Is the art market the strongest movement of the 21st century?

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“For almost every decade of the 20th, so what about the 21st century?” Asks Josh Bär in his industry newsletter, the Bear faxes. “Two decades later, the ‘ism’ that has caught on is actually the art market.”

As a consultant embedded in the New York art trade, that’s what Baer would say. But the question is still relevant, given the ongoing stalemate affecting much of the visual arts in the West. Meanwhile, global auction sales of contemporary art hit an all-time high of $ 2.7 billion between July 2020 and June 2021.

But is it really the case that the 21st century has not yet produced a meaningful art movement? And does it matter?

Pop stars: a team photo of Andy Warhol (fourth from left in the bottom row) and staff at The Factory in New York in 1968 Photo: Fred W. McDarrah / MUUS Collection via Getty Images

“According to Warhol, art world observers thought in ‘scenes’ rather than in movements,” says Hal Foster, professor of art and archeology at Princeton University, who, like many others, believes that art movements are past their terminological era. “With the rapid movement of the 1960s and 1970s, most artists, critics, and curators became suspicious of ‘isms’. They seemed to be seen more as brands than projects. ”Foster admits, however, that“ formations ”have emerged since then, but these are to be understood as“ conceptual orientations of different practices and not as self-appointed groups of a select few ”.

But call it what you like, wasn’t there something collective when the Young British Artists (YBAs) were in their creative pomp at the turn of the century? Or more recently, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, after a whole new wave of color artists gained recognition in the market and in museums?

However, the question that remains is whether these are coherent artistic movements or whether they are looser groupings whose labeling the market considers profitable.

“Institutions are losing their power as designers of art history. The great ‘ism’ of the 21st century is globalism because every museum has found that its claim to universalism does not apply to much of the world, ”says John Zarobell, associate professor at the University of San Francisco and author of the book 2017 Art and world economy. “And the contemporary art market really picked up speed, making the art of the present in most cases more valuable than the art of the past, so that the idea of ​​the art market became dominant.”

It was different in the early 20th century. Gertrude Stein recalls that in 1903-07 Picasso “became the head of the movement that would later become known as the Cubists”. Marinetti claims in his 1909 manifesto that “courage, audacity and revolt” will be the “essential elements” of futurism. Avant-garde artists from this time of momentous technological and political change had an enormous sense of their own ability to act. They really thought their art could change the world. Now it is the price of art, like the $ 25.4 million recently paid for a half-shredded Banksy, that first and foremost makes the world notice if not change it.

After Pop Art it no longer made sense to make a kind of art as a revolutionary transformation of what had gone before

Richard Noble, art professor

As many critics have noted, the avant-garde appears to have run out of gas. “After Pop Art it no longer made sense to make any kind of art – from ex, minimalism or situationism – to see it as a revolutionary transformation of everything that came before it,” says Richard Noble, professor and head of the art department at Goldsmiths College, London. “The idea of ​​the avant-garde and the types of aesthetic and political perspectives it generated cannot survive in cultures where the idea of ​​revolution is as degenerate as ours. The market undoubtedly has some influence on it, but so has the collapse of the Soviet empire. “

There are also practical considerations. For most of the 20th century, artists could find inexpensive spaces to work and live in. “There were many old industrial buildings that we could convert for exhibitions. That’s how we started. By breaking into places and securing them, ”recalls artist Michael Landy, who was part of the YBA set in the late 1980s.

Virtually every building in London today is an investment vehicle. Student dormitories are currently “the top performing asset class over all other forms of commercial investment,” according to Sterling Woodrow, a real estate investment company.

In the 21st century, artist education and output have become investment opportunities. the Financial Times Commentator Philip Stephens recently wrote that he viewed the 2008 financial crash, the culmination of “the failure of the laissez-faire economy,” as the most momentous geopolitical event in 25 years, explaining Trump’s presidential victory, Brexit and the rise of authoritarian populist governments.

Stephens writes: “The excesses of the financial services industry and the decision of governments to pass the costs of the crisis on to the working class and the lower middle class have hit the core of democratic legitimacy.”

This pervasive analysis in turn raises the question, if the laissez-faire economy has delegitimized democracy, has it also delegitimized the art that democracies produce? The super-rich have spent billions on art as an alternative asset class, and some artists have made millions by delivering it. Isn’t art marketism (as Baer might say) enough to deter people from art, just as democracy deterred them?

Artists are now too busy building inventory for exhibitions, fairs, and auctions to think about art movements. Many manage to “just meet demand,” as Baer puts it. “I’m not saying that there was no great art in the 21st century; there just wasn’t a big art movement. The market discourages experimentation, ”says Baer. But what about NFTs? “NFTs are a medium, not a movement. Nobody will tell me that a CryptoPunk is on the same artistic level as a Cezanne. ”But in June one of those punks sold for a record $ 11.8 million. The highest auction price so far this year for a work by Cézanne, this post-impressionist titan, is $ 20 million below Banksy’s, according to Artprice. But who would bet against a CryptoPunk making $ 20 million by the end of the year?

In Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful world where are you, Alice, the main character, reflects: “I think the 20th century is a long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong.” make world changing, just the wrong answer?


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