Art Works Money

By Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick
Thames and Hudson, 2004

Look no farther than the streets of our city to observe the extent to which the art world has been blanketed in money. Garnering a great deal of media attention is the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, following a nine-figure gutting. The New Museum of Contemporary Art shall soon take up in better digs, after a brief stint in Chelsea’s carnivalesque art scene. Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Museum completed a drastic alteration to its façade. New York’s cultural landscape at the dawn of the millennium is its freshest since the late 1930s, when two fledgling organizations, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, established themselves as permanent New York fixtures. Yet this widespread positive flux is only the most visible sign detailing what comfortable bedfellows money and art have become, and consequently how frankly capitalist the art world has grown.

Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick air their suspicions of this affair between art and money in Art Works Money. For the most recent installment of the publisher’s Art Works series, the authors set their eyes on the macro- and microcosmic features alike concerning art’s ongoing duet with money. The book proposes an exhibition centered on the theme of money, and more specifically, the various ways artists engage money as a concept in their work, in some instances in and of itself as a socioeconomic tool, in others, in its relationship to art. The exhibition treats an undercurrent of contemporary art the authors allege thus far has been largely ignored in the United States: what and how artists create “in a social world dominated by money” as well as “artists’ responses to the commercial context of their practice during the last several years.”

Each of the seven “rooms” of the exhibition—each a chapter of the book—is given a title that coheres the art within. The themed rooms appear in the following order: precious materials, credit, production, store, circulation, business, and alternatives. The panel discussion following the exhibition offers a sobering assessment of the art world today, making mention of such contentious issues as the marginalized role of art criticism in the new art-world schema, artists’ posturing within the art market, and swelling institutional wealth and power.

As an academic exercise charting this trend in contemporary art, Art Works Money is invaluable. It draws upon on a wide range of artists’ works, surveying a robust spectrum of approaches. The confluence of art and money finds explicit treatment in works such as Robert Morris’s “Money,” in which art is equated with more conventional financial instruments, or in Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock, and David Avalos’s “Arte Reembolso/Art Rebate,” where money itself finds direct use as an artistic medium. Some of the works convey biting criticisms of the art world and society at large, such as Hans Haacke’s “The Chocolate Master,” Santiago Sierra’s “Ian the Irish,” and Michael Ray Charles’s “(Forever Free) Art n American.” The determinants of and discrepancies between artistic and monetary value are explored as well, through the work of Piero Manzoni, Rainer Ganahl, and Cildo Meireles.

Although the linear structure of the exhibition dictates a rigidity that presumably would present a stumbling block, the book format is acutely utilized to form a critical proposition. The final room we encounter is entitled Alternatives. It contains works by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Rirkrit Tiravanija, which discard the capitalist underpinnings of the conventional reception-collection process by freely offering to the viewer the artwork itself. The unconditional exchange of an artistic idea is reified by the physical token provided to the viewer. In their work, they proceed beyond critiquing the system in favor of circumventing it. By concluding with this body of work, the authors implicitly emphasize its pioneering idealism as a touchstone of fresh methodology. Additionally, the transcendence of the capitalist art system achieved by these artists provides an optimistic coda sharply contrasting with other, more defeatist, bodies of art found in the book and is an apt prelude to the succeeding discussion as well.

Siegel and Mattick are joined by Raymonde Moulin, to whom the text is dedicated, Lane Relyea, Richard Shiff, and Rainer Ganahl to consider what command the art market in its current form maintains over contemporary art. “The art business has grown very big,” remarks Richard Shiff. “Artists can’t by themselves put a stop to it.” Rainer Ganahl recasts the easily acceptable and misleadingly clear-cut hegemonic structure Shiff suggests, contending, “If an artist manages to work the media and its related forces to manipulate it in his/her favour as he/she used to work art materials, his/her market will become exuberant.” Shiff alludes to an internalized autonomy of the art market to which artists have little choice but to belong, whereas Ganahl places artists in an external relationship with their “market,” a plastic construct ultimately subject to the artist’s whim. That Shiff and Ganahl contrast in where and upon whom they place blame for art’s unpleasantries is testimony to the issue’s complexity. Certainly neither panelist offers an encouraging illustration of the nature of the art market and artists’ interaction with it. The transparency of the market encourages artists, who perhaps wish for exposure and acceptance, to adopt a model (consciously or otherwise) of success founded on money in order to fulfill those original goals of appreciation and artistic success. The system does require the willingness of the artist to succumb to market demands, yet those same markets for various types of art works are established by the artists—at least at the outset. Ganahl and other artists are recognizing that this relationship can beget a successively parochial creative environment. He elaborates by stating, “My entire modus operandi is organized around practices that are independent of classical market exchanges. Developing alternative models of success, presentation, communication, circulation, and exchange for what I do as ‘art’ is crucial for me.” Formulating paradigms of success that the machinations of the art market cannot provide frees an artist from its influences.

Art Works Money strikes a tense balance between a dispassionate account of a mounting phenomenon in contemporary art and an unflinching critical appraisal of the systems of art—to borrow Larry Shiner’s term—that have in so many respects informed and determined the creative points of departure in question. The authors are unabashed in their credence of the more disreputable truths of our capitalist art establishment. But in an effort that mirrors the works of art they subtly champion, they offer some morsels of assurance that bespeak of a purer realm of art beyond our own.

 

Contributor

Roger Kamholz

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