The Present State of Our Art World

For a very long time, at least since the 1980s, there has been a dramatic contrast between the politics of most art writers and artists and those of the collector class. The art writers and artists who had any political concerns have been liberal-leftists, while their collectors often have had decidedly conservative views. (Here of course I generalize.) People who are very good at making money are, in general, unlikely to be leftists. (But of course there are exceptions.) When I say that the artists and writers were leftists, I should qualify that claim. They held leftist views but were unlikely to act politically in any practical way, apart from signing petitions. Indeed, if you are far enough to the left you may well think that nothing you say or do is likely to have any practical effect.

The basis of this contrast goes back to the 1950s, when Clement Greenberg, the greatest and most influential American art writer, developed a Marxist theory of modernist even while his own activities migrated rightwards from depression era leftist politics to outright right wing positions. His career showed that theorizing could be disconnected from practical politics. When in the 1980s I came into art criticism from a very different, essentially apolitical field, philosophy, I was for a long time puzzled by the politics of my colleagues. What seemingly was at stake, I surmised, was a professional guilt, the sense that one ultimate role of art writing was to support the market system in art. Maybe that was an unfair, dismissive judgment. But so far as I could see, although a few conservatives complained, no one was seriously bothered by this odd situation.

That the most famous (and best) authority on Impressionism published ferocious leftist manifestoes did not prevent him from achieving the highest academic honors. Nor was anyone disturbed when the man generally said to be the greatest living American sculptor had his work accompanied, at least early on, with leftist claims. It was as if the establishment simply didn’t take these outspoken political statements seriously. Or didn’t even care about them. Very well known critics argued in the 1980s that there were two kinds of artworks: those good ones that were politically critical; and those others that lacked that criticality. Their theorizing was very different from Greenberg’s, but here you see the critical inheritance of his Marxism. All of these works entered into the same art markets, and were supported by the same collectors and public museums. And so it was natural to ask whether this contrast between politically critical art and conformist works made any difference or, indeed, was real.

At any rate, what’s happened right now is that this long standing alliance between leftist artists and the political powers in the art world has come apart. It’s useful to identify three stages of that development. A couple of years ago, Black artists started, finally!, to be taken seriously. Then there were widespread critical discussions about the finances of art museums, and the uneasiness about some sources of their funding. And right now it has been amplified with the spill over of the latest Middle Eastern conflicts into domestic politics. Concern with race; with museum financing; and with Middle Eastern wars: all of these are long lasting conflicts, and so it’s surprising, in retrospect, that their effects did not surface earlier in the art world. Until recently, very many artists were free to make political art without having their works judged critically by the people who buy the art and pay the bills for museums. Now, however, it seems, that is no longer happening.

These three novel developments involve rather distinct demands. Adding Black artists (and Black curators) to the art world, while a major change, seems compatible with the basic operation of the present art world system. The canon is always changing, and so adding Jacob Lawrence to the major artists from the era of the Abstract Expressionists and Adrian Piper to the conceptual artists is merely to enlarge the pool of much admired artists. Response to critical debates about museum funding is a more dramatic demand, for if it requires providing less support for extremely expensive artworks, then the present art world economy will indeed be changed. Once the political interests of the upscale museum trustees are examined critically, it will surely be harder to raise vast sums. And so it’s hard to know exactly what a lower key economic art world would be like. As for the third concern, the spill-over of Middle Eastern politics into the art world, its effect is harder still to predict. Zionism is not an especially prominent theme in contemporary art, and so the avoidance or promotion of displays of works with that subject would not, in itself, be a major change. But what’s at issue may be larger themes, concern with colonialism and its legacy, and, as noted earlier, the link to debates about art world financing.

Suppose that the collector-class seriously policed the political claims of contemporary art. In the earlier case of Black art, there was a new desire to display, promote and collect work by Black artists. What would happen if the collectors were to make demands about what work they will (and won’t) support? The reason that American museums depend so heavily upon private funding is that if put to a public test, it would be impossible to get support for even remotely controversial exhibitions of contemporary work. And so our museums need their upscale collectors. Already we find a similar-seeming situation in the education world, where some donors are saying that they want to control what is taught and who teaches. Given that some universities are dependent upon donors, this may be a serious demand, one that carries real financial consequences. Perhaps, then, the same thing will happen in the art world.

This art world has changed. When in 1972 I did my thesis defense at Columbia University, the chair of my committee was Arthur Danto, the philosopher soon to become a renowned critic, and a distinguished art historian, Howard Hibbard. And the third member was a literary scholar, known at that time only for his writings about deconstruction and modernist literature. But soon enough Edward Said because famous. I remember a few years later looking in the faculty directory and finding that he had no home address listed. In our culture, political fame can be tricky. Of course the present art world is just a very small part of the world economy. And so it’s dangerous to draw larger conclusions from our particular situation. But it does seem obvious that massive change is on the horizon. Under the old regime, patronage functioned in a top-down basis. Perhaps we will return to that situation.

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.