Contemporary art USA

A sad reflection on the art world

Critics, curators and collectors who have complained recently about how the super-rich are ruining the art market should know better

A visitor photographs Michelangelo Pistoletto’s installation Twenty-two Less Two at the 2009 Venice Biennale

A minor squall has blown up after the American art critic Dave Hickey’s announcement that he has “retired” in disgust from writing criticism. Art is now too popular—“I miss being an elitist and not having to talk to idiots,” Hickey said in a recent interview. Art, he contends, is made for a bunch of extremely rich people for whom the critic acts as “intellectual head waiter”. The Observer newspaper also reported that a number of prominent curators have complained anonymously of having to defend overrated works that happen to be worth a lot of money. One of them even described Tracey Emin’s art as “empty”.

Hickey, we may remember, became well-known as one of the more eloquent champions of “beauty”—that is, of a cheery, market-friendly prettiness in art. Once a dealer, he assured his readers that art buyers following their tastes would produce a various and salutary beauty that could be held up against the dreary run of grim and grimy politicised art found in public spaces and on the biennial scene. It was a version of the Republican “market good, public bad” reflex, applied to contemporary art. Hickey even staged a counter-biennial at Site Santa Fe in 2001, filling it with happy, bright and colourful sculptures and paintings, along with a lot of flowers.

So, coming from him, the complaint that the market has become too unpleasant is odd. It is like Charles Saatchi’s recent assault on dealers and collectors as vulgar and self-regarding. It is, in fact, the effect of failing to recognise your reflection in a mirror, and for an instant seeing yourself as others see you. All this has quite a bit of comedic value, but is there a more serious point here? If critics, collectors and dealers not only fail to recognise themselves but recoil in disgust at their reflection, we may ask: why?

First, there is the matter of art’s coyness about its business side, which Olav Velthius has written about in the pages of The Art Newspaper and elsewhere. There continues to be considerable art-world 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 jewellery, 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 globalised, its distinct minority culture was eroded. In its stead, celebrity, publicity, branding and the glitzy display of riches came to the fore—vulgarity, if you like.

Second, since the super-rich who buy the most expensive contemporary art have been most immune to the financial crisis, and since they also use art as a hedge against the movement of other investments, the top levels of the market have appeared relatively unaffected. The vulgar business of flaunting consumption goes on, while around it everything has changed.

It is not just that something seems wrong with the art world. All now appears in a strange new light: bankers are reviled, the political elite is revealed as corrupt, and capitalism itself has been stripped of its ideological cloak, standing naked as the engine of rampant debt, inequality and environmental devastation. In that new frame, the picture of the elite continuing to spend their fortunes on vacuous geegaws is bound to look less pleasing than it once did.

So Hickey (and Saatchi) may not like the world they helped bring into being, but its direction and impetus lie entirely within the logic of what they represented and defended.

Hickey points to the disappearance of the middle class, who leave behind the super-rich and a courtier class, including those unfortunate enough to write about art. The evaporation of the Euro-American middle class, as its professions are automated or outsourced, is one of the great developments of our age, and it has been greatly accelerated by the financial crisis. It attacks not just art but the roots of liberal democracy as the class that defended the system is disenfranchised by it.

If works of art are vulgar and empty, why should people be any more upset by that than by, say, garish packaging on supermarket shelves? Within the system, the arts are supposed to be the repository of self-expression, set apart from bureaucratised working lives and the standardised fare of mass culture. The durability of this view has less to do with the market than the State, and particularly with those reverence-producing machines known as museums.

With the increasing visibility of its material base (of its being put to use by States, the super-rich and business), art’s ideally free character fades, along with its hold on the imagination. Think of the strange clash of cultures at the recent Damien Hirst blockbuster at Tate Modern: the branded artist set against the branded museum. The staid display techniques sought to impart gravity to what was shown, while Hirst’s glitzy, self-consciously branded work undermined it.

Museums are also responsible for the persistent feeling that works of art have something deep to say about society. If this is so, what does hedge-fund art say about ours? The belief in that link, perhaps, is why we recoil from art’s reflection: we see ourselves, not in a momentary misrecognition this time, but as a cogent, unified image produced by a systematic and consistent causality—money. Do we take a knife to the portrait of our own corruption, as Dorian Gray did? And if we do, what survives?

The super-rich dominate the mainstream image of the art market, just as they do much to control the political agenda. Yet huge and diverse realms lie beyond the culture and the politics of this tiny elite. The years of the art boom were also those of social media, as millions started to show their photographs, videos, writings and art online. Many of them found that it is not so hard to make things that look like contemporary art. Another reflection—complex, contradictory, vulgar and popular, and in some respects less desolating—lies there.

The writer is professor of art history, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

More from The Art Newspaper


16 Nov 13
20:1 CET


While sad refection is appropriate, pairing Hickey with Saachti is ridiculous. Blaming him for the state of the "art world" is like blaming Hunter S. Thompson for the sad state of politics. Hickey was right. Critics are largely irrelevant right now. Nurturing unknowns will never pay the bills and never be more than a hobby. Slamming the establishment (if you get too specific or direct) will get you exiled. Praise for the established pays the bills and keeps you at the table but adds nothing more to the conversation. Perfect time to retire.

16 Nov 13
16:51 CET


That is the exact reason as a fellow artist I started up my own online Gallery because it's time the control and money was gave back to the artist, I badly want us to succeed because Art is made by us, the Artist through our talent, inner thoughts and emotions and sometimes troubled times so we deserve the rewards. BRING ART BACK HOME!!

1 Nov 13
19:6 CET


The art and a lot of artists still very much alive, fresh and interesting. What is changed is the power given to curators who based their knowlogy in what is fashion.

8 May 13
14:52 CET


I'm guessing that if I said to Jullian... "I couldn't find frozen peas at the supermarket"... that he would seize upon the word "market" and produce a Marxian analysis that blamed my lack of veggies on capitalism.

17 Jan 13
16:40 CET


The art "business" and its players seem to have forgotten that they would not have a job, could not dismiss the little people, would fall from grace if WE the forgotten artist would stop working. How silly is that? Most of these people actually get sick with the prospect of having to talk to the lowly "soldier" in the front line. Sigh. Truly enjoyed your article. Hold that mirror to them, high and proud.

9 Jan 13
14:57 CET


keep it original, put a lid on it, and paint like there is no tomorrow. So many words of wisdom, now where is the paint bucket?

7 Jan 13
15:45 CET


Tracey Emin’s art is empty! Glad someone got that right. But I can understand why whoever said that wanted to stay anonymous for their career's sake. You have to be in an assailable position as an art critic to get away with saying that publicly.

18 Dec 12
16:22 CET


Art and business have always been uneasy bedfellows. What is so keenly interesting to me, is while art as business can be wildly corrupt, political and discouraging, art itself and the true impetus of art is as untouched and unscathed as it always ever was. People have been paying attention to the BUSINESS of art (the money, the power, the fame) while all along its true power, wealth and core are overlooked. One only need to redirect one's focus...and there it is, as always. The business of art (as well as the accompanying critique of art) may be deeply disheartening and divisive, but art itself never is.

15 Dec 12
17:10 CET


Since my original comment was too long, and as suggested, below, I wrote a letter to the editor but it never got published, I put it on our Leona Craig blog at

14 Dec 12
3:55 CET


The art press has a fixation on big bucks. When reporters talk about the "art market" they mean works that sell for tens of millions. In the meantime there are tens of thousands of artists who produce very competent works that sell for only a few thousand or less. Go to an open studios event some time to see art for the real world.

13 Dec 12
19:4 CET


Poor artists! They don't control the images business (as van Eyck did) anymore. They're irrelevant, not even craftsmanship is required any longer.

12 Dec 12
16:14 CET


Spot on, analytical, yet considering the complexity and context. I applaud you and can't wait to read another article, Julian!

12 Dec 12
15:21 CET


An analysis unaware of its own reflection.

12 Dec 12
15:3 CET


That "fenomeno" is been surrounding us since artists became professionals...

10 Dec 12
15:21 CET


The cause - an explosion of art through the internet. The effect- the patron relies on the established critics to define value in art because there is such an abundance of art the patrons no longer rely on their own instincts. The artist persits and critiques his or her own work or creates to acheive impact hoping the smell will attract the attention of the critics.

10 Dec 12
15:22 CET


Good luck finding my art. It is not for sale...

10 Dec 12
15:23 CET


Nothing strikes us as empty unless it resonates as such. There are no seeds to be found in stolen fruit. The only seeds to be found are in stolen fruit. Everything strikes us as empty unless we make it resonant, resonate, resounding. Within the limits of this frame, anything sinks. Without its borders, the image bleeds, dissipates. There is nothing more beautiful than the sound of one hand . My heart is in the wrong place. I too would like to sleep a little, then drink some more. Where is the train? Who holds the rails? What have we done to deserve such gracious welcomes, such strenuous preparations, such delicate misappropriations? I am grateful. You are like two sticks: upright and held together by a GAP. This is the point from which we leap into sleep. This is the door to my home and yours. These are the sheets, towels are on the chair, we wake up early, but feel free to do as you please. This is the holiday we have both been waiting for. All this time.

8 Dec 12
19:52 CET


An artist's reaction:

8 Dec 12
19:54 CET


Reading through this article i am deeply reminded of jeanette Winterson's highly readable piece in The Guardian in 2002 and her concerns for the future of art ... she says at one point , "It may be that capitalism will be as successful with art as it has been with religion, absorbing it to the point of neutrality."

8 Dec 12
19:53 CET


Mr Hickey is `retiring` just when art is getting interesting! Museum culture ,the rich and Mr Stallabrass cannot mention Pussy Riot Art yet. Nor can they mention Akiane Kramarick yet. Nor can they mention/discuss Camille Paglia`s new book `Glittering Images`. Unfortunately she`s published too early to include Pussy Riot and seems oblivious of Akiane (from Idaho,USA). With Madonna, Sir Paul Beatle. Bjork etc supporting Pussy Riot it looks like `popular culture` is leading the world intellectually,sensually and spiritually. The rich are not excluded. Happy Christmas.

7 Dec 12
20:19 CET


While I do think that there are valuable points here (I think the last paragraph really ought to be a leaping off point for a more thorough exploration rather than the open ended gesture it serves as now), I object the shallow coarsening of David Hickey's position. To quote, "Hickey, we may remember, became well-known as one of the more eloquent champions of “beauty”—that is, of a cheery, market-friendly prettiness in art." That is really a gross misrepresentation of the content of Hickey's landmark 4-part essay, The Invisible Dragon, which underscored a comparison between Caravaggio and the quasi-pornographic X Portfolio by Robert Mapplethorpe... Not really "cheery", nor "market-friendly", in conventional terms, and certainly not "pretty." I appreciate Stallabrass marshaling his forces to indicate the connections between Neoliberal capitalism and the gallant phase that now is beginning to show signs of wear, but that (and his final paragraph) are not really that hard to do, are they?

7 Dec 12
20:19 CET


The problem I am seeing in the artworld is that artists are letting people like Hickey, professors (Aka advisers), industry, museums, galleries, dealers, curators, programers, counsels and commissioners tell them what kind of art they should be making. I am at fault with this as well. I make deals with the devil all the time basically in order to have a bigger canvas. I've realized now that money can't buy you better works and I think many artists out there are coming to the same realization. I think New York is a great example of this. For a artist to make it in New York now they NEED some kind of funder, parents, grandparents or sugar momma. Mark my words, Philadelphia will be the next American cultural center. New York artists will have to move and Philly is just around the corner.

7 Dec 12
20:20 CET


This statement is false: "Hickey, we may remember, became well-known as one of the more eloquent champions of 'beauty'—that is, of a cheery, market-friendly prettiness in art." Hickey's writings in fact locate beauty as a quality of reception, not as a property that inheres "in" an object. Mr. Stallabrass confuses "beauty" with "the beautiful," a common enough error. And who -- aside from the author -- would seriously describe the work of Jo Baer, Ellsworth Kelly, Josiah McElheny, Stephen Prina, Ed Ruscha, Alexis Smith, Jessica Stockholder, Jane and Louise Wilson and other artists in the 2001 Site Santa Fe biennial organized by Hickey as "happy, bright and colourful sculptures and paintings," the better to dismiss them? Mr. Stallabrass has fabricated a caricature, which he then decries.

6 Dec 12
20:14 CET


Stallabras' final paragraph is telling and germane - diverse realms of creative excellence lie beyond the tiny culture of represented art works bought as investment. Look only to art in public places to see extraordinary works of art for middle- and working class audiences. Sure, some of it is bad, just like gallery shows. But it is now an established part of fairs, like Art Basel MB. Few artists outside of Canada and Europe are in a government funded industry. US, Central and South American, African, are not. They still make art. There is a huge difference between the art market, the studio, and the lab. We need informed critics, like Mr. Hickey and Peter Plagens to help us navigate this explosion of human creativity. And we need 'alternative spaces' run by artists and their supporters, to exhibit art as visual thinking. Defining the 'art world' as the 'art market' is self-limiting. They just pay for the ads and parties.

5 Dec 12
22:33 CET


To the super rich the art world is an easily manipulatable unregulated commodities market. There seems to be very little interest in patronage of art that will not produce financial gains on investment. The art market is a world of loosely joined casual cartels elevating glitzy junk for profit. Patronage of an artist for art’s sake without regard for profits is missing from the art world at present.

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