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What is the value of art?
Art cannot change our world or the conditions of the art market. It cannot exist without auctions, fairs, dealers and speculators. Art can be full of ambition and desire for change, but it often struggles to make an impact beyond the art world. Most of us have come across these sorts of statements that describe art as beautiful, but powerless, as an evocative conversation starter, but ultimately ineffective – just another product in the global economy. Is there anything art and artists can do to disprove these claims? And more importantly: what can artists do to become less dependent on the art market’s value system? In the recent HBO documentary The Price of Everything, Amy Capellazzo, the Chairman of the Fine Art Division of Sotheby’s, affirmed “that good art makes itself known regardless of value.” This sentiment was endorsed by art dealer and collector Kenny Schachter in his Artnet News review of the documentary. Affirming that “good art makes itself known” implies that bad art does not make itself known, that bad art cannot rise to the top since it is self-evidently “bad”. If strong auction sales and art fairs were only reserved for “good art”, we would indeed live in a better world. It is hypocritical for two people who make their living by profiting off of art’s speculative value to speak of “good art” that exists in a semi-autonomous state “regardless of value.” In a world in which autocracies and their appetite for free trade increasingly take center stage in the global art economy (as in case of China and Saudi Arabia), a call for more democracy, transparency and equality for artists is required. But artists have to make this call. Are we up for the task? An artist network based on mutual friendship, support and exchange of ideas is the most effective tool against an art market that primarily follows a trail of money. But as social media platforms like Instagram demonstrate, artists often regard their network as a means to an end. And by doing so, they mirror the characteristics of the economic system they claim to oppose. Here is how: There is a segment of visual artists on Instagram who document their studio visits with other practicing artists. This could be an effective and genuine way of using social media to expose the work of emerging artists and offer insights into their materials, methods and works in progress while building a network across styles, media and ideas. Instead these posts become demonstrations of affiliation: artist “X” knows artist “Y”. This power dynamic describes a situation in which artists who exhibit less initiate visits with artists who exhibit more (it is rarely the other way around). In itself, this is a useful way of advocating for oneself if it was not for the transactional quality of this exchange: in front of a large audience, documented, tagged and geolocated. We do not discover art, we measure it. And the follower count that either increases or drops is one way to measure the value of this and all future exchanges. If every exhibition we visited listed the artist’s number of Instagram followers, it would most certainly have an effect on how the art on display was valued (similar to the red dot next to a sold artwork). The art market and social media are not the enemy. Instead it is our desire to be valued in a measurable way. An artist’s participation in art fairs has become one such measure of success. Partly out of necessity and partly out of vanity, we – the artists – have accepted that there is no other way than the current way. We are enthralled by art fairs. We act like business owners and unapologetic ‘go-getters.’ We worry about lost Instagram followers. Let us put the focus back on art, why we started making it in the first place, and then maybe we can talk about its true value. Viktor Witkowski Viktor earned a Master’s Degree in Art Education, Art History and Studio Art from the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig (HBK Braunschweig, Germany) in 2006 and a MFA in Visual Arts from Rutgers University in 2010. www.viktorwitkowski.com Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019 p6
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Adrian Connard

Dear Viktor, It would make sense if the conditions of the art market changed with the new European Union ruling on having to verify the identity of a buyer making a purchase of 10,000 euros or more. However, I believe that very little will change with this ruling and dealers, and buyers will only get more secretive than they already were. It’s the auction houses that will be taking a loss, as high priced art works will only go underground and be sold outside territorial waters on boats or on private jets in undisclosed locations, like with drug dealers. Here’s… Read more »

Viktor Witkowski

Dear Adrian,
Thank you for the link and information! I will read this article as soon as possible. Just briefly: I hope that this ruling will increase transparency in auction house deals, but I guess we won’t know until we read about upcoming auctions under this new ruling.

Pendery Weekes

Hi Viktor, I found your Speakeasy very thought provoking and wondered if we could start a conversation on it here in the comment area. I agree with you when you wrote “…a call for more democracy, transparency and equality for artists is required. But artists have to make this call. Are we up for the task? An artist network based on mutual friendship, support and exchange of ideas is the most effective tool against an art market that primarily follows a trail of money.” This call for “more democracy, transparency and equality” needs to be enacted for our governments, the… Read more »

Viktor

Thank you for your comment and question. I am happy to elaborate a bit more. When I was writing this Speakeasy, I had something very concrete in mind: blind submissions. A “blind submission” is when an Open Call for artists asks for anonymous portfolio submissions or exhibition proposals by artists on projects. Unlike the majority of Open Calls, a “blind submission” withholds the name of an applicant when reviewers sort through the submitted material. In most cases CVs are not even part of the submission. As a practicing artist, I spend a good amount of time responding to all sorts… Read more »

Craig Brothaigh

Hi Victor, I agree with you that people are very resistant and unwilling to accept change in their lives. However, it is through change that we renew ourselves and learn new coping mechanisms. Change is unsettling; it can create stress and discomfort. However, it is through change that we become problem solvers and definitely more creative, that is if we accept change and don’t refuse it. When we cannot embrace change, it’s when we suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, and ensuing depression. Kevin McKenna who is from the Observer and is also the Executive Editor of the Daily Mail, makes… Read more »

Anonymous

Change is inevitable. There is much anxiety and resentment out there. Art is about change. A substantial problem is political correctness. In our Western Culture the critical or lone independent voice is suspect or not welcome, unless a deal is struck or it is safe socially. As Daren Jones the NY Editor wrote, the Critical Dustbowl is present in America. Serious critical discourse seems to be not possible. Unless there is a deal, this can happen in many ways; tacit agreement is usually the case. The present art world, except for dealers and collectors, suffers from cowardice, which is usually… Read more »

Margot Fortier

Hi, you wrote, “If our culture is to be saved, artists, writers and publishers will have to play their part.” What about the buyers, shouldn’t they also play their part? I think people have forgotten that it is possible to fall in love with an artwork and to desire it as intensely as one would desire a man or a woman and not necessarily look at it as an investment. I think the buyers (society) today have lost their sense of aesthetics and purchase art as a commodity and not as a work of art. Artists themselves, should stop “producing”… Read more »

Viktor

Hello Margot, Thank you for your comment and question. I agree that the buyers have to play their part too. And you are absolutely right to point out that some buyers/collectors do it out of passion: they will only buy a work of art that resonates with them. In that case, it does not matter to them if it is a work by a well-known or entirely unknown artist. I remember reading an interview with the art critic Jerry Saltz in which he mentions that he and his wife (art critic Roberta Smith) often go to flea markets and buy… Read more »

Viktor

Hi Craig,
Thank you for your comment and helpful feedback- I really appreciate it! I hope you are right: if we all start taking small steps in the right direction, maybe at the end we will actually find changed conditions that are truly more inclusive and lead to a better, healthier (art) world.

Viktor

Derek Guthrie

The above conversion is pertinent; we have a globalized world with a flight of money and wealth to the top 1% richest. The situation emerged with the birth of modernism. The isolation of the artist is a time-honored problem that befell the art scene around the emergence of modern art. Simply the mass public could not identify with the modern artist. Our Postmodern era has witnessed the rise of media as a political and cultural determinant. See Orwell !984 and Animal Farm, also The Road to Wigan Pier. The American Modernist Avaunt guard is fading and past its sell-by date.… Read more »

Viktor Witkowski

I agree with your description of “class warfare” with regard to the art world, if we think of the “art world” as the world of art fairs. Just today, I saw somebody post an image of a striking Egon Schiele watercolor on Instagram that is on sale at Art Basel. My first thought was: this work should be part of the collection of a publicly accessible museum. Instead, it might end up on another yacht. I am not sure that I agree that the “flight of money and wealth to the top 1% richest” emerged with modernism. I think it… Read more »