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Texts and Talks: The Production of Knowledge in the Art Market

“The last ten years have seen incredible changes in the art world as creative communities from different parts of the world have started to connect. Now it’s time for the art galleries to change too.” – Marc Glimcher, President of Pace Gallery

The art market is attempting to undergo a disappearing act. The sale of art, we have been led to believe, is secondary to the construction of legitimacy and a canon—a cooperative effort that unites curators, gallerists and art fair administrators under an aegis of respectability. If a gallery show is not accompanied by texts on the artist’s work, or an art fair by a series of panel discussions, there is something suspect about the entire enterprise; are they really just selling art so nakedly? The transactionality of the proceedings is obscured in other ways, too. There are no more red dots on the walls, and the price lists are kept behind the desk. You are more than welcome, however, to browse the literature and attend an artist talk for your own betterment.

Is this decommercialized veil an attempt to reach an imaginary collector—an executive polymath who does extensive reading and research on every purchase, a sophisticate invested more in the art’s abstract importance than its market value? It is difficult to say, but the answer is likely no. It should come as no surprise that we are seeing a heretofore unparalleled value-extraction from visual art. Predicted resale value is on a trend to supplant aesthetics as the chief reason for collecting among younger buyers, and auction records are being broken at wide margins in a speculative run, most notably with the November 2017 sale of Salvator Mundi for $450 million, which by itself netted more than the entire adjusted earnings of Christie’s record-breaking Post-War & Contemporary auction a mere five years prior. Customs-free, climate-controlled warehouses are being erected en masse to hold numerous crates of artwork and even facilitate sales through internal viewing rooms. The most recent splash has come from New York-based ARCIS, which in April 2018 opened a “foreign trade zone” in Harlem fitted with retinal and vascular scanners, but the last decade has seen freeports open up in tax havens like Luxembourg, Monaco and Singapore as well.

Lamenting the use of art as a financial instrument, however, gets us no closer to understanding the catalysis of this aggressively hyperliterate, socially aware commercial art world. Pace’s new Chelsea headquarters will include a massive library, open to the public. David Zwirner has for years been publishing highly polished monographs and catalogues for its artists, complete with pseudo-academic commissioned essays that provide historical or ontological framing to the presented work. A quick glance at this year’s releases shows contributions by figures as Whitney curator David Breslin, UC Santa Barbara art history professor Jenni Sorkin and critic Christian Viveros-Fauné. Pitch-perfect copy sells the text as professional and thus trustworthy, deserving above all of your time. It is not sales material, but rather “new scholarship.” Although the writing is “accessible”, it “paints a picture of the context… and the historical impact” of the art. (Not to be outdone, some of Pace’s recent publications feature text by Toshiharu Suzuki, Donald Kuspit and Hilton Als.) Large auction houses spend significant sums of time and money on glossy catalogues to accompany all works for sale with primers on artists and works—helpful for a prospective buyer that has just stumbled into the room with little outside knowledge. Major art fairs, of course, temper the orgiastic flow of money and celebrity with talks featuring art world figures discussing various subjects at length (along with, it is true, some talks focusing explicitly on navigating the art market). The process is one of layering and interweaving, a game of translating the abstract and opaque language of art theory into something comprehensible by a larger audience—and converting it into measurable value.

For whom is all this organized? It is likely that a majority of lay viewers do not understand the extended context of the proceedings in front of them, not versed enough in the order of institutional differences to distinguish between the functions and funding sources of various arts organizations, much less between the qualities of different imprints. (Perhaps this speaks more to the successful veiling that these businesses have undergone than the ignorance of the general public towards the arts, although it is true, according to a 2012 survey, that only around a fifth of Americans had visited a museum in the last twelve months, and likely many fewer a commercial gallery.) In addition, such an audience offers galleries and fairs little potential for return from the texts and talks, even if individuals within the audience personally find the ideas interesting. The academic may see a place for themselves in this knowledge-industrial complex, well-suited to the work of converting obscure concepts into digestible (and sometimes provocative) discussion, but, due to the purchasing power of the average art scholar, it is highly unlikely that they are the intended recipients of the produced value, at least in purely fiscal terms. Similarly to the academic, the curator can undoubtedly serve as a quality filter, duly maintaining standards of taste in the commercial world where few can even enunciate the qualities that make art suitable for exhibition in particular spaces or contexts. The deployment of curators in commercial ventures, however, further decenters the non-profit institution as the prototypical space for exhibiting and viewing art, as blue-chip galleries and art fairs, now armed with the very same curatorial minds, compete for the attention and capital of potential donors—if these affluent individuals do not simply decide to open private museums and hire curators of their own. For their part, the collectors do not seem to care much either way about the texts and talks, surely amused that all of this information is available and free-flowing but too preoccupied or disinterested to invest in it wholeheartedly, even as galleries mail them stacks of monographs in order to lure them into a purchase and art fairs advertise VIP talk schedules as valuable opportunities to see top minds interact.

The entire program appears both lush and vacuous. Fairs and galleries make no distinction in their packed schedules and tables of contents between those talks and texts that might hold some non-commercial value and those that are filler, designed to plump up the proceedings. At this point, how would we even distinguish them beyond our subjective reactions? Is it appropriate to hurl the label “fake academia” at a commercially commissioned text? The traditional gatekeepers—i.e., curators and scholars working in the non-profit realm—are also invested in the system, cashing in on free travel, accommodation, writing and speaking fees, etc. (They are all, of course, beholden to the businesses that orchestrate the proceedings and determine what content is appropriate to publish or discuss.) Simultaneously, in the last decades, theorists and artists have rightfully skewered the role of the museum and the academy to the point that institutional entrenchment is damning, exemplified by institutional critiques such as Hans Haacke’s foundational MoMA Poll (1970) and, more generally, the rise of intersectionality as a lens through which to scrutinize the nested ideological structures within institutions. Artists, independent curators, and renegade scholars have been encouraged to branch off, putting together their own DIY exhibitions free from the stuffiness and nepotism of the old boys’ club. The result, as we have seen with online journalism, is confusion—liberation alongside terror, the access to any information you want without the knowledge that any of it can be trusted.

When we look at questionable news outlets, the motivation for their establishment is fairly clear: ad revenue driven by a huge demand for media on current affairs, especially that which supports the audience’s viewpoints. In the commercial art world, where demand is necessarily limited to those with high net worth, the reason for all of these texts and talks is less clear. Already we can strike out as the intended consumers of these products the disparaged nouveau riche franchisees and cryptocurrency barons, who are not given so much as a smile at the blue chips. (Inclusion in such a collection apparently devalues artists of that caliber. The dealer Stefan Simchowitz’s success partially hinges on his lack of prejudice against such a crowd and his attempts to procure and resell works have led to his status as persona non grata at some haute galleries.) Even if such a person stumbles upon a ‘respectable’ work and successfully acquires it, the assumption is that that they are unlikely to read much literature on it. Is the old money crowd any more literate, though? Is there anything beyond constant childhood exposure to these cultural objects that allows them to develop an apparently more refined taste?

We could account for the observable audience for these texts and talks, and the fact that both do, of course, attract people genuinely interested in the subject matter, some of whom happen to be collectors. We could argue that the texts and talks enrich the art and the events, giving the possibility to anyone (who can afford the book or the fair ticket—or get it for free) to deepen their understanding of art through a more or less legitimate source. For their names to appear in the bylines, the writers and speakers have to have some previous achievements that make them authorities on the subjects with which they choose to contend (or at least know someone who does). The art fair becomes whole; the gallery is elevated. Moreover, the lack of texts and talks becomes pronounced in lower tier fairs and galleries, exposing their relative financial and intellectual poverty. (The two poverties are not coincidentally taken to be related.) This difference further distinguishes the mid-market art fairs and galleries from the premiere events and the blue chips, contributing to the market’s observable squeeze towards the top.

We are seeing structures erected here; it is the architecture of capital. It is a process of consolidation just as much as dissemination. While anyone can look, listen or read, the spoils of the project are carried ever upward. There is a circularity to it, as the legitimizing influence of the logorrheic proceedings further entrenches the commercial bodies that can afford to buy into it. The art world is a natural bedfellow to such a process, layering each artwork and piece of writing with obscure reference until a din of voices drowns out any one in particular. Anyone not fully invested, not tracing the individual movements to the point of madness, will lose track of the trajectory, opening the risk of being tricked by the ingenuine, the purely commercial, the essay or talk with no greater purpose than to fluff a product (in essence, overwrought copy). Rather than track the content of these byproducts, we have to turn to their origin, which provides more hints to their reason for existence than, for example, the notion that we’re seeing an intellectual renaissance outside of traditional institutional spaces—even if we can find evidence of this in small non-profits and artist-run centers.

The question of origin returns us to the issue of why these words, as cheap as they are, produce immense value for the commercial enterprises they serve. It is either a long con or a gamble—the gradual debasement of institutional knowledge to the extent that any text or talk will do, or the hope that the disseminated information is legitimately influential, catching the spotlight. It is difficult to explain why a particular artist or artwork is important, and thus worth the quoted price, but far easier to let a curriculum vitae or bibliography tell the story. Art is, of course, about the story it tells (and that told about it), and the more multifold the narrative, the more compelling it is or seems to be. Even if the wealthiest collectors do not pore over each essay in the texts they receive, or they neglect the artist talk for a drink with the director, the art market will factor the existence or happening of those things into the value of the artworks, listing them off as arguments for greater importance.

The Broads’ private museum in Los Angeles has quickly become one of the most recognizable institutions in the city and provides an illustrative example of this principle in action. (The same argument could really be made for any private museum.) Any single work that has been displayed there, drawn from the Broads’ private collection, has now officially become part of a museum show in a renowned space. Perhaps there was a catalogue associated with the temporary exhibition, well-received due to the competence of the curatorial staff and the quality of the collection. With any luck, a reputable publication will give the show a great review, even lauding a few exhibited works in particular. Perhaps, in the long run, one of these works will be deaccessioned and put onto the market. It is possible, even likely, that a client who did not see the show, the catalogue, or the review is interested, either out of their own curiosity or their advisor’s suggestion. The nature of art pricing being so nebulous, a few lines on an info sheet, accumulated, can provide a sort of justification without any further exploration necessary. The artwork was worth the effort put into making it a featured part of this exhibition and its catalogue. Of course, everyone knows who set this process into motion—in this hypothetical, the Broads, who own the museum and all of the artwork within it—but that is not what matters.

What matters is that, at some point and to some degree, all of these intellectual endeavors were taken seriously and accepted at face value. The words spun out of them could be used to enrich an academic argument. The commissioned essay could appear in a bibliography, and then another, and further onward, until we are far enough away to forget the contemporary power dynamics that caused those words to be written in the first place. It is a philanthropy that will continue to produce dividends, etching itself in the ledger and forcing itself to be contended with by those with, nominally, no interest in the financial whirring of the commercial half of the art world: academics, curators, and the like. However, the ontology of an art object cannot be separated from the politics of its ownership, its exhibition and its pull on the value of other work. Similarly, we cannot pretend that there is an epistemological theory of the arts that can in good faith exclude discussing the market. Galleries, art fairs, and auction houses have already realized that their position within this structure provides the promise of longevity, especially when it is left unquestioned—and in fact enthusiastically supported by the very figures purporting to be above it all.

The exchange that has developed between the commercial art world and the disciplines of art history and criticism, after all, is osmotic, and one does not have to look far to find the consequences. The ubiquitous Hans Ulrich Obrist, well known for his curatorial work and his wide-ranging interviews, can reliably be found giving talks and joining panels at various high-end art fairs, having become somewhat of a high-value commodity himself. David Zwirner Books has recently published a book titled What it Means to Write About Art, including interviews with top critics and academics such as Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Jerry Saltz, and Roberta Smith, among many others, deftly allowing the imprint to avoid accusations of only publishing promotional material for gallery artists. Additionally, a Zwirner Books monograph on Bridget Riley has found its way into the bibliography of Ann Lee Morgan’s wide-ranging Historical Dictionary of Contemporary Art—in fact, it’s the only source cited on the artist. Journalists, too, often treat art fairs and their programming with the same tone as museum exhibitions. Demonstratively, The Guardian’s Nadja Sayej lauded the “powerful set of protest pieces” presented at this year’s Frieze New York and organized by the Whitney’s performance curator Adrienne Edwards. Sidestepping the question of precisely why an art fair would dedicate capital to such a project, the critic instead asks: “in a time when protest art and public projects garner more intrigue, are art fairs even necessary any more?” We do not have to question the fair’s role, after all, if we can simply—and naively—imagine a world where it is secondary to its associated programming, where the power of art supersedes that of finance.

 We would also be remiss to forget that these commercial entities generate substantial journalism of their own. Frieze, which started as a publishing platform a decade before its rise in the art fair circuit, continues to manage a variety of editorial platforms in print and online. Curiously, the organization has also recently established an “academy” with the purpose of organizing talks and tutorials on such topics as feminism, art writing, and curation. (In case there was any doubt, Hans Ulrich Obrist has contributed.) The e-commerce platforms Artsy and Artnet have both established themselves as trusted sources for art world news and reviews. Conveniently, Artsy’s list of the best booths at this year’s Frieze invites you to click through directly to most of the galleries’ pages and inquire on the artworks you just finished reading about, all without leaving the Artsy ecosystem. Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips have delved headlong into publishing, using print and online platforms to run informative articles about, in large part, works at auction, complete with hyperlinks to the lots in question. Naturally, this is counterbalanced by features on museum exhibitions and primers on, for example, African contemporary art. (In addition, the academic programs offered by Sotheby’s and Christie’s represent an even more ostentatious step into the business of education, one deserving a far deeper exploration.) Perhaps the logistics companies will be next to jump into the fray. Preeminent art shipper Crozier, in fact, has already joined in, collaborating on a talk during last year’s Miami Art Week.

 None of this is to say that these texts and talks should be shunned or ignored; it is just the opposite. They must be investigated, scrutinized, and brought out of their half-shadow. We are dealing with a new category within the epistemology of art history, and it is one whose role and repercussions are poorly understood and rarely acknowledged. The longer that the art world avoids this discussion due to appeasement, participation, or withdrawal, the further it will get from the reality of how information is disseminated and valued. The issue extends beyond the simple fact that words are being used to inflate the value of art, or that these words are barely even considered by the people for whom they are supposedly written. It necessarily colors every aspect of how we discuss art and its influence, its exposure, its movement between places and contexts. By all means, visit the new Pace library, purchase a Zwirner monograph and attend as many talks at an art fair as you can. At the same time, be aware of the space you are inhabiting and the dynamics that have produced all of these things for your consumption. Texts and talks produce much more than passing intrigue or monetary value; they completely realign the patterns of knowledge that have been taken as a given within art history for centuries.

Photo Credit: Burn Away via Creative Commons; Left to right: Hans Ulrich Obrist (moderator), Karl Holmqvist, Gerry Bibby, Tracey Emin, Olivier Garbay

About the author

Dmitri Potemkin is a writer, editor, and arts administrator. He received his Master of Arts in Art History from the University of Toronto, where his research interests included kinetic sculpture, simulation, and new materialism. He is the co-editor in chief of the forthcoming edition of Contrapposto, the University of Toronto graduate art journal. He previously received his Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from New York University, and he worked at various arts spaces in New York prior to his move to Canada. His translations have appeared in the Buenos Aires film journal Las Naves, and two of his essays were published in Esferas, the New York University Spanish journal. He is currently based in Toronto, Ontario.

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