The term “art world” was coined in the mid-1960s by Arthur Coleman Danto, the influential American critic and pioneer of art theory who died in October 2013. Unlike the traditional art of representation, which sought to manifest the power and influence of the Church, the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie as beautiful, good and true, today’s art world stands for the complex referential system of contemporary art that is only explicable in its economic, sociopolitical, academic and philosophical contexts. Art’s transgressive orientation found its programmatic expression in Joseph Beuys’ notion of an “expanded concept of art”.
Danto dated the fall to April 21 1964, when Andy Warhol first presented the Brillo boxes at New York’s Stable Gallery as the American consumer version of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. “And that’s supposed to be art?” was the outraged response to pop art, particularly among the representatives of the New York School around Clement Greenberg, who wanted to establish a specifically American art with abstract expressionism and, in a second phase, colour field paintings, in contrast to the Eurocentrism of the École de Paris.
But there were many alternative models to the New York School in the 1960s and 1970s, in the form of minimalism, land art, and conceptual art. In Europe, the Viennese actionists and Fluxus came on to the scene, seeking to establish a free society defined by art.
This is just a cursory overview of postwar art. But Danto was right when he argued that the decisive impulse came from Warhol and, of course, Duchamp, the “godfather” of this development. Still today, 100 years after the first ready-mades, Duchamp’s influence on postmodernist art remains omnipresent among the latest generation of artists. But the revolutionary ideas of socially and politically orientated “critical art” were eagerly picked up and assimilated by the art market.
In financial terms, art-market developments since the second world war have moved in a 10-year rhythm. The boom in the 1960s under John F Kennedy’s motto of the “New Frontier” was followed by the crash of the 1970s with the defeat in the Vietnam war, and the oil crisis. The 1980s, when conservative leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl defined the world’s political climate, saw a significant change. If Joseph Beuys’ creed of the early 1970s, “Every human being is an artist”, reflected his romantic fusion of art and life, now artists such as Richard Prince, Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach became leading figures in a movement that abandoned all scruples about the commercial use of art, and aggressively courted the art market, driving prices to previously inconceivable heights. They no longer wasted a thought on the notion of an artistic body of a life’s work, an oeuvre. Bad painting, deskilling and fast-paced careers modelled after showbiz defined the art world of that era.
The art boom of the 1980s – it is claimed that there was more art sold during this decade than in all previous centuries combined – collapsed in early 1990. The collapse has primarily to be traced back to the western world’s need to reorganise itself and to use financial means to integrate the eastern markets after the end of the Soviet empire. At the same time, the growth of now almost 100 biennials and triennials around the world saw the orientation and organisation of “critical art”, with its often counter-cultural impulses, increasingly defined by a network of international curators, so significant that they are accused of “curatism”: a group of impresarios who use artists as living arguments and evidence of their own ideas.
Under US presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, the financial markets and an unleashed banking system determined the course of events. Huge amounts of money were freed, generating a boom in the art market that began in 1998, far surpassing the turnover of the 1980s. A key factor at the end of 1999 was the decision of international auction houses to include young contemporary art in their programmes. The auctions were a shock, for they undercut the constructive work of the galleries. Many, not least the artists themselves, saw this as a betrayal.
But the anger of the gallerists was shortlived. They quickly recognised the chance to keep the prices of young art stable by targeted bidding or, even better, driving up the prices just in time for planned openings. A decisive role was played by the billionaires Bernard Arnault, François Pinault and Charles Saatchi, who saw how to incorporate art into their global market strategies. And with them came the speculators and financial jugglers who bet on young art, investing over the long term in dubious funds and in the short term throwing art back on the market at auctions.
The developments of recent decades are not free of irony. After starting with the avant-garde goal to anchor art beyond elitist notions in people’s lives, things have finally returned to that very point. Ours is now a society of the spectacle, with sponsored happenings and large-scale events that degrade art as a tool of the culture industry and an art market with top prices for important works that only a wealthy few can afford.
This can be seen as a step back towards the re-feudalisation of art. Significantly, Jeff Koons’s show at Versailles in September 2008 was financed by Pinault. Just a week later, September 15 made history spotlighting the links between art, commerce and speculation. It was the day when Damien Hirst sold 200 works at Sotheby’s in London for the miraculous sum of £111m; on the very same day Lehman Brothers in New York had to declare bankruptcy, with knock-on effects that are still being felt by international economies today.
In the meantime, most of the speculators have disappeared, and with them an art market that relied excessively on the hype of the young and the new. The programme galleries are having a hard time. And yet, the media again and again announce new record prices for art. The world’s rich are little affected by the crisis. They place their money in recognised art that they purchase at auctions or top-notch galleries dealing in the “secondary market”. For the rich, art is, indeed, an investment – there is talk of a general flight to material assets in times of low interest rates and money laundering – but, first and foremost, art is seen as a luxury accessory and status symbol.
Art in today’s society has risen to become a new dominant culture, anchored like sport and showbiz in the system of international companies and the mass media. As creative potential, art and culture are tapped and marketed at every level. But also at issue are desires, longings and personal individuality. The German tabloid newspaper Bild recently reported on the opening of Art Cologne: “Important art, even more important VIPs! Art has become the religion of high society.”
Art as a religion seems absurd but hits the nerve of a society that, beyond the weary power pragmatics of western politics and unresolved worldwide cultural struggles, looks for salvation in the postmodern era. It’s about meaning and greater significance. The art world is a model of participation in the spirit of the old surrealist slogan, “Dreams that Money Can Buy.” The dream factory of art may be accessible to all, regardless of the size of their wallet. But for top art works, top prices are being paid. The art bubble is not going to burst.
Meanwhile, the artist has undergone an enormous increase in value, to the point of idolisation. But success has come at a high price, with the power of the art system, the adjustment to taste guidelines, and the dependence on galleries and curators. To create something new all one’s own, while remaining in the game, is a balancing act that only few succeed at mastering. In such a climate, the stars of the scene are the artists – such as Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and others – who take the fate of their art into their own hands, and create their own institutions that they control and administer with paid staff.
Private collectors, due to their personal relationships with artists, gallerists, auction houses, museums and critics, are among the most important networkers of the art system. But they are participants in an art system whose nature is temporary. Museums and other art institutions are now financially and time-wise so taxed with their exhibition programmes that there is little room for the building of their collections. They no longer want complete collections. Only a few works, or groups of works, are preferred. This is one important reason why so many private museums have emerged in recent years.
But that is a solution limited to only few collectors, personally and financially, and the desire of so many collectors to leave behind a monument of their long-term engagement with art is a dream far beyond the reality of the current art world.
This is a disillusioning picture – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Art is a mirror of society. Every era gets the art it deserves. We see professional dealmakers, speculators, seduced collectors and exhausted artists. Today’s art system involves many diverse forms of dependency and manipulation, all the way down to the level of the tabloid. It seems irrefutable that the artist is being rediscovered as a figure of resistance, with new attention to suppressed political art. The powerful Chinese state could only defend itself against Ai Weiwei through house arrest. Yet Ai, who deserves the greatest respect for his courageous political protest, is also part of the market-oriented international system: his works are sold at top prices.
Not only political dissidents but a whole range of protest art or counter-cultural figures can exist alongside the businessman-artists such as Hirst or Koons: the Venice Biennale in 2013 under Massimiliano Gioni brought with it Abart, outsiders and anthroposophists such as Rudolf Steiner, fans of alternative societies, into a contemporary context with the art market.
It is not my intention to categorise art by attitude, authenticity and creativity, or even by autonomy and freedom. These are empty terms for the ever-new that only gain significance in the context of history, as outlined for the development of postwar art. And it is certainly not my intention to speak for other collectors, who have different interests and convictions. My collection started with punk, with young people who don’t believe in anything any more. Ten years after Beuys, the protagonist of this movement, Martin Kippenberger, counterfeited Beuys’s above-mentioned motto in his ironic work “Every Artist is a Human Being”.
Personally I’m neither a believer nor a pessimist. I track the evolution of this society and its art. While others might think that evolution always leads to something better, to me there is no morality in the process. Just change. The end of art has repeatedly been announced. But there is no end: art is always open to new developments. Every serious collection has to face this challenge.
Harald Falckenberg is a Doctor in Law and Professor of Art Theory at the Hamburg Academy of Art. His collection of contemporary art, which comprises more than 2,000 works, is shown in co-operation with Deichtorhallen/Hamburg
This is an edited version of his essay in Art Basel/Year 44, available from April 14. artbasel.com/year44
Get alerts on Damien Hirst when a new story is published