Oh, the Irony

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 9.58.42 AMI’ve immersed myself lately in reading about the decline or end of capitalism as background for the first essay in An Ouroboros: Art, Money, and Entrepreneurial Action. Last night, it was with some excitement that I had an opportunity to explain the theme of the essay and the book to Adam Horowitz, founder and “Chief Instigator” of US Department of Arts and Culture (not a government agency): “it’s about the place of the artist in what is becoming a post-capitalist society.” Ten minutes later came the text alert from the New York Times: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” had sold at auction for $110.5M. Oh, the irony. I guess capitalism is not dead. Yet.

(Image of collector and capitalist Yusaku Maezawa with Basquiat’s “Untitled” from Maezawa’s Instagram feed; appropriated.)

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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3 Responses to Oh, the Irony

  1. Your book proposal starts with what seems like a capitalist assumption: “In essence, my thesis is that money does not sully art — it feeds it.” Money either reflects neutrally on art or is to its benefit. That seems true for many artists while, unfortunately, for others it does not. The relationship is complex, and the ‘sullying’ or lack thereof will affect different people differently. It’s too simplistic to make a universal causal connection, like claiming that chocolate is good for you. In small quantities it may have benefits, yes, but you can also overdose. Some people might even be allergic to chocolate. And the proposed ‘causal’ connection says nothing about human reasons…..

    So the claim that ‘money is good for art’ seems too much a blanket assumption. In what contexts, to what extent, and for whom? Cherry picking the cases where it *does* work this way is not genuine insight into the relationship between money and art generally. And of course I’m NOT saying that it is not still worth exploring art and entrepreneurship. Obviously some artists work that way. Good for them. Just be careful not to assume this relationship holds universally (or state that it does). We can be more subtle than that.

    Speaking of irony, the example of a Basquiat painting sold for $110.5 has a peculiar reflection on artists and money. Of that enormous sum, did *any*one*artist* actually benefit? Only if you take for granted that a thriving art marketplace actually IS a benefit to living artists, perhaps, but not *all* artists enjoy that…. Capitalism here seems to have otherwise bypassed the artist in favor (strictly speaking) of the art and the collectors who trade in its value. And that seems a dangerous and sad state of affairs for the artists themselves….

    Earlier this morning an artist shared this NYTimes article proposing a return to the patron model of artist support (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/17/fashion/what-is-a-patron.html?smid=fb-share). The difference being pointed to is support for ARTISTS rather than marketplace support for the art being made or the collectors who invest in it. The value assumed is that the *artists*themselves* are worth supporting, not that they have value merely for the work they put on the marketplace. The connection is not between art and money but between the artist and money. There is a difference, and it is THIS which undermines the capitalist mindset of turning art into commodities. Intrinsic value. Ends versus means.

    Can we be entrepreneurial and NOT think of art as commodities? Is that a challenge? Can we find value for the artist above and beyond what gets transacted in commerce? And does that reflect differently on how we accept the art objects into the world? Are there more important questions than how much money we can get for this particular art or that? Or who the audience is that will buy it? Is there a separate metaphor for the relationship between the artist (as a valued human being) and money? Or are we limited to art alone having value and the Ouroboros type relationship between art and money? Does it encompass enough?

    As usual I have more questions than answers 🙂

    • lindaessig says:

      Carter: Thanks, as always, for your critique. That first sentence clearly needs to be longer: “money does not sully art — it feeds it — *when it stays in possession of the artist*.” The “irony” (or “tragedy”) of the Basquiat sale is more than just the timing. It is just as you describe — no money actually got into the hands of an artist or benefits an artist in ay way. One could argue that such blockbuster sales harm artists (see William Powhida’s work for Creative Time). Regarding patronage, you may be interested in Marjorie Garber’s “Patronizing the Arts.” Finally, in this project, I use case studies as illustrations, not as empirical evidence, although case studies can be deployed that way of sampled differently. Be well!

      • Love everything I’ve seen from Powhida! Saw a review of the Garber book and it looks interesting. I started taking activism more seriously when I saw my beloved ceramics getting methodically shoved out the academic door, so I appreciate the benefit of being placed there, but also the downside of the bias when defining art narrowly squeezes some practices out of shape or restricts what counts as art in an arbitrary and self serving way. Suppose that means I need to read the book!


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