grown so large that artistic production no longer needs to be cultivated and bundled into “movements” backed by intellectual theorization in order to sell well.

Even as recently as the 1980s, dealers courted intellectuals focused on art history and used their work as the basis for explaining art to their clients. For a time, critics like Greenberg who could understand and explain art trends to collectors were the ones who determined what was in and what was out. Knowing your Marx, Freud, and Spengler was rewarded.

But artists and art dealers of the twenty-first century rarely think in such terms. Because of this, the market is mainly driven by collectors imitating the buying patterns of other commercially successful collectors. Art was always valued according to a Pareto distribution; this has just accelerated it. In our time, only canonical masters (now including abstract expressionists like Pollock) and artists able to fight for the attention of high-profile collectors are able to sell. Scouting patterns are not tied to artistic excellence but rather the financial returns that can be generated.

There was always a dimension of self-advertising necessary for an artist to become successful, but now that incentive has hypertrophied to the point it has displaced technical excellence or intellectual content. Among elite buyers and the art world at large, there is now a vacuum where high culture used to be. In light of that fact, the only way to assess artistic worthiness is by looking at what a collector perceives an artist’s financial value to be. Art itself has become an empty vessel for its exchange value.

The brokenness of this model has not stopped its growth. Universal anxiety and disapproval around the marketization of art helps explain why shock art like White Snow that makes gestures at social critique has become so popular among collectors, dealers, and even institutional art bodies.

Sense and Sensation

In September 1999, controversy erupted over the contents of the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York. Installation works included a portrait of the Madonna smeared in elephant dung, a portrait of child murderer Myra Hindley—guarded by a security officer after it had been vandalized—and an installation by Jake and Dinos Chapman which featured child mannequins that had penises and anuses for noses and mouths, respectively.

Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to cut off funding to the hosting Brooklyn Museum, stating that the show was “sick,” but a nonbinding resolution passed by the state’s House of Representatives to cut funding was quickly overturned. Eventually, galleries only cut the show’s worldwide tour short when it became publicly known that its financier, Charles Saatchi, owned much of the work that would presumably become more valuable after all the media attention.

Saatchi’s business practices were made an example of, but famous artists of today like Damien Hirst made their name on the spectacle. Sensation was one of the first signs that it was possible to put on a massive and highly public display of art without any sincere attempt at intellectualization, either by the artists or organizers. Part of the reason for this was that attempts to actually boycott or protest artworks like those of Sensation were misframed as anti-First Amendment by the press and civil society, killing off any discussion of artistic standards that could’ve led somewhere new.

Greenberg’s predictions about cultural replacement had come to pass—art institutions were obsessed with offending the public with shock art because the notoriety of shows like Sensation fed a reliable cultural algorithm that enriched artists, dealers, and collectors alike. Once they realized Sensation did not need serious artistic justification, they quickly understood that nothing else did, either.

Here it must be remembered what art, not the art world, is for. Critics like Greenberg saw the potential for art to briefly transport us out of this reality, offering us glimpses of new ones defined by a better, keener aesthetic intuition. It’s a fundamentally private experience for the few that care. Artworks that are presented as “critiquing” social norms, like Sensation and White Snow, just create a discourse circus to draw in the attention of the public, and elites who purchase such works currently interpret the public’s attention as a sign of relevancy and value.

These artworks are usually justified as posing difficult questions about the perversions of modern life. But our interior realities are shaped by the art we consume, and so art in the category of Sensation or White Snow ultimately just serves to reinforce the same perversions they’re supposedly questioning. Their entire aesthetic concept derives from rejecting themselves as art-objects, and often rejecting the concept of art itself as anything more than a financialized social game or meta-commentary. While this all too often the case, it is not a particularly difficult critique to make, nor does it attempt to manifest or even posit an aspirational version of what the world could be.

Today, artists and audiences are instead expected to generate meaning for themselves, and it is no longer the role of the critic to help spearhead the task of imbuing art with meaning. While critic-intellectuals still pen auction catalogs and publish books, they do not have any bold artistic or cultural visions either. Today their role is perfunctory and ornamental.

All this is not to say that the existence of the art market is the problem. It would have been difficult for art movements like Impressionism or critics like Greenberg to appear absent a commoditized art infrastructure. But we have witnessed a growing divide between those responsible for producing meaning—the critics and historians—and those in charge of art’s ballooning commercialization and publicity. Hence, shows like Sensation.

Because of the status and money associated with art, images from shows like these are put on a pedestal. This misleads patrons and the public into thinking that something as obscene as White Snow has something meaningful to offer them and that they should value and preserve whatever that may be.

White Snow is still art, as it does have transfigurative potential—but it is a negative one. The art that we see in museums or famous galleries is a reflection of what our society values. When it is healthy, the art world offers us a chance to posit our deepest beliefs through aesthetic displays that continue to awe hundreds of years later, as was the case during the times of the ancién regime and the old masters. But today’s institutions like the Getty or LACMA are unhealthy, as they do not currently expose elites or the public to contemporary art that helps them envision a more beautiful world. Putting us back on track will mean encouraging the kind of connoisseurship that does.

David Gelland lives and works in Los Angeles.