Contemporary Art: Two Stories
"Art Works – Money" by Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick, with 188 illustrations, 178 in color, 208 pages, 2004, Thames & Hudson, $29.95.
"Art Incorporated – The Story of Contemporary Art" by Julian Stallabrass, with 29 illustrations, 8 in color, 2004, Oxford University Press, $25.00.
By BRIAN APPEL
Andy Warhol Dollar Sign 1982
©The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh. Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc
If the point of criticism is to make works of art and our own experience of it "more real", both Julian Stallabrass's, "Art Incorporated" and Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick's, "Art Works – Money" succeed thoughtfully. Both books are essentially overviews of the increasingly complex world of celebrity artists working within an ever-expanding network of relationships constituting the world of contemporary art. What is of particular interest to this reader however, is that each volume approaches its ambitious objectives with different attitudes and practices. Stallabrass is passionate, polemical and judgmental, Siegel and Mattick are more often interested in neutrality, description andplurality of view. Reading the books back to back is an exercise in the exploration of contemporary intellectual criticism as much as it's an attempt at coming to terms with the state of art from the last four decades. Neither text approaches an encyclopedic breakdown of contemporary art's main players but the combination of methodologies nicely mirror the social and intellectual practices of a culture that is not coerced by a single market model.
Katy Siegel, an Associate Professor of art history and criticism at Hunter College, CUNY in New York and a contributing editor at "Artforum" magazine, and Paul Mattick, a Professor of philosophy at Adelphi University and editor of the "International Journal of Political Economy" combine forces to talk about the intersection of the artistic and the economic and how this close relationship with money has affected the art that has been produced over the last four decades. The authors quite brilliantly construct their hypothesis in a way that parallels the curated art exhibition – a nod perhaps to the growing importance of the jet-setting curator at the expense of the critic as well as a reference to the gallery, museum or art fair as a site of economic exchange. The 'big idea' is floated via a quote from Paul Ardenne which functions like a blinking marque above a movie house:
"The major concern of the epoche – the economy – is
today's art what the nude, the landscape, or the myth
of the new were in their time to neoclassicism,
impressionism, and the avant-garde: both a motivator
of creativity and a theme to the taste of the moment".
The curatorial spine of the book takes the reader through this overview ["entrance"] which essentially explores artists' responses to the commercial control of their practice: "...the place of art in a social world dominated by money". The following seven chapters ["rooms"] illustrate different aesthetic and conceptual practices utilized to display how money forms our identities, toys with our minds and ignites our desire. Just over fifty artists are used as illustration, and another fifty are made reference to in this ambitious construction of the contemporary, art economy. Absolutely no value judgments are suggested as to the worth of the art. The analysis is based on pure description, decoding symbolic meaning and historical presidence. The authors' choices of artists include the obvious suspects from the 60's and 70's like Warhol, Wesselman, Oldenberg, Beuys and Haacke, epoch-making artists from the 80's and 90's like Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan, Michael Ray Charles and Takashi Murakami, but also more recent stars like Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Sean Landers and Tom Friedman. There are strange omissions however. Richard Prince and Damien Hirst don't exist in this text – two obvious figures who certainly would have to fit in a book whose subject is so intertwined in this close relationship between art and money.
Stallabrass, a Senior Lecturer in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, author of five books on art criticism in the last nine years and a contributor to the "Tate", "Art Monthly", and an editorial board member of "New Left Review", lets the reader in on his moral feelings about art and artists' practice and makes judgments that amount to much more than opinion. His criticism goes beyond description, beyond organizing categories in an attempt to present "informed judgments" through a comparison of overt signs of artistic practice. His efforts lead the reader through a range of complex philosophical diversions which ultimately purports that much of contemporary art's apparent unpredictability lies "...a grim uniformity" and "...seeks to bamboozle its viewers while being a willing slave of business and government". Both Stallabrass and Siegel/Mattick approach the contemporary art economy as a complex marriage of 'new' artistic content with the global marketing of an ever widening band of dealers, curators, critics, auction houses, museums, schools, art fairs, international biennials and the art press. Both make oblique references to the display of artworks (like merchandise) in galleries and art fairs (temporary art museums) where the 'real work' of branding and celebrity massaging takes place. Both texts might have suggested that the 'real' innovations of recent art is marketing and the attendant 'spectacle' of retail merchandising as vehicles for artistic practice.
This is precisely the way innovative retailers like Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein create business transactions and elaborate prices. The Marian Goodman gallery takes its cues from Prada as Art Basil Miami functions like the upscale department store Neiman Marcus. Art, like retail, is moving toward the theme park concept of a mini-Disneyworld.
Although the "public exhibition of private experience" as manifest in the art object can never totally be consumed like a Jill Sander suit or a pair of Farragamo shoes, the collector might become bored with an artwork and decide to "upgrade" or "prune" his/her collection or sell the work outright, taking advantage of an opportunity to sell for a substantial profit.
Due partially to the explosion of media surrounding the secondary (auction) market of the last few years, the proliferation of specialized art presses, and the reporting of skyrocketing art prices in the "Arts and Leisure" section of the newspaper (akin to Monday morning analysis of box office receipts), the allure of purchasing art is perceived now as an investment more along the lines of a real estate purchase in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Buying contemporary art as opposed to the more matured (and expensive) work of the impressionists or modernists is akin to buying on Rivington Street as opposed to Park Avenue. It's like being a player in the high-stakes Manhattan real estate poker game where buying early and buying 'edgy' could result in a payout that could rival a Jeff Koons when the artist was still living in the East Village.
Stallabrass refers to Koons as an artist who "...nakedly pursues enrichment" and who produce artworks whose "...apparent separation from vulgar commerce, are no longer secure". His judgment on Koons's 'ultimate' value is illustrated by a thorough description of a recent work where the artist appropriates several images from the 'commercial' world, collages and alters them using a computer (see illustration #3, "Loopy", 1999, from the "Easyfun" series) to produce a print-out which is handed to a team of assistants who labourously make "a saleable and unique rendering in oil on canvas". For the record, this reader thinks that this is a brilliant application of Warhol's boundary blurring original "copies" which is a 21st century elaboration
of Andy's prescient statement of 1975: "Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art", ("The Philosophy of Andy Warhol [From A to B and Back Again]). Both texts make liberal reference to Warhol's celebrity, methods of labor, use of repetition and multiples, and his operation as a corporate entity as "The Factory".
Both texts also do a fine job of exploring the economy of art and how it closely reflects the economy of finance capital, advertising and publishing. Forty-four years ago, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote an essay for the Sunday "New York Times Magazine", entitled "The Jackson Pollock Market Soars" which many believe "kick started" the transformation of the artist from avant-garde obscurity to celebrity. It is the contention of Siegel and Mattick that this article was also the watershed that began the ever enlarging organizational systems surrounding the artists that propelled America, and particularly New York City into the epicenter of the global art world. For Stallabrass, Greenberg also looms large in a historical sense but has been replaced by a "plural, forward-looking postmodernism, through which we can glimpse possible utopian futures". Both texts wax on the continuing expansion of the 90's biennials and other art events which bring all the players together to engage in commerce and intellectual play; artists are often commissioned and/or guaranteed sales in advance for installation work that can only be seen at a particular fair guaranteeing the visitation of curators, collectors, dealers and related specialists and enthusiasts who increasingly have to fly from one event to another in the quest to stay abreast of rapidly changing variations. This is code for the mad rush to hone in on artists who, without the benefit of historical distance, seem to be at the forefront of art's ungraspable character.
Purchasing contemporary art bestows culture and taste onto a growing class of rich who need to differentiate themselves from the merely rich. Spectacular star-architect designed museums and galleries compete for this newly emerging enthusiast and collector who has become more and more sophisticated and more and more willing to commit to increasingly paraded, lavishly produced artworks. Exhibitions of photography and video art at the most important art museums in the last five years have put the seal on the medium's graduation to the pinnacle of art. The restriction of production has also given way to the availability of acquiring a work in edition so that a collector can own a remarkable object that perhaps The Museum of Modern Art also owns further generating its value and importance in the contemporary market. Art is also about access to the most coveted V.I.P lounges, condominiums, and office towers that increasingly are attracting the fashionable and powerful with the perception of added value by placing top-tiered art works in a popular investment vehicle.
Of the two texts, my favorite section was the closing chapter of the Siegel/Mattick book ["talk"] where the authors bring together an artist, a professor of philosophy, a sociologist, an art theorist and an art historian together for a chat – the beginnings of an ideal group to engage with after seeing a particularly provocative exhibition. Listening to the varying points of view from specialist insiders without the apparent mediation of a journalist or editor is the most satisfying discourse for this reader. Certainly, if I had my druthers I would have loved to have been the fly on the wall if there were the addition of a head of contemporary art at one of the three major auction houses in New York, the head of a top-flight museum, the head of a blue-chip art dealership in Chelsea, an art advisor, a partner in one of the recently appearing fine art investment companies, a super-star mega-collector and an in-demand jet-setting curator all in the same room. At the very least, the reader would be subject to a comparison of the moment's most important players which in today's art seems to be the visibility required for success.
Not so oddly, this scenario sounds like a retread of the beginnings of Andy Warhol's "Interview" magazine first founded in 1969. The transcribed interview, free from the conventions of the journalist and editor would certainly mirror an art form in the process. Oh Andy, we miss you so!