Narratives Make the Art World Go 'Round
Last night I went to hear acclaimed art world grenade launcher Dave Hickey give a talk to celebrate the release of his new essay collection, Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste. The talk covered - or really, incinerated - a lot of ground, all of it tied to how the art world has changed since 1972. As those familiar with his work would guess, Hickey is decidedly not in favor of those changes, to about the same degree as I would be not in favor if you suggested I cram my right paw into the nearest churning garbage disposal.
Hickey’s core gripe is the mainstreaming of the art world over the past several decades - or more specifically, what he sees as a broad and stomach-turning set of compromises made by an older generation of artists, imposed on (and accepted by) their successors. In his view, these compromises have sanitized and crippled contemporary art. Once a stagecoach being wrenched into unexplored territory by a frothing, rabid Clydesdale team of misfits, iconoclasts, addicts, and lunatics, the art world has voluntarily reined itself in for the sake of the same creature comforts - teaching jobs, home ownership, industry awards - they once lived to evade, if not maraud outright.
The result has been, in Hickey’s view, a forty-year ascension of tripe. The artists being exhibited by the country’s leading museums and acquired by the world’s most influential collectors are not the ones venturing into the great unknown; they are what I would describe as the ones who can most neatly be packaged. And even though I came away from the talk convinced that he would gleefully break this blog into kindling if it were possible - he spat out the phrase “art market” like an abscessed tooth - here is where Hickey’s perspective and mine unite for one brief, harmonious instant.
To make his point about museums, Hickey highlighted Isa Genzken’s current retrospective at MOMA . He attributed her entire career’s existence to her having once been a model, once been married to painter and auctioneer aphrodisiac Gerhard Richter, once been a live-in companion of the once-influential art historian Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, and I believe having once been diagnosed as bipolar. (Whether Genzken and her gallerists have actively called attention to her illness or not, it is so often explicitly referenced by respectable platforms in discussions of her work that it is now undeniably part of her “official” story. I just can’t recall whether Hickey added it to the list of enablers or not.)
Why do these aspects of Genzken’s life matter to her career arc? They are moduals that can be used to build a clear, compact narrative. Without them, her work might be invisible ink to curators and collectors. But by assembling them in the right order, they become a spy glass through which her output comes into focus. What once looked like a random assortment of disparate ideas becomes a bracingly honest and insightful personification of the artist’s struggles with her own identity - in relation to her role in society (objectified woman, or empowered artist?), in relation to the towering male legacies in her past (unwitting avatar for their ideas, or her own woman?), and in relation to her struggles with an illness whose very nature is to fracture her reality. We suddenly have all the tools we need to understand, appreciate, and ultimately resolve her work.
It’s the “resolve” part that’s so important in today’s art world. Hickey described his modus operandi in viewing art as “looking softly.” By this he meant a willingness to approach the work with no preconceived notions of its maker’s life, what passions or ideas might have driven its creation, or any concept of what the art “meant.” He noted that he has been looking at the same Ad Reinhardt painting he owns for fifty years without completely understanding what it is or what it’s about. All he could offer was that it encompassed a kind of “soft oblivion,” which he admitted came nowhere close to settling the issue. To him, this mystery - the sense that there are always greater depths to plumb, the notion that he will never truly reach the bottom of this thing in his presence - is what makes an artwork truly great. Ideally, this near mysticism would be the gold standard by which art is judged.
I agree with Hickey about this. Now comes the part where, if he were to read this post, I imagine he may start vomiting blood.
The problem for gallerists and curators is that unknowability simply does not gel with the realities of our era’s art market. In fact, I would argue that the two are, in many cases, fundamentally incompatible. The reason museums like MOMA and powerhouse galleries like David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth champion Genzken is that her work can be efficiently and comfortably reduced to known quantities through narrative. The pre-packaged story takes the audience straight to the Tootsie Roll center. Nothing to wrestle with, nothing to wonder about, nothing to discover. Instant understanding equals instant gratification.
And speed - or rather, efficiency - is the key. Narratives have always been important in the art world. But my sense is that they have never been more crucial than right now; nor have they ever needed to be more concise or easily digestible. The art market’s growth has transformed it into a volume business. The average client no longer has the time, incentive, or compulsion to study an artist extensively before deciding whether or not to buy. What they want, and what the best gallerists and museums have learned to give them, is what the advertising industry would call an elevator pitch: streamlined enough that it can be enthusiastically grasped between the lobby and the destination floor.
Compare that to what Hickey had to say about Reinhardt. How could sellers in a market hope to sustain their businesses solely with products that take half a century to understand - products whose utility may not even be fully describable? It would be impossible. A handful of such works could become a part of the business model… but only a handful. There simply aren’t enough true connoisseurs in the collector base to support more. As I’ve said before, what usually matters most to clients now is not the artist’s unique voice, but rather who else has already begun collecting her work. To move assets on a volume basis, a supplier needs a quick hook, not a fifty-year enigma. It’s the only way they can close one deal and move rapidly enough to the next to keep the beast properly fed.
My point is that the generational pivot in the art world that Hickey staked to the year 1972 went beyond just the artists; the curators, gallerists, and collectors were swept up in it, too. The earlier era may have been full of renegades and outcasts making work that refused to give easy answers. But it was also sustained by a rare breed of collector willing to pay for the privilege of filling their homes and offices with open questions. As a rule, most people dislike uncertainty. It’s as true of what they hang on their walls as of what they choose for their careers. It’s discomfiting, even frightening, to not know what the path looks like, what waits at the end, or how long it will take to arrive there. As the art world has expanded like a cloud of bees swarming out of a harassed hive, simple math tells us that the vast majority of art world players - on both sides of the sales counter - will favor the knowable over the unknowable. Especially as the client base swells with individuals who acknowledge that they are buying art more to invest, even to speculate, than to “collect” in the classical sense.
It’s the influence of this demographic that has transformed contemporary art from an exalted underground into an asset class. Like all other asset classes, a robust market can only exist if its traders know exactly what it is they are dealing with. There are many questions to ask about what Tesla shares, oil futures, or the Japanese Yen will do next, but none about what each of those assets is or means. Each has a definition that fixes it firmly in reality, so that investors can decide whether to buy, sell, or hold.
In the art world, it’s the narratives that define the assets. The cleaner and more enticing they are, the better for artist, gallerist, and curator alike. Because the client base is no longer full of connoisseurs, and their intentions for artwork are no longer restricted to unraveling transcendent mysteries. Knowledge isn’t power in this realm - it’s money. The quicker the suppliers can provide the former, the quicker the consumers will provide the latter, and the larger the market can grow.
Hickey predicted at the end of his talk that there will come a day, maybe after he’s gone, where innovation and creative achievement will once again triumph, and the art world will return to its rebel innocence. I’m not so sure. Regardless of its end date, we agree in principle on the traits of contemporary art’s new era. The difference is in our reactions. His is repulsion; mine is fascination. But just like every artist needs a clear narrative, so too does every era of art. I plan on continuing to try to help tell this one’s, no matter how sordid it may be.