Interview Fairs Collectors Switzerland

Feudalism returns to the art world

Collector and academic Harald Falckenberg believes that elitism is back

Harald Falckenberg

The Hamburg-based businessman Harald Falckenberg turned his attention to the world of contemporary art in the 1990s. In under two decades, he built one of Germany’s leading collections, focusing on works by international avant-garde artists. The 2,000 pieces in his collection are on display in a former tyre factory in Hamburg, which in 2011 became an outpost of Deichtorhallen, one of Europe’s largest centres for contemporary art and photography.

For Art Basel’s first book, Year 44, Falckenberg, who teaches art theory at Hamburg’s Academy of Fine Arts, contributed the essay “Every Era Gets the Art World it Deserves”, a critical look at the “spectacle” that underpins contemporary art appreciation today. We asked Falckenberg how the avant-garde project got lost and why the art bubble won’t be bursting any time soon.

The Art Newspaper: What characterises the art of our time?

Harald Falckenberg: In recent years, art has become ever more dominant with large-scale public events and huge prices for important works that only a few wealthy people, leading art institutions and multi-national companies can afford. Having emerged from the 1960s avant-garde’s goal of anchoring popular and critical art beyond elitist notions, this latest development can confidently be regarded as a step back towards the re-feudalisation of art.

Is this a pessimistic view?

It’s a realistic view. Art is a mirror of society. Marcel Duchamp once said that good art always comes from the underground. This is still valid. Today’s economic and political systems are fragile and call for counter-culture interventions. I’m sure that the artist is being rediscovered as a person of resistance.

What factors have contributed to this?

The major factors are the globalisation of the art market with the rise of art fairs across the globe, the integration of contemporary art in the programmes of auction houses since the 1990s, and the increase in international biennials and triennials, with nearly 100 taking place each year. The role of private museums should not be overstated, however. They are a reaction to the trend of traditional museums putting more and more emphasis on temporary exhibitions over their own collections. Nearly 80% of their visitors are attracted by the temporary exhibitions. Tate Modern, with its five million visitors, is the world leader in this respect, with MoMA not far behind. And the competition continues. Tate Modern and MoMA are planning new exhibition spaces to increase the number of visitors by at least one million in the next few years.

You seem to make a distinction between the art governed by the art market and that by biennials/exhibitions. Are there two art worlds?

I would not say that there are different art worlds. The art world—a term coined by the American critic Arthur Danto in 1964—stands for a complex referential system of Modern and contemporary art. Biennials and triennials are created by curators and are large-scale, time-based events. Although the works in these events cannot, just by their size and dimensions, normally be traded, the biennials and triennials are substantially funded by galleries, auction houses and even big collections to improve the international reputation of their artists. So the art world should be understood as a network of mutual support.

Why do you think that the “oft-cited art bubble” won’t burst?

Today’s international art world is based on success and high prices. The world’s rich put their money in recognised art as an investment. There is talk of money laundering and a general flight to material assets in times of low interest rates, but art is first and foremost a luxury accessory and a status symbol. Again and again, the media report on new record prices for art. Of similar or maybe even greater importance is the sponsorship of art by multi-national companies. Volkswagen and BMW, just two examples, have long-term contracts with MoMA and Tate Modern to increase the value of their products. Along with showbiz celebrities and star athletes, art has become a third avenue for their promotional activities. It’s a logical choice, as images can be understood everywhere and represent desires, longings and individuality, independent of language. So today’s art is consolidated in the international world of business, glamour, events and supported by the print and online media. The set-up is perfect and would not work without stars and top prices. That’s why the oft-cited art bubble won’t burst, provided, naturally, that the whole system will not collapse.

Why do you say that the speculators have disappeared? Sky-high contemporary auction prices seem to indicate the opposite.

That was a misunderstanding. I only wanted to say that the speculators who drove the market in the past ten years have more or less disappeared since 2008. Today’s rich collectors see highly rated art as a long-term investment and that’s still speculation in my understanding. In contrast to a few years ago, the market for medium- and low-priced art works is stagnating or even recessive, naturally with exceptions, for instance Banksy and others. Speculation will always be a part of art collecting.

Does this endanger the traditional gallery model?

Traditional galleries are having a hard time. They generally don’t have enough funds and staff to present their artists internationally. Once their artists become successful, they leave and join internationally established galleries, or others, such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst or Olafur Eliasson, build their own companies with up to 100 or more employees as in historical times of the Renaissance art schools. Commercial galleries have not yet found a suitable solution, but more and more of them will likely commit a substantial part of their activities to the “secondary market” as art dealers.

Falckenberg’s top tips for 2014

Christian Marclay’s new installation, Unlimited, Art Basel, 19-22 June

At this year’s Art Basel I’ll certainly visit the new installation [by] Christian Marclay at Art Unlimited. Marclay is one of my favourite artists. His video films are never alike and always open new perspectives.

Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, MoMA, New York, until August 3

In July, I visit New York—it will be a must to see the retrospective of Sigmar Polke at MoMA. For me Polke is the most important post-war German artist. His work is variable, full of surprise and always accompanied by a touch of humour.

Bill Viola’s Martyrs, St Paul’s Cathedral, London, ongoing

On the way back to Europe there will be a stop-over in London. Bill Viola is not my cup of tea because of the theatricality of his work. But he’s a great artist and I look forward to see how he manages to get along with St Paul’s Cathedral.

More from The Art Newspaper


25 Jun 14
19:48 CET


If the rich collectors bought and exhibited Akiane Kramarik`s paintings and prints they`d be doing themselves and everyone else a favour. The rich could outwit the top end dealers and museums . As the not so rich are already doing. In the july Vanity Fair (out now and online) are some great artphotos of Pussy Riot artists and Jeff Koons. Good articles too.

23 Jun 14
2:24 CET


A very accurate reading of today's art world system One per cent rules by donation museums follow the orders and the spectators must pay for this ad nauseum

23 Jun 14
2:20 CET


@J. Cutler: actually the Danto reference (as correctly noted by Falckenberg) is from 1964 not 1994. See: Arthur Danto. 1964. The Artworld. The Journal of Philosophy 61(19): 571-584.

19 Jun 14
16:53 CET


H. Becker, "Art Worlds," 1982 (over a decade before the 1994 Danto ref. here. Also, oversimplification of Duchamp's aphorism (as all are) - MANY artists from "elite" millieus/art families or w/ $$$$ to burn, including Duchamp, Matisse, Gauguin, Koons, etc etc etc ...

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