All Entries: April 2010

The Rise of Art World 2.0
by Ted Mooney

Two years into what we seem to have agreed, in full supine position, to call the Great Recession, it is clear to almost everyone that something has indeed taken its course, and that in many respected fields of endeavor things will never be the same. As someone who has pursued with equal commitment two parallel careers throughout my life─one in the art world (as an editor, a writer, and now as an educator at Yale’s graduate School of Art), and another in the literary world (as a novelist, essayist, and short-story writer)─I am struck, if not exactly surprised, by the similarity of the changes the recent financial meltdown has wrought on both fields, changes long in development but only now openly validated. I say changes, but in fact they are paradigm shifts, since both the art and literary worlds are undergoing transformations that will prove to be game-changingly radical. This much is certain: what was before, will be no more. The sooner we realize this, the more options we will have in the future.

Talking about this paradigm shift in regard to the art world is strangely difficult, for the very reason that the term “art world,” so casually bandied about by almost everyone, is most often used to refer to something that is at best a suspiciously convenient myth. No such all-encompassing art “world” exists. Most likely it is this misuse of the word “world” that has left the term “art world” itself open to such a wide range of misunderstandings. But in fact “art world” does have a very specific meaning, one quite different from the fuzzy globalist entity most often summoned up by those who use it so indiscriminately. Simply put, the art world consists of all those involved in the commission, creation, valuation, promotion, presentation, sale, criticism, documentation, and preservation of art. And with that established, many other matters grow a good deal clearer.

While we have always had artists in the U.S., for example, the American art world─one including all the elements listed above─is a much more recent development. Borrowing from the nomenclature of the software industry, I will call the U.S. art world’s earliest incarnation Art World 1.0 and locate its emergence somewhere in the mid- to late 1930s, when a number of forces came together in New York to create it. These forces included the sudden arrival here of European artists fleeing the onset of World War II; the convergence in New York of other European emigré artists who had moved to the U.S. much earlier but now joined their fellow exiles in the nascent art capital; and a similar movement of American artists away from the heartland to the growing artistic ferment in the East. In addition to these historical migrations, the federal Works Progress Administration, at that time the largest employer in the post-Depression U.S., provided substantial support for the arts, allowing, for example, Willem de Kooning (who had reached New York in 1927) to earn more than three times the salary of a typical Macy’s employee of the same period, all while painting public art works for which he was paid with federal dollars. What’s more, several other elements of the art world as I have defined it were already in place: among them Alfred Barr’s then artist-friendly MOMA, such prescient commissioners of art work as Peggy Guggenheim, a handful of important galleries, soon followed by art and culture periodicals like In the Tiger’s Eye, and View —enough of the necessary elements, anyway, to give critical mass to the first genuine U.S. art world.

Money was certainly made within this self-contained enclave, but not very much, and the institutions and collectors who acquired the art works emerging from these artists’ studios did so mainly out of their acute awareness that this was a historic moment, unprecedented in the U.S. Few if any of these collectors imagined that the works they were buying would in a very short time increase astronomically in monetary value, so speculation was a negligible factor. It was sufficient that enough money be circulated through the art scene to keep the artists alive and productive. And with only short periods of stasis, indirection or revolt, the New York art world evolved from that first iteration into what we know today, its characteristic elements continuously shifting in relative importance as the art eco-system grew in volume and self-confidence.

I will leave the reader to decide when exactly the art world’s incremental upgrades occurred─when 1.0 became 1.1, and so on─confining myself instead to a few obviously watershed moments. By the late 1940s and early ’50s, the Abstract Expressionists had became pop-cultural stars whom the average American saw in equal measure as perplexing oddities (“My kid could’ve done that”) and gratifying emblems of postwar American dominance (“Take that, Europe”). Indeed, they became such accepted emblems of a newly prosperous U.S. that the federal government (in the form of the U.S. Information Agency, now known to have functioned abroad as a propaganda arm of the C.I.A.) sent their works on extended worldwide tour as a potent psychological asset in waging the Cold War.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s another major change occurred, as the soul-baring feats of the Abstract Expressionists and their progeny gave way to the cool ironies of artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and all those other artists so hastily lumped together by the media under the rubric of Pop art. I’ll call this moment the arrival of Art World 1.5, since, in my opinion, it brought us halfway to where we are now. With it came a shift in sensibility that suggested a new detachment of artist from artwork, one that allowed the expansion into that same ironic distance of the other art-world elements, those that till now had usually played a secondary role. The valuation, promotion, presentation, and sale of art began to take on more weight, and the normative practices in these areas showed signs of changing and evolving in ways till then unforeseeable.

Simultaneously, a new breed of collector emerged, exemplified by people like Robert Scull, who made his fortune from a Manhattan taxi fleet inherited from his father-in-law, had no real background in art and simply bought what he liked—in quantity. Pricing became more aggressive, promotion took on a glamour of its own, and the social aspect of the art world veered increasingly toward spectacle. Not only did this period mark the peak of postwar prosperity in this country, but it was also a genuinely thrilling time for U.S. art, one as innovative in its way as that ushered in by the Abstract Expressionists. What’s more─and here Warhol is the obvious example─the subject of much of this art wascommerce, money, glamour, and popular culture. So for the first time the economic elements of the art world were unapologetically accorded billing equal to the art and the artists themselves. And with this acceptance, the ethos that has brought us to our present pass was unequivocally established.

To be sure, there were those who worked in explicit rebellion against the overall commercial trend of the art world─the Conceptualists, the Earthwork artists, performance artists, and others─many of whom produced art that, though intended in part to be “uncollectable,” must be accounted major work by any standards. But the expansion and increasing commercialization of the art world─punctuated by the booms and busts intrinsic to any market-linked community─continued apace. Among the innovations that contributed to the art world’s rapid development from the 1960s on were the decreasing cost and consequent proliferation of color reproductions in art magazines, the rise of graduate art-school programs (which implicitly presented art as a solid career path, comparable to, say, dentistry, in the security it offered), the increasing acceptance of the nakedly commercial art fair as a legitimate forum for presenting art, the ascension of the artist super-stars of the 1980s, the exploding resale market for contemporary art at venerable auction houses, the construction boom for contemporary art museums as they became more and more widely perceived as tourist magnets that no respectable mid-sized municipality could do without, and, finally, the vastly accelerated exchange of ideas and images that the Internet allowed. By the time the Museum of Modern Art reopened its doors after its lavish renovations of 2002-04, it is safe to say that Art World 1.9 had reached its apotheosis and begun its ongoing decline. Art World 2.0, a complete reset of the original, with consequences only beginning to be known, was taking shape.

Why do I locate this changeover at that moment? It’s tempting to point to the example of the newly expanded MOMA, a grotesquely misconceived distortion of its former self. As far back as the 1970s there had been talk, both within the museum and outside it, of declaring MOMA a historical museum, a museum precisely of modernart, which is generally seen as having come to a triumphant end with Minimalism. Watching MOMA continue to show contemporary art in its ostentatiously corporate, quintessentially modernist quarters seems to many like watching a 75-year-old man (the Modern opened in 1929, the very year the Great Depression began) attempt a kickflip indy at the local skateboarding park─a sight unseemly at best, but in any case a clear indication that all self-awareness has long since departed the scene. That may sound like a cheap shot, but within it lies a kernel of ineradicable truth. Every three generations (and I’m using “generation” to mean the traditional 25 years, not the five to ten years implied by advertisements and over-wrought publicists) the living memory of how the world was “back then,” what its inhabitants at that time aspired to and how they went about getting it, begins to die off. The number of eyewitnesses rapidly diminishes until we become reliant on second-hand accounts, self-serving memoirs, and conflicting rumor to summon up a vision of the original. Soon nothing can be verified with certainty, the “real” past is lost, and it can only carry on as a simulacrum of itself. Not until then, paradoxically, can the genuinely new, brought into being of its own necessity, be born and thrive on its own terms. Now, for the American art world, that time is upon us.

While it must be emphasized that Art World 2.0 remains in its earliest stage of development, it currently seems characterized by a studious rejection, quiet but steely, of the corporatization of art so enthusiastically and profitably pursued during the Art World 1.9 years. Among my grad students and many of their confreres in their mid-thirties or younger, there is a strong preference for art that in one way or another emphasizes “secrecy,” subversion, withholding, ephemerality, word-of-mouth invitation, sub-visible presence, intimate one-on-one interaction between artist and “viewer” and strong artist-to-artist dialogue. Where there’s institutional critique (and there’s a lot of it) it’s unlikely to be cast in the flamboyantly confrontational style of, say, Hans Haacke. Instead it might take place within a chosen “major New York museum”─the default term proposed by some leading museums after the almost Talmudic deliberations of their legal departments─among a group of invited participants, the results to be documented, if at all, by the museum’s security cameras. (It seems significant in itself that “surveillance”—both inside museums and elsewhere–is a hot topic among Art World 2.0 artists, who are acutely aware of the demise of privacy and ingenious in their attempts to resuscitate it.)

In addition, widespread revelations about the recent criminal activities of respected banks and international corporations, crimes that have almost without exception gone unpunished, have made virtually all corporate practice suspect to a sizable proportion of Americans, and to many of the Art World 2.0 artists it is, at least for now, anathema. As they attempt to reclaim for artists the freedom and respect once naturally accorded the best art work, independent of the by-now customary financial indices and career-path signposts, they have begun to seek alternative ways of structuring their art world. And they have learned how to adapt for their own purposes the near-universal corporate response to the recent financial meltdown; they have developed ways to eliminate (or at least minimize) the middlemen.

This strategy is only possible because the old Art World, as well as modernism and the various morbid offshoots that followed its demise, is dead to them. They accept this as a fact, but don’t dwell on it, since the corporatization that marked Art World 1.9’s endgame is of little relevance to them, except as a warning. What most concerns these emerging Art World 2.0 artists from a practical standpoint is regaining control of how their work is presented and, given the ever-greater importance of the Internet, how the reproduced images of that work are disseminated. To those ends, many prefer to avoid long-term gallery affiliation altogether, seeking instead the most suitable venue for each new project as it is completed. By stringing together a series of one-shot appearances in places of their own choosing, they are better able to maximize their freedom and shape their work’s development. This may be seen as a direct response to the financial hysteria of the Art World 1.9 years, which led to the virtual extinction (though always with magnificent exceptions) of long-term, even life-long relationships between gallery and artist. In times not nearly as distant as they now seem, galleries saw it as their role to nurture and develop their artists, eventually to arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome through patience and hard work. But the frenetic financial pace of Art World 1.9─whereby new artists would typically be given two or three shows to demonstrate their financial viability before, if their work failed to sell impressively, being summarily dropped─did away with these nurturing relationships, and Art World 2.0 artists have quite sensibly concluded that their best option is to nurture themselves. This shift in thinking explains the primary emphasis Art World 2.0 artists place on building and maintaining their connections with other artists; they want a mutual support structure that they can depend on. Not only does this preference mirror their widely shared interest in reconnecting with their audience personally, in many cases on an intimate one-to-one basis, but underscores their deep-seated resistance to any form of outside control whatsoever, from any quarter. This insistence by Art World 2.0 artists on setting their own terms is yet another bit of bad news for galleries, who have already begun to see their high-end artists’ new work bypass them altogether, going straight from studio to auction house, where a successful sale can establish an artist’s financial worth much more effectively than a sold-out gallery show, which is by nature not at all transparent. The gallery dealer can and does make use of a whole range of tricks to achieve the desired public perception of a given show’s outcome, including under-the-table discounts, non-existent waiting lists for a particular artist’s work, failure to disclose the prices at which works really sold, and many other sleights of hand. At auction, the process is far more transparent: a work is sold to the highest bidder, conferring on the artist a more certain status and financial validation. Foreign collectors, especially from emerging markets such as Asia, are far more comfortable buying the work of an artist with whom they may not be familiar if that artist has already received the imprimatur of a respected auction house.

Obviously, auction houses are unlikely to accept a consignment from an untested artist, and that fact, along with the innate predisposition of Art World 2.0 artists to avoid entangling commercial alliances, assures that there will be many more artist-organized shows in the future. This polarization of sales venues corresponds, interestingly enough, to the drastically increased concentration of U.S. wealth into far fewer hands, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 and grossly accelerated during the Bush years. I have heard more than a few highly informed art-world players speculate pessimistically about the continued viability of art galleries in Art World 2.0. Personally, I think this is more a form of complaint than prognostication, but the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. At the very least it is a recognition, however indirect, that the reset implicit in the arrival of Art World 2.0 has already occurred.

What direction Art World 2.0 will eventually take cannot, of course, be known at this early date, but its initial aspirations are clear. Precisely because the monetary valuation of art, while based on some established indices, is at base irrational and subjective to the point of arbitrariness, the artist who is alert to these matters can work with a freedom unavailable to virtually all other workers in all other professions. This freedom was highly valued in the early stages of Art World 1.0─not only by artists but also by those composing the other necessary elements of the art world eco-system. Somewhere along the way, however, that freedom was lost to many artists as the art-world “support system” arrogated to itself more and more power, which came to influence artists themselves to an equally inflated degree. Those days may not be entirely over, but Art World 2.0 has arrived with the express intention of reclaiming its freedom and resisting outside influences, especially institutional ones, with all the energy and inventiveness its members can bring to bear.

They have already dismissed any notion of a master scenario for art’s development, simply by virtue of their arrival. They have the tools and weapons to take back their freedom, with its mix of blessings. Now we will see if they have the will.

Copyright © 2010 by Ted Mooney

Author: Ted Mooney was a senior editor at Art in America magazine for more than 30 years and now teaches a graduate seminar at Yale University’s School of Art. He is also the author of three award-winning novels, as well a number of essays and shorter works of fiction. His most recent novel, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf on May 11, 2010, is titled The Same River Twice. A video trailer for this book was created in collaboration with new-media artist John Gara and can be found at


#permalink posted by Ted Mooney: 4/26/10 12:24:54 PM


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