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A Question of Value

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A Question of Value

What might it mean to enter the art world in the current economic climate?

It is a loaded question, premised on a number of assumptions. First of all, the linking of the economic downturn and that most peculiar of entities, 'the art world', would seem to lend the latter a distinctly financial character. This, in turn, would seem to hint at a set of related debates concerning the motives potentially informing artistic production, the status of the artwork as commodity, and the need for artists (or those hoping to become artists) to earn a living.

Martin Parr's recent book, Luxury, looks at the various ways people display their wealth. The project marks a return to the critical documentary mode that characterized the photographer's practice throughout the 1980s: a somewhat sneering anthropological lens directed at exposing the tragi-comic character of his subjects and their lifestyles. The photographs in Luxury were made between 2003 and 2008 and, owing to this time frame and the financial downturn last autumn, what was conceived as a critique of these lavish demonstrations of affluence took on the form of an epitaph, a posthumous glance back at the decadence and frivolity which, for some at least, marked the beginning of the new millennium. 1

In among the toffs at Ascott and sheiks in Dubai, sit a number of photographs made at last year's Frieze Art Fair, the annual art world pantomime where, for five days, the tenuous boundary between art, celebrity and money grows almost imperceptible. There, in the cheek kissing and designer dresses, chinking champagne glasses and sharp suits, Parr successfully captured the grotesque spectacle of the moneyed art world, at precisely the point when the designer threads showed signs of fraying and the champagne bubble burst. 'It's the end of an era', one Dutch gallery owner was heard to say. 2

Such scenes are symptomatic of the extraordinary and unprecedented sums that were channeled into contemporary art by private collectors over the course of the past few years. Viewed sympathetically, the sometimes astronomical prices paid for work during this period might be taken as indicative of the considerable lengths some individuals have gone to in indulging their philanthropic impulses. Viewed conversely, as Julian Stallabrass has suggested, these massive sums may in fact demonstrate the workings of a 'speculative market in which art works are used for a variety of instrumental purposes, including investment, tax avoidance and money laundering,' all the while conferring upon these benevolent patrons a degree of cultural prestige denied to the average wage-earner. 3

Whatever the motives of these buyers (a complex issue that lies beyond the immediate focus of this short essay), 4 when the stock markets plummeted last autumn, it became clear that even this most burgeoning of markets would not be immune to the tremors of instability caused by the corrupt actions of a few men in suits. In November, a major sale of contemporary art at Christie's in New York saw a host of big name works fail to sell, despite significant drops in their reserve prices. 5 Although reports from Art Basel, held in June this year, suggested signs of a recovery, many attributed this to the fact that important works were made available at what were, by recent standards at least, bargain basement prices. As the Zurich and London dealer Iwan Wirth made clear, 'the days when art was sold whilst still in packing crates in artists' studios is over.' 6

If the likes of Hirst and Prince are now struggling to sell, or are at least being forced to drop their prices, what hope might there be for emerging artists? Viewed through the prism of the market – as so much of social, political and cultural activity seems to be these days – the future may indeed look bleak. But is, or should, the incentive behind the production of art ever really be financial? The reason the arts receive public subsidy, and that – unlike other investments – the ownership of art works confers such cultural prestige, can be put down to the motive that supposedly informs its making, and the function, unlike other commodities, it potentially fulfils.

In a recent issue of Photoworks we featured what I think were five of our strongest folios to date. Of these projects, one was the result of a publicly-funded commission; another was final year BA work; another – a highly accomplished and personal project made over a period of years – was effectively funded via various commercial jobs; and one (despite being made by a significant figure of considerable critical acclaim) was subsidized through teaching. 7 Only one of the projects, made by an early career artist, had been the subject of a commercial show; though even here, I imagine, any profits generated would have fallen well short of the money she needed to pay the bills during the two years spent making the work. And this has long been the reality for the vast majority of practicing artists.

The manner in which these artists laboured to subsidize their practices would seem to testify to a particular sort of commitment to a particular set of values that have little to do with money. And, just as work informed directly by sales and careerist instincts results (with a small number of exceptions) in the production of bad art – spectacular, egocentric, one-dimensional, sellable – so this alternative form of commitment can sometimes result in a different and, for me, more enduring, practice. Speaking to a number of artists who have benefited from the recent period of affluence, few dispute the financial benefits it provided, at the same time conceding that market success can serve to stifle creative and critical freedom. Perhaps it's a just question of value.

Whilst the current economic climate may mean that opportunities for artists become fewer – at least as far as remuneration is concerned – should this necessarily translate in negative terms? Rather, might it allow for a re-assessment of the value we afford to art and the motives that inform both its making and reception? In a similar way, might it not encourage a re-thinking of the disseminatory vehicles artists seek out, and the forms their work assumes, the shifted climate enabling and demanding new and innovative means of reaching the public? These are processes already initiated by the rise of internet art, the recent resurgence in performance-based practices, and through a number of projects self-consciously positioning themselves outside the bourgeois sanctum of the gallery: projects geared towards a wide and varied public, not the few in possession of the hard cash to fund or to buy them.

Whilst it would be naïve to expect the current slump in the market to prompt a radical re-examination of these values, any more than we might expect a significant change in the political system that oversaw recent financial 'irregularities' (the logic of the market which pervades all aspects of our thinking is too entrenched for any profound or immediate overhaul, especially owing to the current absence of any clear alternatives), we might, at least, hope that this altered climate could prompt a quiet re-imagining, or re-affirmation, of the reasons art is made, the functions it fulfils, and the sort of value we afford it. As the artist Peter Kennard recently put it, 'people will need to work outside the art system, as the system's collapsing anyway. People will need to re-think the idea of being an artist if they want to survive and make work.' 8

Benedict Burbridge, September 2009


  1. Martin Parr, Luxury, Chris Boot, London, 2009.
  2. Carolle Cadwallader, 'Before the Bubbly Stops Flowing', The Observer, 19 October 2008.
  3. Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art, Oxford University Press,
    Oxford, p. 5
  4. Louisa Bruick and Julian Stallabrass, among others, have made interesting points in relation to these potential motives. See Louisa Buck, Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market, Arts Council of England, London, 2004, and Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated.
  5. Julia Kollowe, 'Credit Crunch hits the Art Market', The Guardian, 13 November 2008.
  6. Lindsay Pollock and Christina Ruiz, 'Surprise success: Art Basel credit crunch blues', The Art Newspaper, 12 June 2009.
  7. This is by no means to cast teachers as mercenaries – many British and international art schools are still lucky enough to be staffed by practicing artists committed to the social, as opposed to financial, value of teaching.
  8. Peter Kennard interviewed by Benedict Burbridge, Grafik 177 (September 2009).