What is the value of art?

Art cannot change our world or the conditions of the art market. It cannot exist without auctions, fairs, dealers and speculators. Art can be full of ambition and desire for change, but it often struggles to make an impact beyond the art world. Most of us have come across these sorts of statements that describe art as beautiful, but powerless, as an evocative conversation starter, but ultimately ineffective – just another product in the global economy. Is there anything art and artists can do to disprove these claims? And more importantly: what can artists do to become less dependent on the art market’s value system? In the recent HBO documentary The Price of Everything, Amy Capellazzo, the Chairman of the Fine Art Division of Sotheby’s, affirmed “that good art makes itself known regardless of value.” This sentiment was endorsed by art dealer and collector Kenny Schachter in his Artnet News review of the documentary. Affirming that “good art makes itself known” implies that bad art does not make itself known, that bad art cannot rise to the top since it is self-evidently “bad”. If strong auction sales and art fairs were only reserved for “good art”, we would indeed live in a better world. It is hypocritical for two people who make their living by profiting off of art’s speculative value to speak of “good art” that exists in a semi-autonomous state “regardless of value.” In a world in which autocracies and their appetite for free trade increasingly take center stage in the global art economy (as in case of China and Saudi Arabia), a call for more democracy, transparency and equality for artists is required. But artists have to make this call. Are we up for the task? An artist network based on mutual friendship, support and exchange of ideas is the most effective tool against an art market that primarily follows a trail of money. But as social media platforms like Instagram demonstrate, artists often regard their network as a means to an end. And by doing so, they mirror the characteristics of the economic system they claim to oppose. Here is how: There is a segment of visual artists on Instagram who document their studio visits with other practicing artists. This could be an effective and genuine way of using social media to expose the work of emerging artists and offer insights into their materials, methods and works in progress while building a network across styles, media and ideas. Instead these posts become demonstrations of affiliation: artist “X” knows artist “Y”. This power dynamic describes a situation in which artists who exhibit less initiate visits with artists who exhibit more (it is rarely the other way around). In itself, this is a useful way of advocating for oneself if it was not for the transactional quality of this exchange: in front of a large audience, documented, tagged and geolocated. We do not discover art, we measure it. And the follower count that either increases or drops is one way to measure the value of this and all future exchanges. If every exhibition we visited listed the artist’s number of Instagram followers, it would most certainly have an effect on how the art on display was valued (similar to the red dot next to a sold artwork). The art market and social media are not the enemy. Instead it is our desire to be valued in a measurable way. An artist’s participation in art fairs has become one such measure of success. Partly out of necessity and partly out of vanity, we – the artists – have accepted that there is no other way than the current way. We are enthralled by art fairs. We act like business owners and unapologetic ‘go-getters.’ We worry about lost Instagram followers. Let us put the focus back on art, why we started making it in the first place, and then maybe we can talk about its true value.


Viktor Witkowski


Viktor earned a Master’s Degree in Art Education, Art History and Studio Art from the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig (HBK Braunschweig, Germany) in 2006 and a MFA in Visual Arts from Rutgers University in 2010.



Volume 33 no 3 January / February 2019 p6

11 thoughts on “Speakeasy

  1. Hi Viktor,
    I found your Speakeasy very thought provoking and wondered if we could start a conversation on it here in the comment area. I agree with you when you wrote “…a call for more democracy, transparency and equality for artists is required. But artists have to make this call. Are we up for the task? An artist network based on mutual friendship, support and exchange of ideas is the most effective tool against an art market that primarily follows a trail of money.” This call for “more democracy, transparency and equality” needs to be enacted for our governments, the media, the healthcare and welfare organizations, not only for artists. These key elements are sadly lacking from our lives today. I was wondering if you could go one step further and elaborate on how you envision this network for artists.

    1. Thank you for your comment and question. I am happy to elaborate a bit more.
      When I was writing this Speakeasy, I had something very concrete in mind: blind submissions. A “blind submission” is when an Open Call for artists asks for anonymous portfolio submissions or exhibition proposals by artists on projects. Unlike the majority of Open Calls, a “blind submission” withholds the name of an applicant when reviewers sort through the submitted material. In most cases CVs are not even part of the submission.
      As a practicing artist, I spend a good amount of time responding to all sorts of Open Calls: exhibition opportunities, online publications, grants, residencies, etc. In the past decade of applying to various calls, I have come across two “blind submissions” (and these showed up within the last two years). It is possible that there are more “blind submissions” out there, but even so their number is minuscule and shockingly low.
      Reviewing panels that go through applications as part of regular submissions pay extra attention to where artists graduated from, where they exhibited, where they might have been reviewed. Any artist with a raised professional profile will automatically raise the profile of the respective organization, institute, gallery, non-profit, etc. that is reviewing these submissions.
      If there were more “blind submissions” for Open Calls and if some commercial galleries would agree to host one annual “blind submission” call, we would dramatically increase the radius of participants beyond the pool of the usual suspects. We cannot be preaching about the principles of democracy as they apply to politics, but then play by different, more murky rules within the art sphere. That is hypocritical. And the idea of implementing more “blind submissions” is a very simple suggestion, but one that I believe is easy and realistic to apply.

      When it comes to the network of artists that I suggest in the Speakeasy, I have a network in mind that is not based on a similarity of art styles, subject matter or a particular “school” or movement (for example a group of figurative painters only or a group of photographers who all work on social documentary issues). What matters is that these artists realize that they have power over the art market if they decide to work together. It is no secret that to this day a personal recommendation (usually by a more seasoned artist) can lead to an exhibition for a younger, emerging or less-established artist. In order to avoid the formation of a clique (which is the most common form of any art collective) that will only advance its own members, we have to become more generous and less selfish. And this is also the most difficult part: in short, we have to become better human beings who stop thinking “what is in it for me?” I am not naive to believe that this can be changed. All I can do is to lay out how we can begin to change the art world. As you correctly point out in your comment, there is a very resistant, stubborn unwillingness of people to change. Let’s look at healthcare, welfare, and – probably most pressing – climate change. We are letting things slide because the way things are, they work for some of us. I believe deep down most of us know that conditions have to change – no matter if it is the art world, the state of global politics, the attacks against journalism and facts, or the well-being of our planet.

      1. Hi Victor,
        I agree with you that people are very resistant and unwilling to accept change in their lives. However, it is through change that we renew ourselves and learn new coping mechanisms. Change is unsettling; it can create stress and discomfort. However, it is through change that we become problem solvers and definitely more creative, that is if we accept change and don’t refuse it. When we cannot embrace change, it’s when we suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, and ensuing depression.
        Kevin McKenna who is from the Observer and is also the Executive Editor of the Daily Mail, makes several suggestions for climate change, one of which would help lower our energy consumption, and also teach us to live with less electricity: “Compulsory lights out. Every family would be required to spend one day a week without any form of energy supply. This would be monitored by smart meters and Alexa (who we all know is spying on us anyway). Not only would it make us carbon-neutral more quickly but it would engender a sense of community and family togetherness in the candlelight. It would also boost the Scottish population, which an independent Scotland requires for a buoyant economy.”
        Leaving aside the tremendous issues we have with the environment, I think that it would be extremely exciting to see more blind submissions in the art world on a large scale. It would definitely lead to change in this climate of doomed culture we live in, where culture is just manufactured and put on our plates to eat as our daily diet. No hard decisions to make; we’re shown what is “good” art, and we all more or less just accept it as good. With exhibitions promoting blind submissions we would visit shows, looking forward to making discoveries, instead of already knowing what we were going to see.

        1. Change is inevitable. There is much anxiety and resentment out there. Art is about change. A substantial problem is political correctness. In our Western Culture the critical or lone independent voice is suspect or not welcome, unless a deal is struck or it is safe socially. As Daren Jones the NY Editor wrote, the Critical Dustbowl is present in America. Serious critical discourse seems to be not possible. Unless there is a deal, this can happen in many ways; tacit agreement is usually the case. The present art world, except for dealers and collectors, suffers from cowardice, which is usually camouflaged under the shroud of good taste or the latest trendy fashion. If our culture is to be saved, artists, writers and publishers will have to play their part.

          1. Hi, you wrote, “If our culture is to be saved, artists, writers and publishers will have to play their part.” What about the buyers, shouldn’t they also play their part? I think people have forgotten that it is possible to fall in love with an artwork and to desire it as intensely as one would desire a man or a woman and not necessarily look at it as an investment. I think the buyers (society) today have lost their sense of aesthetics and purchase art as a commodity and not as a work of art. Artists themselves, should stop “producing” what they think the market wants or expects and start painting or sculpting again from the soul. Though, of course, this is utopian, it would make for a much more interesting visual art environment.

          2. Hello Margot,
            Thank you for your comment and question.
            I agree that the buyers have to play their part too. And you are absolutely right to point out that some buyers/collectors do it out of passion: they will only buy a work of art that resonates with them. In that case, it does not matter to them if it is a work by a well-known or entirely unknown artist. I remember reading an interview with the art critic Jerry Saltz in which he mentions that he and his wife (art critic Roberta Smith) often go to flea markets and buy most of their art there. I love that idea! But this is an exception.
            I also do not want to generalize too much and make things simpler than they are: I do believe that many collectors/buyers out there care for art – whatever their motivation might be to buy art (weather it is for speculative reasons or because they truly love art). But that is also why I think that artists can’t just point to the art market and blame it for everything that is going wrong with contemporary art. Artists have some agency and they can take a look at the current situation and come up with strategies that will strengthen their position within the art market. One first step as an artist is to become more aware of power relationships within the art market, be critical of them, find other artists who think alike, get together and try to figure out what can be done to reclaim some of art market and change its dynamics: find a gallery, art-space (non-profit or artist run) or curator that you like and approach them as a group of artists, have some ideas about how you envision an exhibition, for example. Or maybe a panel discussion or an open call or a collaborative project…This is, of course, being done by artists across the globe and it is no guarantee that it will replace the art market (it won’t). But it is better than hoping that the ultimate goal for an artist is to be represented by a gallery or to be showing at an art fair.

        2. Hi Craig,
          Thank you for your comment and helpful feedback- I really appreciate it! I hope you are right: if we all start taking small steps in the right direction, maybe at the end we will actually find changed conditions that are truly more inclusive and lead to a better, healthier (art) world.


          1. The above conversion is pertinent; we have a globalized world with a flight of money and wealth to the top 1% richest. The situation emerged with the birth of modernism. The isolation of the artist is a time-honored problem that befell the art scene around the emergence of modern art. Simply the mass public could not identify with the modern artist. Our Postmodern era has witnessed the rise of media as a political and cultural determinant. See Orwell !984 and Animal Farm, also The Road to Wigan Pier. The American Modernist Avaunt guard is fading and past its sell-by date. Somehow artists and writers are going to make their own individual case, which I see as very difficult as our culture is strangled by class warfare that we call the art world.

          2. I agree with your description of “class warfare” with regard to the art world, if we think of the “art world” as the world of art fairs. Just today, I saw somebody post an image of a striking Egon Schiele watercolor on Instagram that is on sale at Art Basel. My first thought was: this work should be part of the collection of a publicly accessible museum. Instead, it might end up on another yacht.

            I am not sure that I agree that the “flight of money and wealth to the top 1% richest” emerged with modernism. I think it emerged with capitalism and then capitalism took hold of the art market by imitating what it was already doing in other sectors of the global economy: if there is a desire by the private sector to buy art, surely we can put something in place that will generate money even for those of us who do not really care about art. And this system works for some artists (the 1% as well).

            The question then becomes: how do we (people of the arts) come up with ways to critique the art world and at the same time offer alternatives to how art fairs are covered/discussed and how the art world is much bigger and more diverse than what happens at art fairs.

  2. Dear Viktor,
    It would make sense if the conditions of the art market changed with the new European Union ruling on having to verify the identity of a buyer making a purchase of 10,000 euros or more. However, I believe that very little will change with this ruling and dealers, and buyers will only get more secretive than they already were. It’s the auction houses that will be taking a loss, as high priced art works will only go underground and be sold outside territorial waters on boats or on private jets in undisclosed locations, like with drug dealers.

    Here’s the article:
    “European Union tightens anti-money-laundering rules in the art market
    Dealers will be compelled to verify identity of customers buying art for €10,000 or more”


    1. Dear Adrian,
      Thank you for the link and information! I will read this article as soon as possible. Just briefly: I hope that this ruling will increase transparency in auction house deals, but I guess we won’t know until we read about upcoming auctions under this new ruling.

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