PRINT April 2008


EVEN AS GOLD rises and the dollar falls, the expansion of the global art market shows few signs of reversal. This growth has been characterized by incredible immediacy, liquidity, and transparency—but also by inequity, archaic ritual, and social spectacle. Indeed, the economy of art is now both wildly speculative and idiosyncratically regulated, with unparalleled levels of attention devoted to the work of contemporary artists. What are the diverse factors that have contributed to this radical extension of interest and investment in the art of our day? And to what extent have these elements either transformed or reinscribed historical relationships among art’s audiences, institutions, collecting practices, and criticism? How might we best distinguish our present moment from previously bullish episodes and their attendant redefinitions of the aesthetic and the commoditized?
From the fiscal to the formal, multiple arenas of knowledge are implicated in answering such questions. With this complex set of interrelationships in mind, Artforum invited a cross-section of figures—ranging from collector and curator to art historian and auction-house expert—to discuss the ways in which different kinds of value accrue to works of art and affect their production, display, and circulation: Ai Weiwei, Beijing-based artist; Amy Cappellazzo, international cohead of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s; Thomas Crow, professor of modern art at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University; Donna De Salvo, chief curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Isabelle Graw, a founding editor of Texte zur Kunst and professor of art history and theory at Städelschule Art Academy in Frankfurt; Dakis Joannou, collector and president of the Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece; and Robert Pincus-Witten, scholar and critic, and former director of exhibitions at L & M Arts in New York. Scholar and critic James Meyer and Artforum editor Tim Griffin moderate the discussion.


James Meyer: The extraordinary boom of the contemporary market in recent years, along with the globalization of art’s production and display—two related phenomena—are among the most pressing subjects in any discussion of current practice. The history of modernism is in part a history of the marketing of the new. The Peau d’Ours sale in 1914, which brought a record price for Pablo Picasso’s Family of Acrobats [1905]; the first Parke-Bernet auction of contemporary art in 1965, which featured Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture; and the sale of the Scull Collection in 1973, all revealed the speculative potential of the contemporary. If one made the “right” choices, it was possible to profit handsomely from an initially modest investment. How would you compare the present escalation of the market with the booms of the 1960s and ’80s? To what extent is our moment the latest chapter in an older modernist story—or a truly unprecedented situation?

Amy Cappellazzo: The Scull sale marks the birth of the contemporary-art market as we know it, where the auction is a vehicle for circulating works of art and, more specifically, works by living artists. But other financial factors that have only recently emerged make this art boom very different from previous ones. First, the market has become exponentially larger and more global than in the glory days of having lunch with Leo [Castelli] in the ’60s. The art market at that time depended on a small inner circle of cognoscenti, who collected either to pursue private passions or to extend their civic engagements alongside the dynastic museum directors of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Such engagements—by Seymour H. Knox with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, for example, or by Joseph Hirshhorn with the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC—might have brought them some social prestige. But genuine civil service—or perhaps, more aptly, civil legacy—seemed to drive these collectors, whereas now such acts of building the cultural character of a city seem more complex in motivation and structure. In fact, the recent large gift to the Dallas Museum of Art by the Rachofskys, the Hoffmans, and the Roses might be an exception to what has otherwise become a process braced with international competition—why give to your local museum when you can give to the Tate and feel like a star?—and political subterfuge, both locally and from a taxation standpoint.

Second, with the advent of online pricing databases during the mid-’90s, the art market underwent a revolution similar to that experienced by other forms of trading. We had a newly enhanced ability to buy and sell in real time—here we should also note the increasing popularity of art fairs and auctions—and to bring transparency to certain artists’ markets by researching the sales of other comparable ones. In turn, financial institutions have taken a different view on art as an asset class and are much more willing to lend money against works of art with competitive banking terms—in other words, to make loans that are not leveraged, high interest, and low percentage to value lending.

Now that this passion for collecting requires much more capital to do well than it ever did, and the mechanisms around it more closely mimic regular business practices, I believe we are in a new phase of the art market’s journey . . . forward.

Isabelle Graw: I think that we are actually dealing with a gradual shift concerning the relationship between art and the market, and this shift is reflected in the market’s increased power of definition over what is regarded as a meaningful work of art. In other words, what has changed for artistic production since the ’60s and ’80s is the very structure of its universe—which has become a mass corporate industry embracing the logic of celebrity culture. For some portions of the art world this was already true in previous decades, I know, but this approach has recently become a strong collective ideal, with relatively few skeptics. In fact, one could argue that the artistic field has changed insofar as it was formerly more polarized and organized around clear-cut enemy camps—the “Pictures” generation set itself against so-called neo-expressionism, for example—whereas now we live in a kind of network capitalism where everybody is forced to cooperate. This might explain why market success has such authority these days. Financial pressures have increased, and economic constraints reach more directly into all aspects of our lives.

James Meyer: It’s interesting that you bring up “celebrity culture.” Indeed, it’s worth noting, in this context, that works by relatively young and critically untested artists sell in the six and even seven figures, while works by tried and true masters are in many instances a relative bargain. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is more affordable than, say, Peter Doig. How should we account for this overestimation of the contemporary—this “contemporary narcissism”?

Robert Pincus-Witten: On a certain level, our “contemporary narcissism,” if it is that, reflects the willed ignorance endemic to the world of contemporary art, a world into which one is freely welcome as a player and in many guises—from artist to collector, from critic to museological personality—because, in a certain sense, you don’t have to know anything to play the contemporary art game. Not that the novice isn’t almost instantaneously caught out. All manifestations of art, from the most elevated to the coarsest, possess their own rules of connoisseurship, their mandarin experts as well as their uncarded illegals. This is as true today as it was in the past. Indeed, the interchanges between these apparently antithetical sectors—between sophisticated and street-smart—is often what affords contemporary art its most paradoxical kick.

Nonetheless, the art world of today is astonishingly open. By extreme contrast, when an aristocrat of, say, the seventeeth century chose to acquire a work of art, or to commission one, the patron knew its often arcane subject matter and was familiar with the classical text or the book of the Bible from which the work derived. Indeed, he knew this material so well that even the artist could be challenged with regard to the correct depiction of the proper number of camels required by any given scene, or the actual number of attendant virgins, or the precise rendering of the defining attributes of the attending gods or goddesses, or the number of saints who danced on the head of such a learned pin.

It was in the trenches of the First World War that modern art came to symbolize modern life, and abstraction became its insignia. By the mid-twentieth century, abstraction had all but defeated representational art, and all the learned arcana of past centuries ended up as the familiar Untitled Abstraction, work about which we need know nothing in order to accept or reject it. The Untitled Abstraction is arguably one of the great achievements of capitalist democracy. While you did not have to know anything, you still had to allow yourself to be acted upon, and allow yourself to be open to the purely visual or formal stimuli of the work. This development paralleled the rise of psychotherapeutic methods—so that we really could be open—as well as a great perplexity about modern art: People thought abstraction was difficult precisely because it “had no subject matter.”

To be sure, we know differently now. Once we got through the unfamiliarity of an art that was no longer a mirror of nature, then art became easy. Add money to that ease and you begin to see why art has grown accordingly in popularity; add faddish media attention, the fetishization of art, the transformation of the artist and collector into envied celebrity, the sheer stylishness of art today, and the sums paid for it grow like kudzu. After all, if a loaf of bread costs $4, a pair of shoes costs $200, and a house in Palm Beach or East Hampton $100 million, then of course, why shouldn’t a painting cost whatever immense sum is asked for it? You may question the cost of a utilitarian item, something you might ingest or wear, but since we know that art is the most fetishized of our commodities—the last truly sacred thing within our materialist culture—of course the cost of art can grow to what the market will bear. At the moment, it will bear an enormous amount. It is, after all, our most useless thing. Talk about fetishization!

Ai Weiwei: Well, I think that we must simply acknowledge that we are living in very different times, and that given both the forces of globalization and the Internet—the so-called Information Age—the market is much less restricted and less controllable. In earlier eras, the market might have been controlled by an inner circle of players. But today anyone can join in and make an impact on the market. This dramatic freedom will no doubt also create totally unexpected conditions for both art’s making and collecting.

Amy Cappellazzo: Hear! Hear! The market is far more democratic than ever before . . . money is just money now. The social entitlements that used to accompany it—having exclusive access to certain works of art, for example, and the knowledge to discuss them intellectually—seem quaint and old-fashioned now.

Tim Griffin: But Weiwei, how would you say this “freedom” has ultimately factored into the growth of the Chinese art market? In other words, has the “inner circle” really disappeared? I think of the video you made of the Museum of Modern Art’s International Council visiting your studio; or of the recent “China Power Station” show in London—and I wonder how these global conduits were ever created, to say nothing of how accurate the impressions they give of Chinese art might be. Knowledge matters, and I am all too aware of how I have neither the time nor the financing to actually get to China and take a look at the context for myself. I’ve certainly generally held off on our featuring much coverage of contemporary Chinese art because it’s nearly impossible to get the number of feet on the ground that we would need to arrive at a true sense of things.

Ai Weiwei: The MoMA International Council! They were just passing through, turning their faces as they walked by, and nothing more than that. I thought it was funny, though, that the day they came to my studio was the same day Chairman Mao, decades earlier, had made his declaration that art had to fight for the people, unite the people, join the struggle. That policy guided Communist artists for the past sixty years. So I made the video.

But really, I do think that the global socioeconomic situation around art has changed completely; it’s not just a few people collecting, whether we’re talking about China or India. As far as the story of Chinese contemporary art goes, just a couple of decades ago the work was being shown mostly in shops and hotel lobbies. Maybe a few foreign diplomats or visitors who didn’t necessarily understand art would buy it, appreciating what they thought was a unique decoration. Then this one person, Uli Sigg, the former ambassador of Switzerland—who had a strong background in Western art—looked at Chinese art and thought it was a pity that there were no museums or galleries whatsoever to house the work that had been made during the ’80s and ’90s. And he made a determined, disciplined effort to collect, until he brought together some two or three thousand major works from that period. Because of his collection and his connections, others got involved, like the Ullens family in Belgium. After 2000, you see a few more people interested, with museums buying things, with prices then starting to go up; and today there are probably hundreds of shows about Chinese art, whether one-person exhibitions or surveys. Some are well researched while many others are obviously hit-and-run. I try not to pay much attention. I do know that Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in working on “China Power Station,” which I was in, came to China often and became good friends with many young artists. He’s very familiar with things here.

Looking back, there are clearly political reasons for this incredible expansion, since China has become a giant economic player in the world. But one must also remember that China, since ancient times, has held the value of art to be equal to that of philosophy— which is no small fact, given our relationship with Taoism and Confucianism. Art has a strong, multivalent tradition whether we’re speaking in terms of the imperial court or of the noneducated housewife. And this is very different from art’s role in the West.

Thomas Crow: This question about the great disparity in current prices between a Peter Doig and a Tiepolo—absurd from the perspective of artistic merit and lasting value— simply points up that we’re costing the wrong thing. I’ve felt for a long time that the prices for contemporary art, though often factoring in the actual interest and appeal of the art, are more fundamentally the cost of participation in a desirable network. In a theoretical sense, as Ai Weiwei has just observed, a more open network invites the voluntary participation of new players. But the value of art, since the emergence of the modern markets in the wake of the upheavals of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras in Europe, has depended on scarcity and the persistence of some sort of aristocratic cachet. High costs of entry validate the contemporary art network as desirable and subsidize the ancillary—and exclusive—pleasures of participation: luxury travel on the art-fair circuit, the opening dinners, the right parties, deference from lesser players, access to the artists, etc. Participation in the old-master network has evident rewards, but these are now plainly perceived as of lesser value in the wider ambitions of most new collectors of HNW [high-net worth].

Isabelle Graw: I agree with Tom that it is the social promise attending the art circuit that explains its current attraction. You have only to open any lifestyle or fashion magazine to find articles on Art Basel Miami Beach, which is depicted as a scene where you can easily connect to the international jet set. The art world today is able to stage its events in a theatrical way, which explains its current popularity. I might add, as a reply to James, that while there was a protest by artists against the Scull auction in 1973—remember Rauschenberg carrying a sign that said SCULL: YOU’RE A PIG!—it is hard to imagine artists today waving protest signs in front of Christie’s, especially if their work is being auctioned. While rapid success on the secondary market is still not always welcomed by gallerists and artists in the primary market, I have witnessed many artists being congratulated on the streets by artists and dealers due to their auction results. One can observe a stronger convergence between the commercial art market, the market of institutions, and the market of knowledge that artists and critics belong to.


Tim Griffin: It’s at events such as Miami that I begin to feel that art is easily understood as an extension of the so-called experience economy. But that still leaves open the question: What causes collectors to gravitate to a Doig as opposed to a Tiepolo, such that an incredible difference in valuation arises?

Amy Cappellazzo: Pure, unadulterated, crass market forces. People stop wanting what they cannot easily have. Demand can feed supply and vice versa, and in this instance we are able to discern the difference between efficient and inefficient markets: The barriers to entering the Doig market are few, while the Tiepolo market is tricky. One must know how to evaluate the work in terms of condition, clear provenance, authenticity, changing scholarship, etc.

Dakis Joannou: You know, in considering what everyone has said thus far, my first impulse is to merely observe that when there’s more money around—more collectors, more fashionability, and more demand—the prices go up. It’s that simple! But the Tiepolo versus Doig question is an interesting one. I am certain that nearly a hundred years ago, analogous questions were being asked even of contemporaries such as Picasso and Matisse. Have these questions yet been resolved today? Quite clearly, the answer is no. And so when we talk about the market, we must remain very aware of our own subtle and unfortunate tendency to merge two different concepts into one: “value” and “price.”

So, I ask, how should we approach such a question of judgment? The answer is: time. We need more time. In another hundred years, people with this luxury will better sort out Picasso and Matisse, and, for us, the question of Tiepolo and Doig. The values will then be clear—or as clear as they will ever be—and only at that moment will the relative values actually correspond to the prices. Now, of course, when collectors choose a piece, they will try to think in terms of such time—and on many occasions they will feel absolutely certain about their choice. They might even feel proud of their choice if the work’s price goes up five times in five years. Does that provide them with any definitive conclusion regarding a work’s value? No. Yet are they absolutely sure about their choice nevertheless? Yes. This paradox is one of the great joys of collecting.

Robert Pincus-Witten: The taste for the successful and celebrated is fickle. What waxes, wanes. Artists can be as quickly discarded even as they once may have been pressed with invitations to the laden table. Talk to a displaced middle-aged abstractionist today and listen to what is said. Walk the display floors of the contemporary day sales—not the uncontested important lots of the evening sale—of the reigning auction houses and have a revelation: What was passionately acquired ten or twenty years earlier forms the bulk of lot upon lot of discredited art. Though, in ten or twenty years even this now-shadowed material has probably grown in value when compared with its initial cost. Perhaps not incidentally, the two big bottom-line areas of greatest market growth in the auction house today are contemporary art and jewelry. Thus, part of the immense growth in the acquisition of the virtually unknown—not to say, the “new” and the “hot”—is the likelihood that even scattershot acquisition still results in profit. One should also note that in a context where one simply doesn’t know what new art means, other than just knowing whether one likes it or not, value is often not initially defined by the work itself but rather conferred by where the work is found—perhaps by the credibility of the dealer, since, in all probability, the gallery has been in place far longer than the new art it displays. And once discovered, word of mouth begins among the collecting class.

Dakis Joannou: I think there is still something to be gained by asking ourselves the question of why so many people are drawn to contemporary art. True, to some extent it’s a social problem. After a great house and fabulous country home, a great yacht, a stable of super cars, and several expensive watches—once you’ve gotten everything that you ever dreamed of—you need to move on. Charity offers one option for diverting one’s energy and excess income, and this is, thankfully, certainly more widespread today. But after that, when it comes to personal improvement and profile, contemporary art has a unique structure around it—and this singular character exceeds any question of “experience” or lifestyle. Contemporary art engages the new collector in an intellectual and aesthetic challenge: The network of galleries, auction houses, museum committees, fairs, art events, and art travel offers the opportunity for involvement—for helping to shape our contemporary culture. The counterpoint is, I imagine, the scholarly study and engagement with the past; and while I am a collector, I am very glad that there are people doing just that, so that Tiepolo, for instance, is not “forgotten.”

Robert Pincus-Witten: We all recognize that the collecting of contemporary art is a special case within all the other art markets. And that specialness is felt in the following way: The collector of contemporary art actually participates in the discourse of the day, adding through acquisition his or her particular inflection to this tumultuous conversation. Hence, the collecting of contemporary art—whatever other benefits it may provide or deficits it may incur—confers a voice upon the collector with regard to the formation of the larger culture and allows for a real participation in the actual events of the day. And in this experience, such a collector is able to feel the heat of the protean fire conventionally assigned to the artist alone. No other area of collecting allows for this particularly warming experience.

James Meyer: I think Tom makes an important point: One of the great attractions of contemporary art is participation in a desirable social “network,” its experiential dimension—the fringe benefits that go with playing the game. Here’s a brass-tacks question: Apart from the lifestyle and social distinction it affords, what is the strictly financial attraction of contemporary art, as opposed to other instruments? Has contemporary art become simply another speculative commodity, like real estate—or does it remain a distinctive form of investment?

Amy Cappellazzo: A whole new group of interested collectors have come into collecting in the past five years. They may be somewhat attracted by the social status and glamour, but they are also savvy investors. Many of our markets have seen meteoric growth in recent years, and it has been possible to make investments that have quadrupled in that time—Rothko, Warhol, even Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman among the artists. Art’s recent financial appeal stems from the idea that high-quality works of art were undervalued, and that as the market became more truly global in the past five years, their worth would increase in value as a result of (A) heightened demand for scarce objects, (B) an enormous roll up of private wealth that remains unprecedented, and (C) the market necessity for a new asset class that could trade among individuals globally.

Traditionally art has been a tricky investment, if it has been seen as one at all. There is no way to short the art market, a necessary mechanism in the stock market that allows an investor to make money as the value of something falls. It pays no dividend other than one’s own pleasure, and therefore one has to amortize one’s own joy when considering the cost of holding art—in other words, tying up that much capital. But now that art is an asset one can borrow against, or trade on and defer capital-gains taxes on—something called a 1031 exchange, or a like-kind exchange—the world of collecting, or at least for tax-paying American collectors, has changed. It has attracted a whole new group of extremely smart businesspeople who understand value and future value amazingly well. They are such quick studies! And I would like to think they are enriched morally, intellectually, and spiritually from owning great works of art.


Isabelle Graw: Can we really call the art market “more truly global”? Aren’t whole regions still excluded from it, while the centers of its financial transactions remain in New York and London? What do we mean, exactly, when we call it global? The fact that more and more collectors from Russia or China have joined the game? Or do we mean global in the sense of an art market that tends—like every market—to extend its borders, looking for more supply? Or do we refer to the need for dealers to team up and open branches in order to be internationally present?

Tim Griffin: It’s worthwhile for us to consider the extent to which the art market—or even the artwork circulating within it—is antiquated, and yet truly enmeshed in these broader economic developments.

Isabelle Graw: There are paradoxes between the so-called art world’s constituent economies. There is the commercial art market, which is situated among dealers, collectors, and auction houses; and there is the market of knowledge and information, represented by biennials and grand shows, Kunstvereins, and so on. These markets increasingly overlap, yet they can still exist relatively independently from one another. Some artists, such as Christopher Wool, are underrepresented in the “market of information”—Documenta, Manifesta, and other such exhibitions—yet do very well at auction, while others, like Maurizio Cattelan, have operated in both worlds successfully and transform their accumulated symbolic capital into economic capital. A paradox also exists as the art world features an advanced global corporate market—think only of all those galleries expanding their networks by opening up branches in different cities—alongside the persistence of archaic exchange rituals: the informal deals, leftovers of a gift economy, I rub your back and you rub mine.

Thomas Crow: All of those archaic exchange rituals are key elements of the economic pattern that one needs to be able to describe and comprehend in more than anecdotal terms. I couldn’t have said it better, but they may not be quite so archaic.

Isabelle Graw: I feel we should go back to an earlier comment of Ai Weiwei’s. While I am certainly suspicious of the traditionally market-phobic approach taken by many art historians—and so I am aware of my own potentially fraught role here—I have to say I was nevertheless surprised by your unbridled market euphoria. Your depiction of a global market seemed to overlook the fact that whole regions and practices are left out. In fact, with the market there is a structural necessity to produce losers, and the market makes wrong value judgments all the time!

Ai Weiwei: Isabelle, my earlier statement was not “euphoric.” I’m just an observer. I would not laugh or cry over any conditions created by the market, though I do know that money can never be a true measure of artistic value. The market only displays desire and buying power and, given that combination, the act of buying is not necessarily rational. Trying to give rational evaluation to such play often seems senseless.

Thomas Crow: Phenomena may seem impervious to rational understanding only because we’re lacking the right tools for interpreting them. We won’t ever comprehend these things without some remainder we may call irrational, but we can reduce that quantity as far as possible. This is a historian speaking, and Robert’s comments offer much food for thought in this regard.

James Meyer: Isabelle, there have always been winners and losers in your sense. It’s a structural necessity of the game, as you say. Could you describe this structure in its current form? Who are your winners, your losers?

Isabelle Graw: Of course there have always been winners and losers. But I consider it important to realize that there is no “justice” in the market’s evaluations. The economic value of an artwork is far from being justified by a free convergence of supply and demand, as neoclassical economic theory would see it. Especially on the secondary market, we can see that prices are often highly manipulated by concerted actions and collective agreements that prevent them from falling or make sure that they rise. They aren’t the result of a seemingly free encounter between supply and demand. I don’t think that you could systematically say who wins and who loses. One thing is sure, though: Works associated with Conceptual art or Institutional Critique don’t obtain the prices that paintings—such as those of Doig or Daniel Richter—attain.

Thomas Crow: Isabelle points to an important topic that hasn’t yet been raised: the lack of transparency in the behavior of the primary, dealer-based marketplace. What looks like manipulation might be better described as the external outcome of a more complex, multidimensional set of negotiations, which we need to be able to describe before moving on to issues of ethics or the claims of autonomous aesthetic merit.

Isabelle Graw: When I say manipulation I’m also referring to the way auctions are orchestrated and choreographed. The auction house makes sure it has a buyer and gives out guarantees. Dealers get together and bid on artists’ works to raise their prices or prevent them from falling. The neoclassical notion of the market as a “meeting” of supply and demand doesn’t hold up.

Thomas Crow: I take your point. But the neoclassical model tends to work best for interchangeable, generic commodities. The art market labors mightily to make sure that works of art are not seen as substitutable for one another. An economist’s definition of commodity assumes interchangeability within a class of goods, which makes its widespread use in discussions of artistic value more of a hindrance than a help.

Isabelle Graw: I agree: The artwork is a commodity of a special kind. It is considered unique, and it is split between its assumed symbolic value and its market value. The peculiarity of its Doppelcharakter relies on the fact that it can have a price only because it is assumed to be priceless—which is true to a certain degree, as what is at stake in artworks cannot be reduced to a price. Since the idealist aesthetics of Kant and Schiller, Art with a capital A has been charged with symbolic value, and this might explain why it is desired so strongly today. It is supposed to give you more meaning than, say, a handbag from Louis Vuitton. Collectors’ motives can’t be reduced only to speculation. They want the market value to increase, yes, but their motives are hybrid. They want this symbolic value as well.

Amy Cappellazzo: Isabelle, your characterization of “manipulation” in the auction arena is neither informed nor accurate. Manipulation is a very specific word in a financial context, and it usually relates to something illegal. Auctions are in fact one of the only regulated parts of the art world. So the use of the word is a little misguided, unless you are referring to something specific I am not aware of.

Auctions are ancient forms of trading; they surely rely on theater—as do many markets, like Andreas Gursky’s depictions of stock exchanges—and are occasionally a demonstration of thinly traded markets at work: How many people in the world can buy a painting that costs more than $10 million, and want a contemporary one? The contemporary-art market is comparable to other thinly traded markets such as office buildings in New York or space rockets. Supply and demand is only one type of market force, and, in fact, there are thousands of market forces at work in any one auction, as each artist has a very unique set of market conditions.

Isabelle Graw: Why is manipulation the wrong word for the concerted actions of dealers and collectors to prevent the price of a work by one of their artists from falling, or to increase it collaboratively, in order to share the profit later? Are auctions not orchestrated, curated events? Have I invented these practices? As you seem to indicate, auctions belong to those types of networked markets that consist of people communicating with one another. This art market is where participants talk to one another, exchange notes, gossip, etc. Many factors—current belief systems, conjectural and atmospheric changes—come into play when it comes to the process of making value. It is for this reason that a high degree of insecurity resides around value, as the French sociologist Raymonde Moulin pointed out some forty years ago: Value is never fixed; it is constantly negotiated and under reconsideration. Marx was right to define value as a social relation. My point is simply to contradict assumptions such as one uttered by Tobias Meyer of Sotheby’s in the German news magazine Der Spiegel, in which he declared that the most expensive artworks are simply the best ones. While his confusion of the market with an aesthetic tribunal can be seen as a déformation professionelle, it was actually more symptomatic for me that none of the journalists contradicted him.

Amy Cappellazzo: Auctions are carefully orchestrated, but much is left to the chance of a real-time occurrence. As for “curated events,” it would be very lofty to suggest that what we do at the auction houses is akin to curatorial work. It is more related to performance composition—pacing, tempo, crescendo, decrescendo. An auction is a temporal art form, indeed.

As for financial guarantees, normally a small minority of works in an auction are guaranteed. When an auction house makes such a deal, we are betting that the work will sell for more than the guaranteed minimum, and that we will make extra revenue by sharing the overage, in addition to collecting our buyer’s premium. As we exist to make money, these sorts of deals are calculated risks to hopefully make more. They pretend to be nothing more than that. We do not make deals to prop up artists’ markets. We make them only for financial gain.

And yes, values fluctuate, but this concept is not a theoretical, sociological, or a philosophical principle—it is a basic tenet of business.

As for my competitor’s [Meyer’s] comment, you are not really asking me to back that up, are you?

Robert Pincus-Witten: This description of an auction as a “performance composition” keys into the larger question of the extraordinary spike in the cost of art, especially new art, of “wet paint.” The auction house is important because it is the theater of acquisition. Once, the act of acquisition was extremely private. Today, in starkest contrast, the sheer public nature of the winning bid, of bagging an important work at a high price, adds mediatic glamour to the already heady experience of simply participating in an auction.

In this connection the auction house also plays another important role: Its prices achieved are the public record of art sales. One doesn’t know the prices works trade for between private parties. But the prices of the auction house are the public record, so that one has a fair idea of the market slice for a certain kind of artwork by such an artist, at such a date, in such a medium, at such a scale. Thus, the auction record provides a record of “comps”—of works reasonably comparative to the one you are either hoping to acquire or to sell.

The auction record also reveals the price a work reentering the market previously sold for—an important negotiating datum. Last, the “comp” also provides a sensible basis for insurance evaluation—so that other kinds of economic enterprises are informed by the services of the auction house. Not all of them are necessarily pleasant—for example, the estimations of death duties, or the adjudication of fair value with regard to bequests to public institutions.

Donna De Salvo: I agree with many of these observations and have found them all to be immensely provocative. Therefore, I feel slightly out of sync and perhaps a bit old-fashioned directing my comments to the role and purpose of the museum collection, but that is the lens through which I am filtering these exchanges. I’m not in any way naive when it comes to thinking about the relationship between the museum and the marketplace. Our ability to acquire works of art—whether through direct purchase or gift—is linked to and influenced by the marketplace. As is the case in many institutions, acquisition budgets are limited and the more popular the work, the more desired and expensive, the more difficult it is for us to acquire. Oftentimes, we deal with this by “zigging” while the market is “zagging,” by focusing on undervalued works by artists who are overlooked yet historically significant figures. We are increasingly, where practical, also copurchasing works of art with other museums, as in the case of a recent acquisition of Pierre Huyghe’s Journey that Wasn’t [2005] with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

But, most significant, this discussion raises the question of why and for whom we are acquiring all these works. This is an equally important component in the determination of value. A museum collection is part of an art industry that includes private collectors, auction houses, and dealers. Again, I’m not naive enough to suggest that the museum is immune to the pressures of market forces or taste, but its overall purpose is different. We are engaging in the creation of narratives that, for the majority of our visitors, are not at all about financial value or the marketplace. Dakis asks why so many people are drawn to contemporary art. I think for many of us there is a desire, if not an urgency, to make sense of the times in which we live and the lives we lead. Within the context of a museum, there is something very useful about being able to do this against the backdrop of history, not only to ensure that Tiepolo is not forgotten but to position artistic production as part of a cultural continuum that ebbs and flows. The reality is, as Robert Pincus-Witten has discussed, that things change and what matters today may not matter tomorrow.

But I suppose I’m most interested in exploring how our fascination with and focus on the marketplace has shifted attention away from discussions about larger concepts such as the public good. While it is true that more and more people now have the financial ability—though perhaps curtailed by recent high prices—to participate in collecting art or serving on museum boards, what about those for whom the consumption/experience of art does not extend to ownership?

Thomas Crow: Donna, you make an important and not necessarily obvious point. Having brought up the issue of cost of entry for the collector with high-end ambitions, I agree that the necessary complement to this is the markedly low cost of entry for the large numbers of people who attend museum shows of quite demanding art. To keep up with any of the performing arts at the same level is a considerably more expensive proposition. And my impression is that the demographics of this audience skew toward the younger end of the age spectrum. There is, of course, a whole economy devoted to providing these occasions and experiences, along with a well-developed explanatory apparatus. The private market makes its claims via acquisitions and the composition of boards of trustees—at least in the US. It also allows quite open points of access like the Chelsea Art Walk in New York. But the nonprofit sector is a very large element of the contemporary art economy, with its own system of exchange, competition, and value creation. If that sector were somehow to disappear, what would the ambitious collector be left with? Some private pleasures to be sure, but the crucial information content of his or her holdings would be drastically diminished. And a lot of the feedback comes from people whose principal responsibility is to the nonbuying public. Without that, how would you, as a collector, know what you had?

James Meyer: The discussion so far reveals a number of conflicts, beginning with the question as to whether the contemporary market is “democratic,” transparent, open to “anybody” who wants to play the game—little expertise required—or the domain of a few who can afford scarce, sought-after works: the price of entry into the contemporary art “experience.” It would seem that these two forces—“mass access and select privilege,” as Catherine Wood has described them—are not conflicted at all. Privilege is stratified: wide at the bottom, “thin” at the top. Think of all those people standing in long lines at the entrance to White Cube in London, waiting to catch a glimpse of Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull, For the Love of God [2007].


Isabelle Graw: I would like to take up Donna’s proposition that museums are engaged in the creation of other narratives that can’t be reduced to market issues. I agree with this, but only up to a point. For by creating other narratives, museums, curators, and critics like myself actually help create the symbolic value of art—which is necessary for art’s desirability and market value in the long term. One need only look to the example of a successful artist like John Currin, who has had relatively little support from renowned critics and historians. The Gagosian Gallery hired no less a figure than Norman Bryson to write its monograph on the artist. This seems an implicit recognition that market value needs to be backed up by symbolic value; the former does not exist without the latter. It is in this regard that art is a commodity of a special kind: The market value of art is based on the assumption that it possesses a symbolic value that money actually can’t buy. The ultimate legitimation for its price is its pricelessness.

Seen from this perspective, the astronomical prices seen at the current auctions are only consequential insofar as they express the degree to which art is symbolically charged. So now—if we assume that we live in a knowledge-based economy where information is the main currency—it is those who produce this information that are most implicated in this system. In other words, it is especially those agents of knowledge— curators, critics, magazines such as Artforum or Texte zur Kunst—who help secure those symbolic values that the market desperately needs, particularly in times of an impending crisis, given the credit situation in the US. It wouldn’t be the first time that those who think of themselves as having a nonmarket agenda end up being most wanted by the market.

But now you might rightly ask if I am not switching between two contradictory positions. Are we living in times of a generalized “market imperialism,” as sociologist Ulrich Bröckling would have it, where the market dictates artistic relevance, or are we living in a knowledge-based economy where knowledge producers are kings? I would say that both diagnoses are true. The situations coexist—another of many paradoxes. The tension between market value and symbolic value runs through the art. There are some sectors of the art world where market value generates symbolic importance—as in auctions—while critical behavior is highly rewarded in others, as in conferences.

James Meyer: Isabelle, you paint a pretty bleak picture of art criticism and the art magazine: They exist to ratify the market’s choices. The critic no longer affects what is seen and discussed but is little better than a hired scribbler. I wonder whether criticism, as a practice, is so instrumentalized—so responsive to and derivative of market decisions. But perhaps Tim and others could speak to the rather blatant mutations of the art magazine itself. Let’s begin with the physical transformation of Artforum. Recent issues have been as thick as Vogue, and we’ve all heard the complaint that it’s hard to find the actual copy in the thicket of ads. A healthy sign in the magazine business, yet one that seems to trouble some readers. Then there’s Bookforum, which extends the brand into other cultural spheres— literature, nonfiction—and, with its art-world news spots and “Suzy”-like social diaries of openings, fairs, and so on.

Tim Griffin: Well, first I should speak to Isabelle’s comment about those who “think of themselves as having a nonmarket agenda,” which seems apropos, particularly in light of how many pages the magazine has garnered of late. I’ve feared that the editorial mission can be overshadowed here given the sheer wealth of advertising pages, or even, as you suggest, James, that it can be literally impossible to find. Perhaps what I’m really trying to get at is not so much a question of criticism versus advertising as criticism versus context, or, better, criticism versus perception: To what extent is the writing that appears in these pages able to be understood as critically engaging art and its meshing with culture more generally—as opposed to being understood, in advance, merely as some figuring, or even some prefiguring, of the market? Whether working with Artforum, Texte zur Kunst, or some other publication, one always necessarily engages the problems of art from within the market—there is no “outside”—but that still presents a kind of dilemma insofar as it can be unclear just where criticism stands. Actually, in the last issue of the magazine I compared the streets of Moscow—where Lenin’s mausoleum is not far from a Gucci boutique—to the pages of Artforum, where Jacques Rancière can appear alongside Yves Saint Laurent. Hopefully, the different parts will both clearly clash against and implicate each other.

That said, Isabelle’s use of the word paradox, when it comes to criticism and Artforum, is apt. For instance, I hardly anticipated that a certain gravity in the magazine might actually help draw more advertisers to us than ever before. And with this physical transformation of the magazine, as you put it, James, the basic demands on editorial have changed: The size of the feature well has nearly doubled in the past four years, meaning that we have the incredible opportunity to print essays of any length we wish—but only at the risk of also having to take on too many projects in order to maintain a weighty counterbalance to the number of advertisements. In fact, at one point, seeking to be mindful of developments in contemporary culture, I thought the magazine had to do something completely counterin tuitive: slow down, be late and even slightly out of sync. One doesn’t feed the machine so much, and yet one also stands out as a publication. Finally, there are the realities of Artforum as a business: We’ll see what the future holds for the economy, but it’s possible that I’m at greater liberty to feature underknown artists such as Guy de Cointet or Alvin Baltrop precisely because we are being so generously underwritten at present by galleries and institutions. Of course, the irony remains that looking away from the market’s interests only creates new interests for the market.

Isabelle Graw: James, maybe there was a misunderstanding. I am actually a strong believer in art criticism’s potential, and while it is implicated in the market, especially as we are currently dealing with a market of knowledge, it certainly should keep questioning the value judgments made by the commercial market. I just wanted to opt for a criticism that is aware of its structural complicity while insisting on its potential to raise objections—especially to what the commercial market regards as meaningful or important.

Robert Pincus-Witten: Isabelle Graw is correct in noting the immense legitimization given to art, the creation of its symbolic value, by the function of the art critic and the art review. No one would dispute that fact, but what is perhaps troubling in her rich analysis is the echo of a familiar and sentimental view—namely that the artist is good while the agencies that create symbolic value, the critic, the dealer, the collector, the auction house, and so on, are bad or corrupt. So I am wary of calls for transparency. Transparency for what? We all know that the incorruptible ended in the guillotine and the gulag.

The appealing vision of the artist as social altruist often masks a nostalgia for our idealism, for that yearning for a perfect society that never happened. Listen, in our hearts we are all socialists, in our heads, all capitalists—and we all know how easily both can grow into grotesque totalitarianisms. Reviews and journals that specialize in transparency, that is, in deconstructing ideology—inevitably capitalist—quickly become wildly authoritarian. Arguably, a journal such as October damaged two decades of painting far more than any painter—even as it created symbolic value for those figures it deemed significant.

Tim Griffin: Curiously, I think your last comment also relates to Isabelle’s observation, early in our conversation, about the art world no longer having clear-cut oppositional camps. Could a publication seriously damage anything anymore? Perhaps on the more abstract, infrastructural or institutional level, yes—it’s certainly the case for grand shows and other big points of interest within the art world’s public sphere, such as it is—but when it comes to artwork, I wonder. Currin does just fine without big coverage in the magazine; and to attack him would probably only do the magazine harm, rendering us a kind of cliché of criticality. Our worlds coexist and don’t really need to meet. I might yet endorse a more polemical stance in these pages with time, but to date I’ve been incredibly aware of how any critical position articulated here potentially creates a new market; we might try to “zig” when many “zag,” to borrow Donna’s phrasing, but the market is ever more quickly accommodating. And I must add that an artwork, as well, might become valued for its apparent or even self-proclaimed resistance to value. I’ve asked the question previously elsewhere, but how does one keep a magazine, and the art it discusses, from merely being a rhetorical device?

Isabelle Graw: The artist Merlin Carpenter recently observed how there is a connection between the scholarly work done on artists such as Lee Lozano and others and their quick rediscovery by and integration into the commercial art market. Think only of Lozano’s estate being represented by Hauser & Wirth. This said, I nevertheless believe that the work of reevaluation and reconsidering done by scholars and critics remains very important, but they should be aware of the way it feeds the market, too. I am also not convinced that a publication can’t seriously damage anything, as Tim suggests. If a critic raises doubt about the symbolic value of a work of art, and if she does so in a well-argued fashion, it won’t have an immediate effect on the art’s market value—that’s certainly true. But once the doubt is publicized, it is out there and it will unfold its potential due to the precariousness of value. Value is very susceptible to changes in the climate of opinion. Of course, you could argue that bad press is good press. Yet when the artistic worth of a practice is seriously questioned, there will be an effect on the market value in the long run.

But that said, I don’t know if we can keep talking about the “market” in a totalizing fashion. I do consider it necessary to differentiate between markets and to point to one’s own participation in the market of knowledge—which doesn’t mean one can’t establish an analytic distance at the same time. Here I agree with Pincus-Witten that any ideal of transparency is indeed questionable. Yet I do believe in the necessity to attempt to analyze and criticize social conditions.

Tim Griffin: Indeed, it’s the occasion for this roundtable, which leads me to interject here just once more regarding the possibilities for criticism— because I agree with you! Lord knows I wouldn’t be devoting my time to such an endeavor if I didn’t think it was possible to affect things, including and beyond the symbolic and exchange value of art. To keep things specific: My own working with Artforum—of all the places in the world to situate oneself—has very much to do with the belief that one can alter the context, the atmosphere, the discussion, and that one does so by surmising our cultural circumstances as well . . . but still, perhaps we must use terms and tools quite different from those employed by previous generations. Maybe what looks like criticism in fact confirms a status quo at times, performing itself, in essence; maybe criticism functions in ways not standardized, and therefore is not always immediately recognized as such. And maybe it’s most effective at those moments.

Donna De Salvo: Robert, your last comment reminds me of Linda Nochlin’s characterization of museums as “schizophrenic,” in that they are both elitist and democratic. The two opposites are never reconciled but rather are forced to coexist, albeit often in rather uncomfortable ways, and therefore contradiction reigns supreme. That is what I like most about great art—its ability to maintain a state of perpetual contradiction. I don’t see artists or museums as inherently good, and auction houses or art dealers as inherently bad; we all live in an interconnected world. But I do think we have different functions and that those functions mean and have the potential to influence things in different ways; and the decisions we make, or don’t make, are part of that.

Robert Pincus-Witten: May I respond belatedly to your call for an awareness of those for whom the “consumption/experience” of art precludes ownership? In measure, that sector would naturally be marginalized in a roundtable addressing art and money, since money is perhaps not readily found in the group you remind us of. Still, the “consumption/experience,” as you so tellingly name it, is available even there, since all groups find, or have, or press into being, their own artists, a coming-forward that may happen even under arduous circumstances.

And not only do artists emerge, even from disenfranchised sectors, so, too, do the agencies for establishing value within such communities. A vivid example, say, would be David Hammons at the beginning of his career, well before he becomes so signal a figure in black conceptualism. As is often the case, such an artist—as his or her celebrity grows within the marginalized community—is then taken up by the moneyed, collecting class, that is, by the larger “art market.” What also happens at that juncture is that the work itself becomes a new model in yet another shift within the larger issues of contemporary aesthetics.

Isabelle Graw: Here I feel I should reply to your earlier comment and say that I feel the artist is just as compromised by market conditions as the critic. Occasionally these conditions even reach into the artist’s production: Think only of picture formats or materials chosen in view of their production value and commercial use.


Dakis Joannou: You know, such questions are also enmeshed in the character of collecting. Consider the matter of scale: Large homes and private art spaces can now accommodate large pieces, encouraging the artists to be more ambitious not only in terms of the size of their work but also with the space the work demands around it. Sometimes, in fact, the combination of the “wait list”—which has also affected collecting, since instead of doing the choosing, now you are chosen!—and “scale” might make a collector buy a large work and send it straight to storage, since it was the only piece offered and therefore represented the only opportunity to acquire work by a particular artist. That is certainly going to make for a very different collection from what once might have been.

Tim Griffin: How else might you say collections have been changing, in terms of rising prices, media, and production values?

Dakis Joannou: Well, to pursue one line of thought, other media such as photography—which is editioned—and drawing are now also in the mainstream of collecting, along with more traditional works in sculpture and painting, and so are harder to obtain than they once were. Even when a collector is committed to an artist, having purchased his work in depth, that collector might have to stop collecting the artwork since it is no longer affordable. The collector then turns his attention to younger, more affordable artists—and so the nature of his collection will change. Alternatively, he will buy fewer pieces, and so the nature of the collection will change again.

James Meyer: Dakis describes a current taste for large-scale works among those who can afford to exhibit them in their houses. It’s not simply a matter of being able to buy the work. You have to have the correct “minimalist” interiors to show them. The house is an integral component of the social network Tom alluded to. It’s not enough to be part of the scene. Better still if the scene should descend upon your home—what more satisfying confirmation of your taste, your participation, your “ability to pay,” as Thorstein Veblen put it. It’s not a coincidence that house tours of celebrated private collections are an essential component of Art Basel Miami Beach. In the public realm, museums feel compelled to sponsor megascale, “site-specific” attractions to lure ever larger audiences in their effort to become global destinations. We contemplate the works—and the expenditures involved: $20 million for this Serra, $26 million for that, etc. Serra’s current works are sublime not only in bodily impact but in the way they, like Hirst’s skull, cause us to contemplate a different sort of sublimity: their cost.

Thomas Crow: Thinking about the settings and rituals whereby collectors put their holdings on display: Would it make sense, from the point of view of successful artists and their galleries, to regard these collections as a convenient system of storage and advertising that pays them for its services, rather than the other way around?

Tim Griffin: I also wonder what might be the real impact of large collections that double as public museums—or which are tethered to them, as we just saw at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Thinking again in terms of a longer history, how is what we’re seeing now anything other than a simple continuation of the tradition of private collections becoming museums?

Dakis Joannou: There is certainly a tradition of private collections becoming museums. But today they seem to be springing up all over the world—like mushrooms. Are they all going to become the Frick, Barnes, or Whitney of the future? I do not think so. Yet some undoubtedly will, and the ones whose founders have planned for the future have the better chance of succeeding.

Once the collector is not around, the dynamics of his or her collection change. With that in mind, there are a few options a collector has when it comes to planning for the future: First, to ensure the security of your vision, you may freeze the collection at one moment in time and endow the private museum in order to preserve that moment. This is, obviously, the Barnes model. Second, you may establish the collection as the inventory of the museum, which then continues its own activity, and with time the original vision of the collection is gone. This is the path taken by the Whitney. Third, the core of the collection may be preserved, with the activity of the museum thereafter revolving around it. This is the Frick. I am sure there are several other models. Attaching oneself to—or somehow connecting the collection with—an existing institution is a dynamic approach that ensures a sense of continuity for a collector.

So, to address the question of how the tradition of private collections becoming museums has changed in recent years: I believe that the principles today are not really so different from those of years past. Nevertheless, we are not likely to get another Museum of Modern Art in New York or another Tate Modern in London. We are living in a new reality, and, although the basic principles do not change, one must creatively adjust to this reality by inventing new concepts that will keep a collection relevant in the longer span of time.

James Meyer: Dakis, I was struck by your earlier remark that collectors do not choose the works of emerging artists but are “chosen.” What is the mechanism that causes collectors to pay exceptional sums for works by a stream of ever younger artists—artists recently emerged from MFA programs, who may not yet have developed their practices, who have a rich supply of works ahead of them, about whom there is little or no critical consensus? Isabelle’s observation of a discordance of supply and demand is useful here. Is it the number of collectors pursuing a few names? But how do these “names” become names? The opening at Deitch? The wait list that establishes a Potemkin perception of scarcity and exclusivity?

Isabelle Graw: I am somewhat reluctant when it comes to worrying too much about why collectors buy—whether young artists or old names. As we’ve said already, collectors’ motives are hybrid, shifting between the love of art, speculation, and acquiring social prestige. Yet in the case of young MFA students, we have to remember that it is only certain art schools that are considered “promising.” And a collector who bets on the “new”—a principle that reigns in contemporary art and fashion—can feel as if he or she discovered something. Beyond this discovery myth, he or she can pride him- or herself on not needing critics or art historians any longer to shape his or her opinion, preferring to trust his or her own “intuition”—which implies a denial of all those factors that actually do shape one’s aesthetic preferences. I would rather look at how new competence profiles have emerged in a network market: the collector occupying scholarly territory, by publishing catalogues, as in the case of Friedrich Christian Flick or Tim Nye; the collector-dealer; the critic-adviser; the artist-curator, etc.

James Meyer: I think it’s worth trying to account for specific manifestations of taste. All those graphs in Distinction—who likes Mozart, who likes Brahms, etc.—prove Bourdieu’s point. Define the preferences, you end up with the structure.

The cult of the young artist is a phenomenon in the US, at least, and at certain schools that are physically close to or in the commercial centers. The markets need fresh stock. Like China and Africa, the art school is a key source. Difference sells; youth and celebrity sell. Hollywood has its starlets. The art world has comparable figures, although it’s worth noting that many of them are male. The representation of a “transgressive” lifestyle in a serial diaristic manner offers a fantasy of bohemia, of downtown-ness, in the Disneyfied bohemia that lower Manhattan has become. The young artist is a Romantic topos; it’s precisely not new; its repetition is essential to its affective charge. It’s the ability to capture the feeling of youthfulness and a certain recklessness that taps into a collector’s nostalgia for that sort of freedom.

Tim Griffin: Going back to earlier comments about the market, its “winners” and “losers,” I wonder whether works associated with Conceptual art and Institutional Critique don’t also enjoy as much market success. They have certainly fetched fair prices of late. More intriguing to me, however, is how conceptual practices have migrated to the platforms of larger business models and proved themselves quite successful in that context. This suggests a different level of correspondence between art and commerce.

Amy Cappellazzo: Tim, to speak to your first question, the market tends to reward oil on canvas above all else, in part I presume because it is the physical embodiment of the cultural narrative of the West. In addition, it behaves well in domestic settings and requires the least amount of real estate intervention—all very practical considerations. That said, many artists who depend on certificate-based production and were known to make institutional critiques in their work—Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, David Hammons, and Joseph Kosuth, to name a few—have healthy, in some cases very strong, markets. Even younger artists working in this vein, such as Martin Creed and John Armleder, have markets with traction and substance, if at lower price points. I don’t know if one should consider the works of these artists to have changed to fit market demands.

James Meyer: The ’60s practices Amy alludes to advanced a preexecutive notion of making. The work could potentially be made in unlimited numbers, so the artists established mechanisms—limited editions, certificates of authenticity—that shored up the work’s scarcity and value. These forms of control proved essential in the marketing of neo-Conceptual photography, video projection, the Gonzalez-Torres stack, and other inherently multiple forms during the ’80s and ’90s. They were also the starting point for Institutional Critique—the phenomenological revelation of site becomes a critique of the “institution.” But there is still an idea of Institutional Critique that explains certain practices and not others. Michael Asher makes Institutional Critique. Christian Philipp Müller makes it. Other artists provide the “phenomenology” without the critique.

Isabelle Graw: The art world also serves as original scene for an entrepreneurial self that has become the general ideal in the workplace. Or to put it differently, those values attached to a “post-Fordist condition,” as Paolo Virno describes it—flexibility, mobility, communication—have been traditionally associated with the artist. He stands for the risk-taking entrepreneur whom everybody should turn into.

Tim Griffin: Weiwei, I know that your work is multifaceted, and in a way that might speak to Isabelle’s comment. Could you say how your practice has changed or expanded with the changing circumstances surrounding Chinese art more generally? Or are there very significant ways in which contemporary practices in China have changed with increased market interest in recent years?

Ai Weiwei: Well, I think the Chinese artist faces a completely different task. We live in a nation filled with tradition and under Communist control, with a one-party system and no freedom of speech; and yet the country enjoys the capitalist system and has a strong sense of materialism. Everybody is striving for profit, but at the cost of things ranging from the public education system to the actual environment. It’s such a mixed stage that we stand on. Even art and literature, after such a long time of government control, is in a situation where it seems anything goes. There is no organized discussion of philosophy or aesthetics.

Of course, such chaos, while it means that the conversation isn’t there in the same way, also suggests opportunities. In the wake of industrial society, people were formed by their professions, and the structure of education would only reinforce that sense. Art, on the other hand, offers alternative ways of thinking; it seeks alternative conditions. In China, then, art has become more influential of late, as the government has begun to feel that there is not enough creativity in the very structuring of the economy. The wrong kind of struggle today will fail to create profits. So even the Communists are talking about creativity as productivity. They are really trying to encourage all the party members to be more creative—which is kind of ridiculous— and change is the word on everybody’s lips. People are looking to the East and to the West, trying to find new patterns of thinking and behaving. It will be interesting as people become more familiar with each other. That is, there will be different kinds of understanding and different kinds of works, and no longer conventional ideas of East or West. There won’t even be up or down, or left or right, but rather all sorts of strange dimensions.

Isabelle Graw: I would like to predict that during the impending recession, those artists who have been associated with Institutional Critique—those artists who not only reflect on the institutional conditions of art, but also look critically at themselves as embodiments of a kind of institution—will be more in demand. The commercial markets will have an increased need for a symbolic backup; what they long for are knowledge and information. And in this regard, I would like to point to Andrea Fraser’s work as an example of a highly “market-reflexive” practice, insofar as she has taken it upon herself to demonstrate how this cognitive capitalism wants all of us—our emotional, cognitive, and performative capacities. Even the most intimate parts of our lives are of interest for a market that wants us to constantly optimize all aspects of our living. Now, before assuming that we know what “Institutional Critique” is, we might have to redefine what we mean by “institution” and “critique” alike. As for the institution, it is not clearly delimited anymore and certainly can’t be associated with museums—which should more be defended than criticized at this moment of their progressive commercialization. The institution nowadays consists of a global art industry producing visuality and meaning, with people like us more or less “institutionalized” within it. What does it mean to be “critical” under such conditions? Critique implies distance, but this distance has to be renegotiated as well on the basis of the critic’s own implication within this system. I am not saying that we should all just happily admit we are compromised and enjoy this state in a perverse fashion. Rather, I am saying that our critical analysis of social conditions should have consequences on what we assume and how we operate.

Ai Weiwei: When you change things, the chances are that the changes will end up becoming the foundation. We’ll always be eager to find or create a new experience, a new source of exhilaration. But whatever you arrive at will very soon no longer be there. And so you will need to move on, or you will need to move up. And this will have to be your perpetual practice.

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