Art, Artists & Art Criticism: A Cultural Quagmire

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Elaine A. King, Professor of the History of Art/Theory/Museum Studies, Carnegie Mellon University

Due to copyright restrictions, the images in Elaine A. King’s presentation could not be included in this online archive.

A Cultural Capital Quagmire

Some individuals ask, “Is it really criticism that decides what is accepted and rejected in the art world? My answer is resolutely NO! Issues regarding the arts are far more complicated today, especially with the suffusing influence of global art markets and wealthy international collectors.1

Saul Ostrow provides insight into the current quagmire of the arts when he states: "To make things clear, when I speak of culture I am talking about our collective values, standards and criteria. Subsequently, Culture is always a battlefield - a contested territory. Today, unbeknownst to many of us, we are either collateral damage, combatants, misguided patriots, the deluded masses, cadres, idealist, refugees or just following orders - and then there is the enemy. To quote Pogo, 'I have met the enemy and the enemy is Us.'"

Today I will discuss how the art market – not critics – currently legitimizes cultural commodities. I argue that there is an analogy between social movements’ success and success in the arts, and that the major concepts that explain the success of social movements apply as well in the art world. In 1984 the sociologist Howard Becker argued in his book Art Worlds that all art is shaped by a mutual group of artists, art distributors, collectors, critics, suppliers of materials, museums and audiences. They work in cooperation and determine which artists and works of art are worthy of recognition. This observation was substantiated early on by the theorists Arthur Danto and Pierre Bourdieu, who defined the art world in two contrary ways.

The term “Artworld" is a product of the Institutional theory of art, and it originates with the theories of Danto. Danto in 1964 wrote the essay "The Artworld,"2 in which he coined the term “art world,” meaning cultural context or “an atmosphere of art theory.” The art world provides a working theory of art that participants use to distinguish art from non-art. Danto saw it as an "interpretive community" that learns the codes and categories for art - codes that are not perceptible or do not contain obvious properties/characteristics of things or artifacts themselves. Danto’s assessment is mainly informative and conceptual, not sociological, yet it is compatible with Bourdieu's description.

Pierre Bourdieu fervently disagrees and contends that art, like many other social practices, is a field that includes agents and their interaction. The art world - or in his terms, the art field - is a place of persistent arbitration and competition. He views the “art world” as a category of trained stratum or a grouping determined by social and economic lived positions in institutions, requiring knowledge and ownership of cultural capital as part of a social class identity. To Bourdieu it is about internal negotiations and power struggles between agents in the art field who determine artistic taste. It is composed of many agents - such as artists, agents, curators, gallery owners, patrons, critics and so forth - that are all in a constant struggle over what will be considered good art. At play are economics, power, political opportunity structures, resource mobilization and branding.

The concepts of art follow learned professional and social class distinctions. Institutions function as socializing structures that reproduce cultural capital for its "owners." Although there is much relevance in Danto’s discernment of the art world, today the arts are significantly aligned with Bourdieu’s interpretation, which states that “contemporary art is constrained by its institutionalization within the culture industry."3 For Bourdieu, education provides certain social groups with access to what he refers to as “cultural capital.”4

Prior to the explosion of information on the Internet and the proliferation of auction houses, learning about an art work’s existence, its sales history and what it was last sold for and when, was about as easy as reading Leonardo's mirror-image cursive. There is truth in Walter Robinson’s words: “Today there are no art movements, only market movements.”5 In our day, in the same way that online investing dissolved the aura once refined by stockbrokers, services such as ArtNet.com's Value Database Catalog now provide one with transparent global information about the artworks in play. It helps an individual to hunt art pieces and alerts one when various works start moving in the market. Additionally, it is an important tool used by many a curator, collector, dealer and portfolio manager when making selections for shows, collecting or buying.

Surprisingly, there is still the matter of art’s coyness about showing its business side, despite Andy Warhol’s blatant love affair with money and fame. However, there continues to be considerable resistance to the idea that a gallery is just a shop, the art fair just a mall, and the art just another luxury product to set alongside jewelry, antiques, yachts and the rest. In the boom years for contemporary art, huge numbers of new collectors were drawn in, and the art world lost its Euro-American axis. As it became globalized, its distinct minority culture was eroded.

In its stead, celebrity, publicity, branding and the glitzy display of riches came to the fore – a common vulgarity, if you like.6 According to Adam Davidson,

The current art market seems a lot like the Gold Rush. In the late 1840s, there were tons of people who wanted to find gold, but it was mainly the middlemen who sold the pickaxes and gold pans, who made money. And right now, the art world is going to need a lot more pickaxe salesmen advisers, consultants, gallerists, marketers and buyers. One confident art-fund manager told me that his pitch is simple: there are only around 3,000 top-quality items sold each year and more than 3,000 people want them. The number of buyers is growing faster than the amount of art. The pitch is great, except that many art funds have collapsed. That’s because art isn’t gold, or any other commodity in which units can be evaluated objectively. The value of any artist’s work is determined by an insider world of cultural arbiters who coordinate with one another. Many inside power brokers of the current art world know in advance which new artist is going to have a big show, who is going to be trashed in a review or whose piece was just sold privately for a small fortune.7

Insiders do not gain this information from reading any critic’s review or article in Artforum or the New York Times until after the fact!

Contemporary artists operating without information about these marketplace contexts, or collaborating with or addressing communities outside the primary cultural investment industry, most frequently do not possess the criterion that would allow them to connect thoroughly with certain people and networks with whom they need to be working if they aspire to become part of the global art world culture. Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis back in the 1990s vividly revealed the relationship between culture and power in the reproduction of inequality in a larger society. He saw the art museum and distinct international art events as serving to propagate certain viewpoints sequentially to maintain power and certain controlling myths. The myths about great art and taste justify the maintenance of hierarchical distinction among different social categories. It is a dynamic force that is imposed on the self-conceptions of members of specific groups that either are part of the “informed” or those excluded from access to the fine arts and high culture. The art fairs, in particular, mirror this system of market control, as evidenced in such places as Art Basel in Miami, where artists ranging from the great masters of Modern art to the latest generation of emerging stars gather. They are represented in the show's multiple sections and collectors from across the globe congregate and purchase works of art.

The artist Martha Rosler likewise believes:

No discursive matrix is required for successful investments by municipal and national hosts in this market. Yet art fairs have delicately tried to pull a blanket of respectability over the naked profit motive, by installing a smattering of curated exhibitions among the dealers’ booths and hosting on-site conferences with invited intellectual luminaries. But perhaps one should say that discursive matrices are always required, even if they take the form of books and magazines in publishers’ fair booths; but intellectuals talking in rooms and halls and stalking the floor – and being interviewed can’t hurt.8

Enabled by the rise of technology and inexpensive travel and the concomitant rise of art tourism, global bienniales and art fairs are now a system; a network through which viewers, artists, artworks, curators and discursive concepts travel, pausing momentarily at specific points in space and time before moving on to the next location.

In 2013 the Carnegie International only included two Central Europeans among the 35 artists: Paulina Olowska from Poland and Mladen Stilinović from Zagreb, Croatia. Both artists have gallery/museum representation in the USA despite the minor markets in their home countries. However, a growing number of artists from Romania, Hungary and Poland have been able to successfully sell at the Art Market Budapest fair and gain greater exposure in the West. In 2015 Art Market Budapest showcased over 100 exhibitors from 25 countries, and an estimated 25,000 visitors were in attendance during the four-day show, which ran from October 8 – 11, 2015.  

I am in agreement with Irving Sandler, who wrote: “Apart from the power of the market, there is another reason why art critics have lost much of their influence as arbiters of art, notably the growth of pluralism in the postmodernist era. During the Modernist period, art critics took sides for or against avant-garde styles such as gestural or Color Field painting, assemblage, environments and happenings, pop, minimal, earth, conceptual art and so on.” Sandler goes on to say:

… that in the current pluralistic After-Postmodernist era there are no longer riveting polemics that absorb critics. Instead, critics tend to be reduced to choosing artists they admire (and in rare cases, dislike) and deal with each individually. Art world discourse has become unfocused and un-dramatic, and has fallen into a kind of disarray, and in the minds of many, irrelevant. John Ashbery perfectly, if inadvertently, summed up this new situation in Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems: ‘Confused minions swarmed on the quarterdeck. / No one was giving orders anymore. / In fact it was quite a while / since any had been issued. Who’s in charge here? / Can anyone stop the player piano before it rolls us in the trough of a tidal wave? How did we get to be so many?’9

Regardless of all the debates and facts about the art market, Deborah Solomon continues to believe that art criticism does matter. “The last full-time art critic in the city of Chicago was laid off by Time Out magazine last month," she writes. “Now, there are fewer than ten full-time art critics employed by newspapers and magazines in the USA. … What is disappearing is not the art critic – you could argue that, with the expansion of websites and social media, there are now more than ever before – but the tradition of a regularly recurring voice in a widely circulated newspaper or magazine or even alternative paper: people who have the opportunity to expose a wide variety of art to a broad audience on a continual basis.”10


Despite the proliferation of art writing out in cyberspace today, criticism exists on the sidelines as the assistant coach, waiting for Mr. Market Coach to call the shots! This said, artists do have a choice in choosing what type of game they opt to play and who their audience is. They have the power to say yes or no to the Market's game altogether. The original Salon des Refusés took place in Paris in 1863, showing works rejected by the official Paris Salon. That year artists protested vehemently after so many paintings were rejected (only 2,217 paintings out of the more than 5,000 submitted were accepted). Kim Levin writes:

Artists have been rebelling against the commercial aspect ever since the days when Earth artists – Heizer and Turrell among them in hard hats and Cessnas - left the city for the inaccessible expanses of the west. In the ‘80s the type of art known as institutional critique” became popular: artists such as Andrea Frazer infiltrated art institutions to do conceptual and performance work that critiqued those institutions, their publicity and practices. The Gorilla Girls were among the first. Now a critical art has expanded beyond conventional art institutions and outlets. At the recent Venice Biennale, Raqs Media Collective and Gulf Labor Coalition both critiqued the injustices of colonialism and unfettered capitalism.

I am in agreement with Levin that there are 21st century artists who are taking an oppositional stance –  making moral, ethical, political and conceptual works beyond the art world and the market – and sometimes making quite beautiful art in opposition to the market. Hans Haacke proved that sincere work can make a difference and still be shown in the larger art world.

Artists working along these lines include Laura Poitras (now at the Whitney), Hito Steyerl (at Artists Space last year), David Hammons (about to have a rare show at Mnuchin this spring) and Daniel Joseph Martinez (of the 1993 Whitney lapel tags). I am a believer that artists have more power – if they only have the courage to use it! Additionally, they must decide which “game” or ballpark they want to play in. New York’s gallery system is not the only playing field. Even if an artist never makes work for the art market, it eventually absorbs every effort to elude it. Hans Haacke shows at Paula Cooper, Heizer now shows at Gagosian, Turrell at Pace and so on.



[1] After the AICA Congress in Košice, Slovakia, the three-paneled painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction, soaring to US$142.4m at Christie's on Tuesday November 12, 2013. Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani, the sister of Qatar's emir, is reported to be the secret buyer of the Francis Bacon triptych. She is in charge of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) and is renowned internationally for paying sizable sums at auctions to guarantee the winning bid. The New York Post, citing “numerous sources,” named her yesterday as the buyer. This information came from Philip Sherwell in the Telegraph on November 19, 2013.

[2] Arthur Danto, “The Art World,” Journal of Philosophy 61, no. 19 (1964): pp. 571-584.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,”  in John G. Richardson, ed., Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York: Greenwood, 1986), pp. 241-258.

[5] Walter Robinson, quoted in Donald Kuspit, “The Contemporary and the Historical,” Artnet (April 2005), accessed September 27, 2016, www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/kuspit/kuspit4-14-05.asp. This text is a revised version of a lecture given at the SITAC (International Symposium on Contemporary Art Theory) conference in Mexico City in January 2005.

[6] Julian Stallabrass, The Art Newspaper 241 (December 2012), accessed September 27, 2016,  www.old.theartnewspaper.com/articles/A-sad-reflection-on-the-art-world/28099.

[7] Adam Davidson, “How The Art Market Thrives on Inequality,” New York Times Magazine, 20 May 2012.

[8] Martha Rosler, “Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art ‘Survive’?” e-flux 12 (January 2010), accessed September 27, 2016, www.e-flux.com/journal/12/61338/take-the-money-and-run-can-political-and-socio-critical-art-survive.

[9] Irving Sandler, “Art Criticism Today,” Brooklyn Rail, December 10, 2012, accessed September 27, 2016, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2012/12/editorsmessage/art-criticism-today.

[10] Deborah Solemn, “Art Talk: Why Art Critics Matter,” WYNC News, May 9, 2013.