The Art World System

As an art critic my aim, like that of every critic, is to record the visual life of our culture, by responding to the best art displays. And also, in my writing I frequently have a second goal, which is not the concern of all my fellow critics: I seek to understand the art world system. I am then interested in the relationship of criticism to the changing styles of art gallery displays, the market system which makes my activity as a critic possible. Also, I am interested in the history of art criticism itself, in that play of ideas which has changed in response both to important political demands and thanks to recent swift publication on-line of well edited, fully illustrated reviews. And in the response of other art writers to this situation. As we’ll see, it’s important to keep these two goals, doing criticism and understanding this system, distinct. A great deal of prominent contemporary art doesn’t much interest me much as art, but I am always challenged to consider it from a sociological point of view, by explaining its place in the art world system.

In the back of my mind when writing about this system is awareness of the economic realities. Sixty years ago thanks to the American Abstract-Expressionists the foundations of our present upscale art world with its important market in contemporary art were created. And so now we have some lavishly financed contemporary art dealers, extensive support for museum curators, and frequently also posh exhibition catalogues. To fully understand, you need an historical perspective. There is a literature on this art world system. Typically these popularizing writers, who usually are impressed by the quantity of money involved, look at it from outside. My different goal, writing as a philosopher who does art criticism is to understand this system from inside. I want to explain, as best as I can, how galleries function as sales rooms, how younger critics are rewriting the contemporary canon, and how museums support the art gallery system. And I am especially interested in considering how this system is rapidly changing right now, in response to demands for participation by groups that previously have been unjustly excluded.

Art criticism is a form of rhetoric. Its goal, today as in the Italian Renaissance, is to be suasive, to persuade the viewer to take up its perspectival viewpoint. Philosophy’s very different goal is to understand the world as it actually is, achieving objectivity and so offering a reliable historical and moral perspective. And so it’s important to be aware when a writer’s shift from one of these activities to the other takes place, for they involve different standards, and diverse goals and purposes. As an art critic I tell you what works I admire, making judgments that I hope may inspire you to agree. And as a philosopher I step back and offer what I believe to be a truthful analysis on the art world system. The terms of my analysis thus are both arrogant and very humble. Arrogant because I aspire to understand the vast present art world- and humble because my own place in that system is humble. Think of me, then, as like one of those old master painters who in his vast pictorial machine includes a self-portrait showing himself at work making that picture.

That we critics are paid shows that they are part of a commercial art world system. And that they are badly paid demonstrates that they are a marginal part of that system. Philosophers are not paid generally for their writings; doing philosophy today is a totally academic activity. Two generations ago, it was possible to scrap out a living doing art writing. Now in our present gentrified urban culture, no one could make even a minimal income just from writing for publication in any of the journals that I’ve worked for. Some critics are known to complain that we are very poorly paid. I certainly understand their complaint, for being poorly paid (for any form of labor) implies that the activity is not highly valued. And that makes it hard to have self-respect. Looking at a much more important case, think of the important feminist complaints about the low pay for the women who do daycare. But in the art world system, the low pay reflects the reality of the importance of criticism. Of course, almost every artist likes a review. When the vast majority of shows attract no written response, even a critical review counts for something. And so often there is a certain amount of hustling of reviewers by public relations people.

No doubt a rave review about a younger or marginal artist in the New York Times makes a difference. But so far as I can tell in general most reviewing doesn’t have much effect upon the art market. To understand why this is the case, let’s return to consider the link between criticism and rhetoric. Art critics ‘ judgments claim to be persuasive- they show us a way to see art, not its objective value. Should you accept the critic’s judgment? No- you need to decide that for yourself, for in the recent past not even the greatest critics provided reliable knowledge about the exchange value of artworks. If you had been a speculator in contemporary art in the 1960s, you would have done better not to pay too much attention to Clement Greenberg’s judgments. And nowadays, when it’s impossible to achieve a critical consensus, critics surely don’t provide reliable information about the value of new artworks.

To complain too much about the low fees for criticism thus shows a certain inability to understand the economics of the contemporary art world. Of course, such a complaint might have a different (political) goal. It might function as a critique of the present gallery system. An art world in which many hard working able people cannot earn a living wage cannot be morally acceptable. That’s why the critiques of poor museum wages, such as are published regularly in Hyperallergic, are so important. They too reveal real problems. Our present art world depends upon extensive exploitative labor. And that’s wrong. But how might that system be changed? Because our art world is tied so obviously and intimately to upscale capitalism, that question is not easy to answer. But considering it critically is very important right now. Often in life it’s necessary to work within a system whilst aware of its moral shortcomings. And that’s the only way to live and work within our art world. But as I have said, I can understand why someone who wants to write criticism might find these necessary compromises unacceptable.


On one component of the art world system see my book with Darren Jones, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege (2016).

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.