PRINT April 2008



Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007, platinum, diamonds, and human teeth, 6 3⁄4 x 5 x 7 1⁄2".

TO WHAT DEGREE and in what ways have an expanded market and popular interest in contemporary art impacted and shaped the contours of art’s making, collection, circulation, and display—and to what degree does our current situation have any historical precedent? These questions, in one form or another, have been much on the minds of everyone engaged with contemporary art. Indeed, by some accounts, Artforum would seem to be coming “late” to the discussion. But if that is the case, it is hardly unintentional: Lateness, when it comes to the question of art and its markets, is something from which we can only benefit, as it affords a better vantage on the greater arc of recent events while also circumventing breathless conjecture in favor of a serious, sober, and informed assessment, and brings into play the extended reflections every contributor to this issue has no doubt already given these matters privately.

The current issue’s focus is contemporary art and its economy during the past decade, particularly seen in light of the remarkable expansion of art’s global circulation; of its ever-increasing technological sophistication and production values; of its exponential growth in prices; and of its tightening grip on the popular imagination as a unique arbiter of status. But there is no separating these circumstances from those of culture understood more broadly. Accordingly, this issue calls upon voices not ordinarily heard in these pages. Alongside the usual writerly suspects of art historian and critic are the sociologist, financial journalist, gallerist, auction house executive, collector, fair organizer—even the retail anthropologist. One might reasonably call the mix unusual. And yet it is a combination absolutely demanded by the task at hand. Any meaningful survey of the field of contemporary art today necessitates some real reflection on a whole interlocking network of diverse factions and factors that figure into the creation of value in art, both intellectual and financial. And it requires some consideration of the significant roles—symbiotic, antagonistic, or both in tactical interplay—assumed by each one of these elements as they affect the terms for all the others and, together, generate a continually shifting context for art.

As one might imagine, these multiple perspectives provide a unique sense of dimensionality to our investigation, but only while they are also cumulatively rife with paradox and contradiction. For every observation that art’s prices are propelled by art’s very “pricelessness,” there is another explaining that recently restructured tax codes and valuation guidelines have allowed an amazing influx of cash to enter the system in the spirit of speculation. For every assertion that the attribution of historical importance to contemporary work inflates its actual value, there is another arguing that demand for contemporary art has grown to unprecedented heights because collectors don’t really have to know anything about it. (Curiously, what these two positions might both acknowledge is the heightened importance of branding today—that is, the sense that work is held in higher regard merely because of where it is found, whether in an esteemed collection, gallery, museum, or magazine.)

Some paradoxes are, however, more pertinent and provocative than others. In fact, some are perennial when it comes to investigating the delicately enmeshed relationships between symbolic and exchange value: Simply put, when it comes to art, there will always be those for whom the experience involves some aspect of possession and acquisition, and others for whom that experience is exclusively aesthetic or intellectual. To extrapolate from art historian Linda Nochlin’s observations about the museum as institution in her 1971 essay “Museums and Radicals: A History of Emergencies” (cited by curator Donna De Salvo in this issue’s roundtable discussion), art is an inherently “schizophrenic” sphere, at once elitist and democratic. And yet one senses, certainly upon a close reading of this issue of Artforum, that this schizophrenia has perhaps never been so pronounced during the postwar era as it is today. The public function of art has been altered with the reweaving of society at large, asking us to consider more closely the extent to which art and its institutions are both reflections and extensions of larger economic forces, whose sweeping effect might be to remake yesterday’s democratic commons as domains of consumerism, a kind of privatized public sphere. As described by art historian Thomas Crow in his keynote essay for this issue, we see this in the changing civic complexion of philanthropy. Yet perhaps this shift extends even to phenomenology, or, better, a changed sense of the sublime: How might an individual’s experience be mediated by a work of art’s astounding worth, by a pricing impossible to ignore? Such an object would seem to retreat from the body regardless of its actual proximity.

It is with these circumstances in mind that Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, 2007, appears on the cover of this issue. For the work would seem a schizophrenic object par excellence: utterly familiar through its recent, relentless reproduction in the art and tabloid presses alike, and yet totally removed from life, a figure, as Catherine Wood wrote about Hirst’s work in this magazine last December, emblematic of that “suppressed continuum between mass access and select privilege”—a figure that might be said to lurk beneath these pages. And if its visage is inevitably attended by dread, whether that inspired by the sheer dimensions of the financial infrastructures marshaled in such art, by the work’s implicit sense of crass debasement, by the sometimes wild disparities of our current moment embedded therein, or by the potential demise of the markets that made it possible—depending on your point of view—better that we should look back at it straight on, since its subject, after all, is also the very condition of our times.