Volume 36 no 2 November / December 2021 – Speakeasy
The Sudden Recent Death of Our Art World
Just a year ago, without any warning, with no one prepared, our art world died. For four decades, for as long as I have been publishing art criticism, long–distance travel has been easy and relatively inexpensive. And so it was not difficult to see a great deal of art both in the United States and in Western Europe. In New York City alone there were four major museums, numerous smaller ones, and many art galleries. In those days, it simply was not possible for one reviewer to view all of the interesting exhibitions. There was a lot to see. Of course, there was a great deal of mediocre art. And so the challenge was finding the few works that mattered.
Making and judging art has long been a social activity. Denis Diderot, the first great art critic, reported on the Louvre Salon in 1767. He would be astonished by almost all of the art at the recent Venice Biennales, and surprised at how much of it there was, but he would understand the ways in which it is displayed. And he would grasp immediately the role of art critics, whose judgments aspire to guide public response. After all, his role was similar, though admittedly he wrote for a much smaller audience. Under the old regime, in France as elsewhere, art displays were governed by a top-down system. Then with modernism, the public was invited to see and judge new art, and their shared response determined success. Contemporary art has repeatedly changed drastically, but this system remains.
Now, however, the coronavirus has destroyed the social roots of our art world. Some major American commercial galleries are closing, all of them are restricting attendance, our museums have massively laid off staff and limited their hours, and international travel is impossible at least for the time being. At present almost every country is having these problems. Breakdown of social institutions is often traumatic. This happened in 1918 when the Great War destroyed three great, long-lasting states, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, and created the preconditions for German and Soviet totalitarianism. And it happened in Communist Europe in 1989, when state socialism unexpectedly completely disappeared. Now maybe it’s happened again. Like those changes, this death of our art world was completely unpredicted, which makes dealing with it more difficult.
Many galleries and museums are creating remote exhibitions. You can go on-line and view the artworks, sometimes even remotely walking through the galleries. But no one is very satisfied with this situation. To properly see artworks, you need to be physically present. And looking at art is a social experience. In a gallery or museum, you move freely and overhear the response of other people. It’s impossible to judge art adequately sitting alone by your computer. Even if you have a large monitor, and can Zoom with your friends, the experience is essentially different.
Capitalism has always thrived and usually depended upon expansion. And since its origin during the French Revolution in 1793, or a little earlier in Rome and Vienna, the art museum has always expanded. Art from everywhere has been added to the collections, and there has been the addition of a great deal of novel contemporary art. And the inclusion of art from Africa, Australia, the Islamic world, and China in our museums of world art history has greatly enlarged those institutions. Every ambitious American museum has regularly rebuilt its galleries and expanded its collection. And in the past half century, the number and size of commercial art galleries devoted to contemporary art have increased drastically. The quantity of newly made art displayed and collected leads, also, to a belief in its absolute importance, and to a dramatic increase in both the numbers of art students and the quantity of writing devoted to this work. Ours, it was thus implied by this vast economy, is an important creative epoch.
This West European art system has had an amazing international success. In mainland China, as in Africa and almost all parts of Asia, similar art worlds have been developed. In the People’s Republic of China and in the Gulf Arab States there are many ambitious new museums. Art viewing has been an important business internationally. Now the Western economy has not collapsed, but the part of it that supports the art world has. And right now the totally legitimate, long-unmet demands by women and African-Americans that their art be fairly presented could not have arrived at a worse time, when these institutions are struggling to survive. Change is easier when the system was expanding. It’s much harder to revise the canon when the resources are becoming scarce.
What then will happen? Perhaps when most of us are vaccinated, the art world will come back. Travel again will be possible. And maybe, in the meantime, Western governments will support the art world. Or it may be the case that new systems for viewing and selling art will evolve. Perhaps videos, which already are an important form of contemporary artworks, will become of increasing importance. And maybe, just as great American collections were formed during the depression of the 1930s, some prescient collectors will take advantage of this situation. I suspect that while the major museums and largest American galleries will survive, many of the small institutions are in serious trouble. If they have to shut down for a couple of years, it won’t be easy for them to start up again. It’s easier to sell masterpieces remotely than attract attention to younger artists. And yet, if the art world is to continue, it needs to add such figures.
Ideally I would hope for a gallery system that supported more judicious aesthetic judgments. But I don’t know that the present crisis will produce that result. Perhaps, rather, the belief that this is a major period for artistic creativity will disappear. In this swiftly changing situation, it’s impossible to reliably imagine the near future. But what can be said with certainty is that the present situation cannot long continue. Our art world institutions have proven to be surprisingly frail. And so this is a challenging moment. The entire world economy was vastly overextended, in ways that reflected vast political problems. And so the booming art world was certainly not sustainable. But I didn’t ever expect it to die like this.