Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Art Incorporated

[Slightly edited to remove typos]
I have been reading a small book by Julian Stallabrass, who lectures at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. The edition that I have is entitled Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction, (one of a series of Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press) but it was first published in 2004 under the title Art Incorporated, which better reflects its contents. The book discusses the period 1989 to about 2002, covering the collapse of the Communist states in Eastern Europe and the emergence of the U.S. as the sole superpower, the stockmarket crash of the late 1980s, the boom in the 1990s and the dot-com crash of 2000. The book contains a sustained discussion of the relationship of the art world to globalisation, neoliberal ideology, rampant capitalism and consumerism, with reference to a substantial number of individual artists and artworks.

A few quotes from the book:

"Art prices and the volume of art sales tend to match the stock markets closely, and it is no accident that the world's major financial centres are also the principal centres for the sale of art."

"Corporate culture has thoroughly assimilated the discourse of a tamed post-modernism. As in mass culture, art's very lack of convention has become entirely conventional."

And, even more strongly:
"The daring novelty of free art - in its continual breaking with conventions - is only a pale rendition of the continual evaporation of certainties produced by capital itself, which tears up all resistance to the unrestricted flow across the globe of funds, data, products, and finally the bodies of millions of migrants."

In the context of the proliferation of biennales in the 1990s:
''Just as business executives circled the earth in search of new markets, so a breed of nomadic global curators began to do the same, shuttling from one biennale or transnational art event to another ..."

"[A biennale] performs the same function for a city ... as a Picasso above the fireplace does for a tobacco executive."

In discussing an exhibition of Chinese art in Hong Kong in the context of globalisation, making the point that the welcome for "exotic" artists in the international art scene is very selective:
"... such works [in more traditional Communist and realist styles] were genuinely different from Western productions and therefore invisible to the global art system".

And a rather depressing conclusion:
"To break with the autonomy of free art is to remove one of the masks of free trade. Or, to put it the other way round, if free trade is to be abandoned as a model for global development, so must its ally, free art."

Despite the conclusion, I found the book refreshing!

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