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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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