I just finished watching Work of Art. Tom McCormack, in his essay “Market Forces: What we talk about when we talk about art: On Bravo’s Work of Art,” has crafted quite an insightful justification for why the show is fascinating. His argument centres around the way our implicit ideas about artists come into uncomfortable contact with the tenets of capitalism/the market in the context of a reality show about art. McCormack breaks down the possible relationships as follows:
Pro-market, pro-art people hold that art is a part of the market, and that this is good because the market, while it may have its problems, is sort of electively democratic and produces quality. People who subscribe to this view are usually intellectuals who made their way outside of the academy—Clive James and Dave Hickey come to mind—and they usually have a bone to pick with avant-gardism, and think that art would do better to pay more attention to audiences; in other words, that art often fails because it’s not involved enough with the market.
Anti-market, pro-art people usually hold that the market is suffocating and alienating and demoralizing and that art strives to stand outside it either through critique of it or through the instantiation of values that don’t lend themselves to a market economy. In the ’40s and ’50s, art critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, in different ways, nursed an anti-market, pro-art view into ubiquity within intellectual circles, and for that reason, despite the current outré-ness of many of their arguments, they remain enormously influential in contemporary art criticism. Contemporary art theorists who thrive within academia usually vaguely fall into an anti-market, pro-art stance. But the poet laureate of the anti-market, pro-art viewpoint is Lewis Hyde. Not as virulently anti-market as many academic theorists, Hyde’s book The Gift argued that while art is bought and sold in the free market, it simultaneous exists in a parallel “gift economy.” That when we, for example, buy a book by Dostoevsky, we receive something (Dostoevsky’s prose) that has status as a gift, and that while we pay for the physical object, we don’t pay for it the way we pay for a diet Snapple. It’s not that something called the “art market” doesn’t exist, but that it doesn’t account for the actual value we get from a work of art. In Hyde’s view, the erotic nature of the gift economy offered by art stands as a corrective to the rigidly logical nature of the market economy.
Anti-market, anti-art people just hate everything. They think the market is demoralizing but that art is terrible because it’s too involved with the market. Obviously these people don’t get along very well with the pro-market, pro-art people. Most intellectuals are too shifty to fall into anti-market, anti-art rhetoric, but many of them fan the flames, and none better than Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu coined the ingenious term “cultural capital” to talk about how taste is used to establish and reify status within society. Your preferences regarding art objects can be seen as “cultural capital,” which functions similarly to actual capital—said preferences give you social standing, offer social mobility, lead to positions of power; or, conversely, ‘bad taste’ can leave you socially stranded or form a kind of glass ceiling. The whole business of liking and disliking, of relating to things, becomes, if not entirely enslaved by the market, a parallel market, ruled by the same detached self-interest.
As far as I know, there are no great intellectuals who are pro-market and anti-art, but this position holds that the market is awesome and art is generally bullshit. You don’t have to search hard to find this sentiment, and in fact, the pro-market, pro-art people, who often find themselves opposing avant-gardism as bullshitty and the art market as far too insular, often bleed over into this kind of thinking. Usually people don’t fall so neatly into one category or another. Someone might use an anti-market, anti-art sentiment to dismiss Jeff Koons as a hucksterish joke, and that very same person might conjure up a pro-market, pro-art sentiment to talk about bebop as a kind of para-modernist art form that enjoyed substantial popularity. While individuals will adjust their views based on how they feel about a particular work of art and about the behavior of the market at a particular moment in time, these views remain defining poles in our attitudes about the place of art in contemporary society.
Work of Art is a hotbed mixing pot of these different positions whereby the show itself is bound up inextricably with market forces, and yet artists are often assumed to be anti-market. How will the pro-art alliances of both the show and the artists navigate this tension? Maybe this is why we have all been so curious…
What I wonder, given the privilege of artist-run centres in Canada, is if we are afforded a position of ambivalence toward the market? Does municipal, provincial and federal support of culture create an opportunity to view artistic practice outside of the “gravitational pull of the market” (McCormack)? If it is possible to step outside of the ideology of the market, is anyone anti-art?
Further, Work of Art is curious to me for the way it brings to the fore certain seemingly basic assumptions about how I look at art. What do I see when I encounter art? What do I look for when I look at art? What criteria do I use to make these judgments? The show is a reminder of how difficult it is to articulate an experience with an artwork, of how silly language seems when it tries to take up the intangible. And yet, language is a great mesh through which so many of our ideas and so much of our experience must pass, as if communication has the power to make real.