Just what is it that makes the contemporary art market so different so appealing?

for Denn alles was den Gesetzen des Verstandes und der Vernunft widerstreitet,
ist freilich unmöglich
, Berlin 2013

The contemporary art market is often presented as an insatiable monster that hungrily eats up innocent artists with their pure ideas only to, after a time throw them back up, sucked out and hollow. An often heard opinion is that the art market destroys the high quality of art since it forces the artist not to think about long term artistic development but merely short term commercial success. At the same time, on the other side of the art front stand troops of market supporters who claim that contemporary art has been flourishing precisely because of the increasing growth of the art market, as the old and new global buyers create a healthy demand and therefore stimulate the artistic production worldwide. According to this view a good artist is an artist who earns enough money to focus on his or her art, whereby ‘enough’ today doesn’t mean by bread alone.

Yet what is the art market? The most satisfying definition would be to consider the art market as the totality of worldwide economic infrastructures, social relations and financial transactions, through which artworks are being bought and sold and in which various actors of the art field engage in the exchange of material and immaterial goods related to art. This definition immediately suggests that art market is not a clearly delineated economical territory but more a phenomenon that penetrates almost all aspects of the art field. Subsequently, there is hardly any ideological or physical space that could be considered to be outside the market. As brilliantly proved by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his extensive study Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) the art field, including the art market, is made out of positions represented by various people who are fighting there for different forms of capital including the symbolic. A more interesting question is therefore where the abovementioned hostile or supportive attitudes toward the market are coming from and what does it say about those who express them.

The role of the art market has become even more complex today because of incessant migrations of people between various positions representing certain ideological approaches: curators join auction houses, dealers become museum directors, collectors have strengthened their role in financing museums acquisitions, art fairs organize curatorial talks while curators shift between projects in numerous public and private institutions. What the meaning of these transformations would be in the long term is difficult to predict. What is certain is that theoretical discourse, art history narratives, institutional structure and the art market have become closely related. Although each of them seem to follow their own logic, strategies and programmatic agendas, they are all in the same boat. Consequently, the art market likes to gamble but is everything but capricious; it values institutional support for an artist for his or her contextualization in the current theoretical discourse and eagerly seeks to employ art history to establish ‘artistic value’, by translating it into a commercial one.


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