PRINT April 1975

The Art Market: Affluence and Degradation

IMPENDING ECONOMIC CRISIS HAS FORCED many deeply lurking problems into the open.1 Art sales are declining and there is an air of pessimism. The sense of opulence of the ’60s has gone to dust. As artists, we have tended to understand the art market only in its reward capacity, preferring to ignore the “dismal science” of economics. But no longer, it seems. While it may once have seemed an exaggeration of economic determinism to regard works of art as “merely” commodities in an economic exchange, it’s now pretty plain that our entire lives have become so extensively constituted in these terms that we can’t any longer pretend otherwise. Not only do works of art end up as commodities, but there is now an overwhelming sense in which works of art start off as commodities.

Faced with this impasse, we need alternate historical perspectives in order to throw light on some of the most basic of social relations, to perceive the lacuna between what we think we do and what we actually do in the world. The historical relations of up-to-date modern art are the market relations of a capitalist society. That much I believe is obvious to everyone. What we’ve more recently seen is the power of market values to distort all other values, so even the concept of what is and is not acceptable as “work” is defined first and fundamentally by the market and only secondly by “creative urges” (etc.). This has been the price of internalizing an intensely capitalistic mode of production.

Given this, shouldn’t we be scrutinizing certain historically unique aspects of our market relations? Have these wrought fundamental changes in the “art” produced? I know many of us have been grateful beneficiaries of this market. Nonetheless we have all ended up victims of its capriciousness, the “principles” of modern art having trapped us in a panoptical prison of our own making. Simply, this is the realization that if the arts were really democratized, we as producers of an elite art would no longer have any means of functioning—wanting to abolish elitism in modern art is tantamount to wanting to abolish modern art itself.

Within the moneyed structure of modern art, the collector or speculator or investor does not openly purchase my (as an artist) labor power; both my labor and means of production remain my own property and I sell only the product of my labor.2 What this suggests to me is that, in New York today, I’m operating on the principles of a lower and earlier stage of economic development, an atomistic stage of competitive market capitalism. It strikes me there’s little wrong with that. However, when faced with the larger marketing structure into which we’re all born and live and which is vastly higher developed, we become easy game for exploitation by that market. As we well know, a monopolistic international market was already operating under full steam by the time conditions arose making it possible to incorporate the art-marketing system—hence the transformations involved were unavoidably more rapid, the changes unavoidably more aggressive and antagonistic to each of us.

This is just one of the many paradoxical social contradictions I find myself in—that I am a producer still working under the illusions of one marketing system, while being a consumer in another, more overwhelming system. So, to me the most disturbing question is: to what extent have the modern market relations permeated my atomistic production that is, what are the changes this has brought about, and what are the consequences in my life? An answer to this may be pointed up in the actual functioning of a work of art in the market.

From the locus of the market, the work of art represents commodity capital; it acquires a market price which, being a function of manipulated demand and supply, virtually always deviates from the price of production—the concept of any sort of an “equilibrium market” where the market price is equal to the price of production is (almost) unheard of in the art community (i.e., price would equal the sum of the cost of materials and wages for man-hours worked on the merchandise). But why should an equilibrium market be inconceivable to me? Or, the flip side of that, how is it that the work of art is so readily manipulated in the market? There are a number of feasible answers—some reflecting attitudes like the romantic rejection of a per-hour value being put on artists’ time (which reflects the fact that artists’ time has never been commoditized—something I have great respect for).

Nonetheless, this is quite beside the point when the art market is acknowledged as an area of direct speculative investment: investing in oil-wells gives you few opportunities for increasing the odds of striking oil (though you may manipulate the “worth” of your stocks); but investing in particular artists or styles admits ample opportunities to manipulate the odds in your favor. The degree to which this can be done is a peculiarity of the art market. You see, it is only my initial contract with the market that involves production, after that the work is strictly in an exchange market (not involving production), and it is this exchange market which determines the production “value” (what I get for my work). It’s hard to think of any other form of production so exclusively determined by performance in an exchange market, and at the same time so free of legal restrictions—and hence so manipulable. Consequently, to me it appears that the work of (fine) art has become the ideal exchange commodity in our society.

Clearly, in talking like this, I’m thinking particularly of the market for “promising” artists. A distinction must be allowed between this sort of “risk” investment market where profits can and do rise spectacularly, and the “secure” investment market involving established artists (dead or alive) where turnover profit is smaller but guaranteed. The latter relies on there being a relatively limited supply, while the former relies on a continuing supply and where future price increase is capitalized on through resale of current production. With this in mind, it’s not so surprising that, inspired by our market-dependent culture, there has been such an upsurge in investing in the “risk” area. It’s also not surprising that so many “promising” artists are arrested by the market success at just that stage of early development, unable to develop freely any further. I’m also familiar with how difficult it is to know this is what is happening to you, and even more so to be able to admit it.

Being readily manipulable, what are the further consequences for the work of art when the market is, in addition, monopolistic? Capitalism as it developed in the U.S. is capitalism at its most powerful and aggressive stage—where we as individuals are constantly made to act as puppets who merely maximize consumption. It’s long been accepted that, for this system of marketing to work efficiently, it can’t help but be exploitive of its producers. In the U.S. over the past 15 years particularly, it seems to have been able to create demands for certain types of art, then monopolize the prices and the production in these styles. In some ways I suppose this was inevitable, given the problem of survival for the art market with its center in New York. In the circumstances of atomized production, the market was forced to provide the monopolizing framework.

But this sort of manipulative marketing has forced some very alienating consequences into my social life as an artist. A monopoly creates conditions which could never come about otherwise: I am “created” by the market as merely part of a labor force, an unorganized one but still a labor force. The size of this force has, significantly, augmented itself out of all proportion to the present market demand (. . . compare the number of artists working in New York now to, say, 25 years ago, to realize the probable truth in this). And remember all the while, for market efficiency, the supply must meet the demand and demand is now governed by market manipulation, not the market by demand.3 Moreover, once the market conceives of me as merely a unit in a labor force, I’m also aware I can be replaced at any time by an equivalent (as defined by the market, of course) unit—so, organizational efficiency begins to dominate me to the extent that my subjective worth and “work” become defused.

This increased labor force represents an expanded market, something which is also apparent when we recall once again that 25 years ago the market for U.S. art was largely a national one and how it since developed into an international market with gigantic foreign sales. Such expansion, initially dependent on competition, has the effect of systematically and diabolically destroying the competitive nature of the market. In the old market, it would seem to me artists competed more openly to sell their products, and, despite an ever-growing incentive to calculate as to the market and its buyers, the market was still dominated by private patrons. But, in the new monopoly, we “compete” differently. Perhaps I can suggest how by pointing briefly to the emergence of corporate monopolies in the U.S. in the early part of this century, where for the first time each individual was conceived as being “trained so as to be effective individually as an economic unit, and fit to be organized with his fellows so they can work efficiently together.”4 The old individualism was transformed into a new “economic individualism” which placed monetary self-interest above all else . . . this was to be the “true individualism.” Thus, my individualism was to be the result of my specialization in the service of the corporately organized society, and my specialization was the result of newly organized compulsory educational systems. Such was the rhetoric of the shift from the “irresponsible waste” of a competitive market to the monopolistic market of corporate industry, and through which the power of concentrated wealth was foreseen as the way to the great American dream.

Now that strikes me as roughly the way which, more recently, the art market has developed—the “new” artist no longer conceives of a personal relation to the market. It becomes merely an economic, and hence more impersonal, relation. This means my role of “artist” has become one befitting a trained and efficient economic unit, my “work” has become a mere reflex of my specialized role, and I’m encouraged to regard the market as really none of my business. The result being that the market has evolved its own autonomy, rapidly and independently of the persons supplying it. So this is the difference I mentioned above: whereas once (and not so long ago) the market was a more personal matter for the artist, it has become impersonal and independent of the artist and, in an emphatically economic world, this impersonal market has grown to such an extent that it now dominates and dictates to the artist.

Putting this into recent and familiar New York perspective: we have all been enticed by the prospect of endless market expansion which it seems, oddly enough, we have internalized in the idea of an endlessly innovative avant-gardist growth. This supports the power of the market by providing a subtly pervasive means of cultural and intellectual control, through implicit direction and the supplying of a categorical check on the “evolution” of art. In addition, the unprecedented concentration of capital invested by the market in this avant-gardist elite has successfully had the effect of reducing “unnecessary” competition, if not eliminating it altogether. Today it’s surely beyond any doubt that this popular idea of a “permanent revolution” in art is actively designed never to fulfill any personal and social relationship. From this point of view, it’s a set of empty gestures which threaten none of the market requirements and end up being a sheer celebration of the new individuality, arrogantly and, finally, stupidly set against the idea of sociality.

It’s also blatant how this concentration of production and capital has opened the way for monopolistic values and dubbed styles, and the ability of a few to manipulate absolute power in respect to these styles. This reflects, on other levels, the transformation into monopoly of free competition (or its esthetic corollary, “free expression,” a catchphrase we’ve all been psychologically duped with). In big business, “competition” has simply come to mean tempting customers away from rivals by product “differentiation” or by fancy service or better advertising or corporate images—and the art business today fairly accurately mirrors the very same practices.

But what about all those much lauded “innovations” the media has been ramming down our throats for so long? In most economic models, innovation appears as a new method of commodity production which has effect either in labor-saving or capital-saving—the innovator is considered as necessary, a logical mechanism in the system, creating more division of labor by creating other means of production and thus achieving a temporary monopoly. Which again entails more production, larger markets and maximal profits . . . the constant dynamic behind market expansion. Consequently, in art, innovation becomes an even more tyrannical “logic”: since it has been made to adhere to a false model of technological progress. Thus the market capitalizes on “innovation” for its own sake, as strictly a profit-maximizing factor, transforming it into a rather blatant however prestigious commodity on the market. I’m certainly self-consciously familiar with how “high art” has been rhetorically infected with the need to innovate and of myself being made to feel the pressure to innovate, on pain of extinction.

So where does that leave me? Like a lot of others, I’m revolted by the torpidity of the status quo on the one hand—and on the other, any desperate reactions to escape that status are celebrated as part of the “innovative logic” of the system! Meanwhile we are vulgarly lionized by institutions created in the belief that capitalism is divine and should not be tampered with and which are part of a market now so powerful that even the most iconoclastic work can be comfortably celebrated. With these conditions, wouldn’t it be sheer lunacy for me to maintain that my market relations are just incidental?5

There are a number of things I can no longer ignore. The emergence of the international art market along its present lines has been incontestably an arm of a necessary expansion of the whole U.S. neocapitalistic system and consolidation of marketing areas after the Second World War. As I pointed out above, the impersonal nature of the market forces it to expand without reference to the consumers or the producers. Furthermore, considering some of the sources of the capital backing it, it’s perhaps hardly surprising American art achieved its “internationalism”6 at a time when it also functioned as a weapon to fight the “menace of communism” (i.e., the main threat to U.S. domination of major marketing areas of the world).7 This was a period when various ideals were perverted into an esthetic ideology to sustain the emerging social and economic order. All was recent enough for most of us to be able to reconstruct how this internationalism created a “common interest” of selling to foreign investors, and how mutual advantage burgeoned into corporate interest. This common interest demanded more efficient production and organization—the outcome being, in this country, that the consolidation of the business of art intuitively followed the lines of the model of bureaucratic corporate industry. This doesn’t mean we have a concretized bureaucracy, it means the people running the various parts of the business of art, indeed ourselves, have internalized the bureaucratic method so that it now seems “natural” to separate functions, roles, relationships, from the people who perform (etc.) them. So we intuitively achieve the corporate spirit of bureaucratic organization without any of its overt structures—and, by such means, our “high culture” has reified itself into a remote and dehumanizing tradition.

Looking at my situation today, I’m obviously faced with functionally different circumstances from those of the early ’50s. In that period, in order to create a privileged art, it was necessary to produce something markedly different from what Europe was producing—this was reminiscent of the old competitive spirit, to succeed it had to be different. But the bureaucratization and new corporate marketing techniques (involving art criticism, the trade journals, galleries and museums, art schools and all) changed that so today we see the idea of “international high culture” demanding a uniformity dominated by New York art. To create a successful (i.e., privileged) art, I must now affirm and perpetuate at least one of the dominant styles. It’s hard for me to be blind to the fact that what happened to recent modern art closely parallels the entrenchment of the giant multinational corporations. But I want to restate, this has been achieved primarily on tacit agreements and not on the typically overt bureaucratic techniques—proving once more how little surveillance a system like this requires once the principles have been internalized and everyone has “like-minded” interests. This allows imperialism to operate in its most despicable state — where the specific character and subjectivity of any one place is disregarded and the “universality” of New York corporate uniformity is proclaimed.

In my mind, one depressing result of “incorporating” modern art has been the proportionately greater increase in the numbers of drab “nonproduction workers” (middlemen) compared to the increase in (sometimes equally drab) “production workers.” This is just part of the marketing structure’s expansion. But the consequences are very pervasive: by bureaucratizing, the market has developed a bureaucratic or corporate “taste,” essentially rendering personal or individual taste impossible. I can best illustrate this by pointing to the network of modern art museums which have sprung up like automobile sales-rooms throughout the Western world, all spouting the same rhetoric of “freely-developing, democratic, cultural, educational enterprises.” This has lost all relationship to me as an artist. The museums, run by the new culturecrats, have become overlording institutions utilizing all the packaging techniques of the greatest consumer society in order to sell “culture” (at a price) and openly serve as showcases propagandizing the global ambitions of our selling “successes.” The old “gunboat diplomacy” has been replaced by the new “modern art diplomacy” (e.g., the MOMA’s International Program).

In case it appears I’m overstating the role of U.S. capitalism in all this, let me emphasize the obvious, that the history of modern art from its beginnings was nurtured within a number of industrial societies, not just the U.S. Looking closer at that history, with its unrelenting emphasis on an “art-for-art’s-sake” ideology, we become conscious of the ever-increasing role played by a neutered formalism—at the expense of our possibility of content (. . . remember that old dichotomy of “form” and “content”?). The stress on exclusively formal innovation had the aftermath of content being in its last gasp reduced to such vacua as “color,” “edge,” “process,” “ideas,” “image,” etc. plus a lot of fatuous jargon about qualities symbolized through these (cf. especially Greenberg’s school of modernism, but also every issue of Artforum and most other magazines). This is formalism taken to its ultimate empty conclusions: it is what we have lauded as pure art . . . the impossibility of content, of saying anything whatsoever. The tradition of formalism has left me largely incapable of expressing through “my art” those very things about which I have the greatest misgivings, and so incapable of changing anything through “my art.” These ideological fetters have conclusively eradicated every possibility of a social practice in relation to art, even the thought of it—the expression of modern art has become the rejection of society and our social beings. Now, obviously the U.S. isn’t to blame for this, but it certainly deserves a lot of the credit for bringing it to a remarkable and unprecedented pitch. No longer just producing an art for a privileged middle class, it has burgeoned into a spectacularly elitist art, remote even from its own producers’ actual lives and problems.

What can you expect to challenge in the real world with “color,” “edge,” “process,” systems, modules, etc. as your arguments? Can you be any more than a manipulated puppet if these are your “professional” arguments? Moreover, when you add to this picture thousands upon thousands of artists in all the corners of the modern art empire tackling U.S. formalism in the belief that it’s the one “true art”—that’s how preposterous and finally downright degrading it has become!8

Needless to say, it’s easy for me to identify with some of the points of classic 19th-century theses about alienation. There it was argued that alienation is the process whereby human values are projected outside of us and achieve an existence independent of us, and over us, and this is an essential condition for the functioning of capitalism. We’re all familiar with the romanticized notions about the work of art “embodying the soul of the artist.” Well, perhaps historically this has taken on mythic proportions—but there is a very real sense in which everything produced ought to bear some personal relation to who makes it. However, once my work of art enters the art market, it takes on a power independent of me and this strikes me as a form of estrangement from what I have produced, an alienation from my own experiences; and the more I produce the more I deprive myself of my “means of life.” But I find I can only maintain myself by continuing in the same fashion. So—while I may retain economic ownership over my labor and means of production (thus giving me a sense of “freedom”), I’m still psychologically and socially alienated from what I myself produce. Once entering the market, it becomes an object foreign to me, but without the market, I don’t recognize it because it is defined via the market which I’ve internalized. Don’t we all experience this to greater or lesser degrees? As a result, myself-as-an-artist has become a stranger to me, a figure over whom I have little power or control. This is the ’70s blunt reality of alienation. No longer merely having lost the product of our labor, our ability to create is profoundly impaired . . . and this is also expressed in my relation to you, and burgeons in the relation you can have to what I produce.9

Often-heard remarks implying that it’s not enough to be “just an artist” are merely public admissions that, as a role in society, “artist” is a sterile one. More pointedly, this sheds light on the prevailing concept of “artist”: it has become an integral part of the meaning of the concept “artist” that it is politically conservative (or, at its most adventuristic, reactionary), and that remains its sole possible political role—hence its continuing great value as propaganda for an imperious culture. This is clearly reflected in the desperation of more and more artists to escape their political impotence, in their attempts to reconcile the paradoxicality of their lives wrought by being hopefully “radical” in politics but necessarily “conservative” in art.10

The inside story of this, is that there is no “radical theory” in the arts today, and there can be none while the present state of affairs prevails. That also explains something about the extreme poverty of “critical theory,” since a critical theory which sets itself the task of revealing the various forms of conflict and exploitation needs to be informed by some (prospect of) radical theory, something which denies the current ideology and economic class values embodied in modern art. Current and recent criticism has become at best a means of policing and regulating, at worst a sheer celebration of the impotence of the status quo.

In this light most of the chatter about “plurality” in the contemporary scene (particularly in the pages of Artforum) comes over as so much liberal claptrap. What use is a sort of “freedom” which can have no other effect than reinforcing the status quo? Skinner’s suggestion that freedom is just a feeling resulting from doing what you have been conditioned to do has many echoes too close to home. And furthermore, by ignoring its own realities, contemporary art criticism has collusively abetted these alienating processes. But, on the other hand, as artists we have to add our own careerist irresponsibility in allowing ourselves to become first inured and then dominated by our commitment to hacks in the trade art journals, who blithely use the commodity form of language of formal criticism to “compete” in discovering new marketable qualities.

The galleries also, of course, have an alienating function, having achieved social ascendency in this system and become more numerous and better organized. Belonging to a gallery which “competes” for us in the market means accruing some economic benefits while further reifying ourselves in an alienating role. Again, as artists we find ourselves forced into acting out a role, one that anyone else might fill just as readily. Reliance on skills becomes less important and the need for maintaining and fulfilling the requirements of the role function becomes more and more “real” and time-consuming. This is the bureaucrat’s existential nightmare and, make no mistake, we do have the artist-as-bureaucrat today.

Finally we must not forget to emphasize that the journals, the galleries and dealers have no more or less a stake in these hierarchical and careerist economics than we ourselves do—and so we have no privileged right to shake our fists at any of them.

I now want to take this further and talk about other conditions I’m aware of, but which are even more difficult at present to characterize. Hence my following remarks may be more symptomatic than diagnostic. In the progressive history of capitalism, the concentration of labor always creates conditions for the socialization of labor. Now, most of us are familiar with the novel phenomenon in New York recently of “quasi-factory” conditions of art production accompanied by the “factory-related” community, SoHo. It’s plain the currently “necessary” concentration of production goes hand-in-hand with a concentration of population, and also prompts a relocation of the market outlets. I doubt there has ever been such a concentrated community of artists in contrast to a community of people of mixed occupations and interests. One reaction of mine to this is to assume that our present generation of artists identify their reality only with their roles of “artist”—which, given the remarks above, is disturbing. If this is so, it implies the “other self” or “bureaucratized artist” in all of us has triumphed and we’ve become inescapably reified in that role. However, the main point to stress is this—the development of a “factory-like” community (for whatever reasons you want to give), which does sustain and encourage an exploitive market, also creates uniquely different social conditions for that community and in turn may lead to social and political awareness of the power of the community.11

One presently noticeable outcome of this concentration and (some sort of) socialization of “art labor,” is the recent tendency to “unionize,” to form associations and organize the community to have some efficacy of its own—and I think it’s the first time conditions on such a scale have existed where the idea of an artists’ union could be regarded as in any way realistic. There are a number of examples, the old Art Workers Coalition, the SoHo Artists Association, growing numbers of co-op galleries (“worker-controlled factories”) set up in opposition to traditionally impersonal galleries (“managerial organizations”), and so on. Two examples I am slightly familiar with raise a barrage of questions. The first example is biased toward “production workers,” the second specifically a “nonproduction workers” case. The following comments are made in the context of how I see my own “community” affairs.

In the case of the National Art Workers Community, while I’m very sympathetic to some of their proposed aims (as published in the Art Workers News, vol. 4, no. 6, September, 1974), I’m simultaneously appalled that the model taken for the proposed association or “union” is that of American trade unions, organizations which historically have allowed their political roles to be eroded away to that of “mere” economic bargain-hunters. Trade unions traditionally have been firstly social and political movements and secondly economic forces—thus economic betterment was generally conceived in terms of political action and social change. In the U.S. however, unions have tended to conceive of their “force for social change” through sharing the corporate power rather than seeking change. So that, ultimately, at the point of official acceptance of collective bargaining, unions have emerged as monopolies themselves and strong allies of corporate industry, often forcing even more monopolistic exploitation and practices into the market.

This insidious, but by no means rare separation of “socio-economic” (or “culture”) from “politics” is openly represented in the NAWC proposals: “The goal . . . is to improve the socio-economic status of visual artists through: 1. improving the standard of living of the artist through expanding the demand for art; 2. promoting the recognition of the artist as a working professional; . . .” Isn’t this labor organizing for the same reasons that capital does and for no other? Living in a consumer society under a state of siege, incessantly being urged to consume more . . . do we want to persuade others into an even more conspicuous consumption of artworks? What of the tacit equation of an “economic standard of living” with “quality of life”? At what point might we be prepared to forego the lifestyle of the haute bourgeois artiste or is that what we really mean by “professionalism”? Are there no questions to be asked about a private property system operating in the fine arts? And so on.

The second example of disavowing social-political roles was displayed in the PASTA (the Professional and Administrative Staff Association) strike at the MOMA. In the interview published in Artforum December, 1973 representatives of the strike committee revealed a seeming total inability to cope with the political reality of their context, a refusal to entertain such radical questions as the massive role played by the museum in the promotion of a bureaucratized, alienating “high culture.” Under what conditions can we support job preservation and betterment policies in an already overbureaucratized and overprivileged art? In what ways would we be better off as a result of the bureaucratic power being spread more evenly among the upper echelon staff? To whose advantage is it finally to see the museums function more efficiently? I find it hard to believe it’s for my advantage. And what about all those questions concerning the culpability of the roles that the staff identify with?

What debilitates these efforts at unionizing and socialization is the tendency to pin hopes on liberal reformist programs (and not very forceful ones at that). These imply everyone confining themselves to agitation for changes which do not challenge any foundations of the organizing structure, changes which are compatible with the preservation of these foundations.

My point is that, no matter how much we empathize with these endeavors, the most critically important factor keeps getting lost. It cannot be stressed enough that a community, no matter how small, is unavoidably and importantly a political instrument, and a potentially aggressive one at that—finally perhaps the only one left to us. If we don’t take advantage of that, we might be able to do absolutely nothing.12 So I come here to a note of guarded optimism: although there’s scant evidence for it presently, I would hope for and not rule out the potential for a distinctive consciousness and solidarity developing out of a “community of artists.” There are uniquely changed social conditions here in New York, so it’s just possible that such a consciousness be at odds with the status quo. In some subjective sense we may come to terms with the reality of our own experiences and reintegrate our fragmented existences. But that’s high optimism because against that increasingly formidable odds are working. It is almost gratuitous to point out the stupefying indoctrination of the media and educational processes.

While a collapse of our privileged economy is hardly desirable, it seems a prospect to be faced, and one “logical” outcome is likely to be that much of the manipulated market demand for modern art may simply evaporate. That doesn’t mean the market will magically cease to be monopolistic. No, only that it will have shrunk considerably, and there will be a demand for a much diminished work force. Thus we may initially experience a phenomenon similar to the cutbacks in scientific programs—an ever-larger surplus of trained “modern artists” for whom there are no “jobs” in relation to the market.13 At the same time one can’t help but express a masochistic curiosity about how much art will continue to be made if there’s literally no market demand for it. Because, while we’ve been able to sell modern art to Europe and other westernized countries, it’s still moot whether it will be collected by the OPEC countries, the new capitalists fast challenging the U.S. as the major exporters of inflation. Presumably, in a world economy no longer wholly determined by the West, there are many prospects for a major economic shift in art . . . but, for an art whose principle dynamic is the “stability” of the present economy, and a community of artists who all have some sort of an investment in that “stability,” the effects may be (and I again masochistically hope) truly amazing.

Whatever we are able to accomplish now, my point is that transforming our reality is no longer a question of just making more art, it’s a matter of realizing the enormous social vectoring of the problem, and opportunistically taking advantage of what social tools we have. Of one thing I’m certain, that anything we might call radical theory in the arts will have to be solidly constructed in all its social dimensions. But even then it may not be a question of how much we might accomplish, since it might take something as catastrophic as a collapse in the economic structure of this society to have any substantial effect on the careening superstructure of modern American art.

Ian Burn



1. This article owes its existence to many conversations, with various people involved in the Art & Language community in New York (particularly Mel Ramsden).

2. An exception to this would seem to be artists who are under contract to, or receiving retainers from, or whose work materials are being supplied by galleries or dealers. However I still think this is not so much purchasing the artist’s labor as an expedient to gaining exclusive marketing rights to their production—more a commitment to produce than any control over production.

3. Something else which needs a good look at is pricing of works of art—since prices are always in relation to a particular market structure. There is obviously no “natural” price independent of a market, and the arbitrariness of a particular price is simply the arbitrariness of a particular market. Setting a price on a work of art is establishing the mode of allocation of the rights to that work, including property rights or ownership; so,along with the present discussions of property rights vs. “moral rights” in relation to works of art (e.g., Carl Baldwin, Art in America, September-October 1974), it would seem especially pertinent to scrutinize the relations between private property, particular types of market structures, and setting of monetary price. After all, deciding how a price should be determined is essentially deciding about what sort of society we want to live in. For more discussion of this, see my article “Pricing Works of Art” in The Fox, April, 1975.

4. President Theodore Roosevelt, 1907.

5. I’m aware of my poor acumen in economics. This, not incidentally, reflects the fragmentation and specialization “necessary” in my education for “becoming an artist.” The issue of art education is not dealt with here, not because it is unimportant or a separate question, but because it’s too large a question to be dealt with in a small way.

6. Note that “internationalism” in art is a market definition, not a cultural one.

7. For discussion of this era, see Max Kozloff’s “American Painting during the Cold War,” Artforum, May, 1973 and Eva Cockcroft’s “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War,” Artforum, June, 1974. But also, on a broader cultural scale, someone is going to have to take a closer look at some of the things that Harold Rosenberg has been saying for years, cf. particularly the recently published Discovering the Present, University of Chicago Press, 1974. [See Donald Kuspit’s book review in Artforum, March, 1975.]

8. For a trenchant discussion of this, see Terry Smith’s “American Painting and British Painting: Some Issues,” Studio International, December, 1974.

9. For a more integrated example of these points, see Andrew Menard’s “Are you not doing what you’re doing while you’re doing what you are?” The Fox, April, 1975.

10. This point obviously is revealing of the contradictions apparent in looking at art produced by the feminists, by black artists, and other underprivileged groups: while their social thinking is radical, fertile and engaging, what we see of the art they produce is as embarrassingly dull and uniform and bureaucratic as everyone else’s.

11. To start with, you can’t help wondering about the effect of this urbanizing on the “rugged individualism” hailed in SoHo mythology. After all, the reality of SoHo is that it is a community based on common occupations, interests and social needs but which is kept atomized by an individualism which no longer really holds a specialist’s corporate community made up of people who claim to dislike organization and specialization.

12. If I appear to be arguing for some sort of “social realism,” that’s not the case at all—anyway we already have the social realism of capitalism: it’s in the “lesser arts” (cf. William Morris) which have become the dominion of Madison Avenue’s advertising artists. They create the propaganda educating and inspiring everyone to even greater heights of commodity-mindedness and consumerism. These “lesser arts,” financed directly by corporations, would not exist without such patronage. Ironically these lesser arts dominate the possibilities of any explicit social practice (such as it is). It also provides the wedge which isolates us away from the prospect of such a practice and herds us into the cloistered antisocial (i.e., meaninglessness) state of “high culture.” We’re neatly trapped by our own elitism.

13. There’s already massive overproduction on both the selling market and the job market, far more art is produced than can be sold and the excess of job applicants at the College Art Association meeting in Washington this year surely speaks for itself. And this is before any further market shrinkage.