In this set-up for After Art, his slim tome of theory on networked images, Yale’s David Joselit argues that art’s status as a luxury commodity is not a bug, but a feature, and the art world should get with the program:
Indeed, all over the world, from Bilbao to Abu Dhabi to Beijing, new contemporary museums are being established in order to consolidate local elites, and broadcast a global image of cultural progressiveness. Commenting on the Qatar Museum Authority’s staggering budget of some $1 billion per year for art acquisitions, the New York Times recently declared, “it seems clear that, just as Qatar has used its oil riches to boost its influence in the Middle East with ventures like arming Syrian rebels, its wealth is also being deployed to help the country become a force in the world of culture.” It is rather breathtaking — and enormously revealing — that arming Syrian rebels and building a sophisticated cultural infrastructure can be so seamlessly joined in the same sentence.
Paradoxically, artists, critics and historians too often disavow the art world’s capacity as an economic engine and its political power as a marker of national development. The reasons for this are obvious: if one admits the real economic and cultural power of the art world, one must also give up on the enduring myth that works of art remain apart from that world, existing in a realm of detached criticality or extra-economic authenticity. In actuality, the art world has grown enormously in the post-World War II period and in its combination of knowledge production, public presentation, and patronage of powerful elites, it has begun to resemble institutions of higher learning on the one hand, and the entertainment industry on the other. It seems to me that art’s worldly power, which tends to be veiled (or literally obscene), can be harnessed better and to more progressive ends by artists.
I guess I’ll have to read the book, but a term like “art world” can obfuscate a whole lot of power-related detail, of who’s doing the wielding and to what end. But I suspect neither art’s power nor the enduring myth are quite as real IRL as they are in Joselit’s thought experiment. And I don’t know about revealing, but that whole Syrian thing just gets more breathtakingly timely by the week, doesn’t it?
UPDATE: Joselit’s piece ends by holding up Ai Weiwei as an example of an artist who wields this kind of art world/real world power. Which, interestingly, Jason Farago mentions Ai, too, in his BBC article on the timid Metropolitan Opera getting dragged into the controversy over Russia’s shameful discrimination of LGBT people. Farago compares the Met’s inaction to the institutional outcries and support given to Ai Weiwei during his imprisonment. [via @karenarchey]
Which might render Joselit’s notion of art world power all the more quaint, and his call for action all the more damningly empty. His book came out in 2012, but the oppression and discrimination against lesbians and gays in Russia is surely the first test of Joselit’s paradigm: a fundamental “progressive end” toward which the “art world”–not just artists and institutions, but presumably, the administrators, executives, trustees, collectors, dealers, fair organizers, magazines, philanthropists, and critics–should be harnessing “art’s worldly power.”
How’s that going? Sure, there’s tepid talk of boycotting the Moscow Biennial. But has anyone checked in with the Russian oligarchs and collectors [and the Ukranian one(s), for that matter, since Ukraine has already enacted similar discriminatory measures] who collect, show and sponsor? Who chair galas and sit on museum boards and invest in art-related Internet startups? It would make for an exciting Frieze VIP preview. But I’m not waiting up.
The Politics of Information | David Joselit [berfrois.com]