what artists don’t want to hear about the art world

Ed Winkleman’s blog has an interesting discussion about artists’ attitudes toward the contemporary art market, which started from a more general post about the possible down turn in the art market. Winkleman raised the obvious point that the art market will have a down turn sometime, and he was wondering about the conflicting evidence about the current state of the art market. Interestingly, for me at least, the comment thread turned into a discussion about how the readers (mostly practicing artists) felt about Chelsea (the fancy pants NY art district). A few things came up in this thread, which are obvious to anyone hanging around artists:

  • Some folks seem to have bitter feelings towards the booming art market. Winkleman himself seemed perplexed that some readers should wish for the disappearance of the galleries which are responsible for selling the art. It’s like car engineers hating local dealerships.
  • Some folks resent the fact that there are types of art which are popular in hip art districts like Chelsea.
  • There is often a severe mistrust of dealers, not just specific dealers.
  • People believe that markets are irresistable forces that undermine art.

First, I think a dose of Cowenism is in order. Somebody has to pay for art. You need some sort of patronage, whether it be organized via market or subsidy. Without resources, much art is impossible. A market system has turned out to be a useful tool for allowing more people to make a living doing art. Or compare: in 1900, there were only a handful of serious New York galleries. In 2000, there are hundreds, which allow thousands of people to make a living doing fine art. Add in all the colleges that employ artists as faculty, and you increase the number of fine artists who get to make a living off of art. It’s still a small slice of all people who may want to practice art, but it’s a huge improvement. Furthermore, as art world defenders note, galleries and artists can do things to expand the collector base, rather than just compete over a few rich patrons. It’s not a zero sum game.

Second, the art market is organized like many markets. There is a geographically defined “core,” with many niches. Sure, Chelsea may have many galleries that specialize in weird avant gardism, but there are many, many galleries that specialize in all kinds of other art. There are also many artists who have managed to sell directly to collectors. But still, the biggest institutional rewards still go to those who compete well in the core. That’s the same as nearly every other mature market. You don’t have to like it, but that’s normal.

Finally, there’s a simple way to get away from the odd relationships between artists, dealers, and market forces. Do it yourself. That’s right – get a job. If you read biographies of great artists, they were usually pretty good at getting regular jobs that paid enough, but didn’t interfere with their artistic agendas. James Rosenquist was a sign painter. Rothko was an illustrator and children’s art instructor (!). de Kooning did interior design and painting. Artschwager made furniture. Koons was a stock broker. There’s no guarantee that anyone will like your art, but you can be certain that the art will come out exactly as you intended.

Written by fabiorojas

July 13, 2008 at 1:43 am

7 Responses

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  1. The art market has a lot of atypical features, though, as is clear from Olav Velthuis’s book on the topic.



    July 13, 2008 at 2:36 am

  2. Velthius’ book mainly focused on pricing, which is very atypical. I love Velthius’ book, but I wouldn’t go as far to say that it shows that the art market is a totally different beast. The art market possesses many traits found in other markets: winner take all hierarchies, opinion leaders/gate keepers who define value, concentration in a few geographical areas, networks as organizing principle, etc. Even Velthius’ point that excess demand is not settled by raising prices is a property of many luxury markets. Becker’s famous discussion of restaraunts also indicates a good example of a market where you don’t raise prices to settle demand.



    July 13, 2008 at 3:39 am

  3. but I wouldn’t go as far to say that it shows that the art market is a totally different beast

    It’s not very different from a lot of actually existing markets, or not very different from standard characterizations of how markets are supposed to work? The former, sure. As you say, the art market looks a lot like many other markets in that it’s highly stratified, concentrated, run through networks and managed by gatekeepers, etc. (Though many of these features are routinely found in other institutional settings that aren’t markets, too.) But the latter? It seems a little odd to me to say that the art market is just like a regular old market — with all the benefits of dynamic growth and non-zero-sum expansion — except of course that supply, demand, and price coordination don’t work anything like they’re supposed to.



    July 13, 2008 at 4:44 am

  4. 1. I’ll adhere to “It’s not very different from a lot of actually existing markets.” I don’t stick strictly to neo-classical accounts of markets. My position is: If you’re an economist, the art market looks strange. If you’re a sociologist, it’s business as usual (sort of).

    2. “except of course that supply, demand, and price coordination doesn’t work anything like it’s supposed to.” Here’s where it gets interesting. I think there’s a lot of evidence that supply and demand to work, when you take into account that the markets are very thin. Most economists will tell you that it’s harder to coordinate prices and market clearing doesn’t work as predicted when you deal in extremely scarce products. The art market is strange in that few objects are directly comprable. Every painting can be evaluated by itself. Two Warhols are not directly comparable.

    However, there is evidence that things look more “normal” in situations where markets are thicker. For example, I once saw it claimed (the cite evades me!) that photography prices are much more well behaved because photographs often come in large editions and standard sizes, which means that you can start coordinating. It’s also the case that photographers produce large batches of similar images, at least in comparison to sculptors or painters.

    Also, I’d add that prices do respond to supply and demand, as far as anyone can tell. When gate keepers designate value (museum shows, art book citations, etc.), prices often go up. It’s just that many buyers are highly dependent on opinion leaders, which is somewhat unusual for a market. The truly strange aspect of the art market is how these opinion leader ascribe importance. I guess my view of the art market is that the action is in the source of demand, which leads to the pricing practices described by Velthius. Once the MoMA declares somebody to be in the canon, prices respond well, but how that declaration happens is interesting.



    July 13, 2008 at 4:59 am

  5. OK, I think I understand your position now.

    Regarding photographs, I was reading somewhere (the cite evades me!) that the bottom had fallen out of that market in the past few years — or rather, the top had come off, as City bonuses had gotten so good that people who would otherwise have been buying expensive photographic prints for their walls were able to move upstairs to extremely expensive art instead.



    July 13, 2008 at 5:23 am

  6. Kieran: I’ve also heard photography described as a “ghetto” of the art market. But it’s interesting that it’s a domain where price coordination and other “normal” economic phenomena occur. For example, with the rise of modern photography, standardization and “mass” production (creating large editions) leads to relatively consistent prices.



    July 13, 2008 at 1:28 pm

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