Does the ‘Artworld’ still exist?

Spring 2021 Newsletter

Does the ‘Artworld’ still exist?

by Jane Kallir
The following appeared in the March 2021 issue of The Art Newspaper (Vol. XXX, Number 332)

Black and white photograph of Jane Kallir. Photographer: Julienne Schaer.
Jane Kallir is the president of the Kallir Research Institute. Photo © Julienne Schaer.

With vaccines slowly rolling out, pundits have begun issuing predictions for the post-Covid art world. Few doubt the pandemic accelerated transformations that were already under way before everyone went into lockdown. Less frequently noted is the fact that the art world as such has been fracturing for decades.

Arthur Danto codified the concept of the “Artworld” in a famous 1964 essay of that title: a coterie of cognoscenti (artists, critics, collectors, curators and so on), who supported a common art-historical narrative with the power to transform a soup can from supermarket staple into museum object. The art world’s narratives were both prescriptive and predictive, determining which artists—past, present and future—deserved to be honoured by museums and included in the standard texts. Over the course of time, these narratives became handy blueprints for speculation. Savvy collector/dealers could stockpile canvases by, say, Warhol or Picasso, taking advantage of momentary dips in auction prices, with the assurance that their investments would eventually pay off. Thus was born the blue-chip market.

The expansion of the auction market from the 1980s onward encouraged buyers to view art as an investment. It was in everyone’s interest—auctioneers, collectors and dealers—to pretend that auction results were a measure of objective value, when in fact auction prices are often prey to whim and circumstance. Price and value became inextricably confused: did a given work bring a record price because it was great, or was it great because it smashed the record? And what did it mean, then, when a seemingly comparable work by the same artist failed to sell? Control of the art world shifted from academia to the marketplace.

Consumer control was enhanced by the internet, which blurred the lines between art, entertainment and fashion. KAWS is probably the best-known example of this phenomenon. Largely bypassing the art establishment, he built an audience through a combination of commercial licensing and online outreach. Collector demand has pushed his auction record over $14m. But are high prices and a huge fan base enough to qualify KAWS as a major artist? It remains to be seen whether riffs on popular cartoons like The Simpsons and SpongeBob SquarePants make lasting contributions to culture. Whatever the future holds for KAWS, however, there is no traditional art-historical narrative that can contain his work.

The melding of “high” and “low” art is just one of many ways in which the narratives crafted by Danto’s art world have been overwritten since 1964. Far more significant is the embrace of counter-narratives created by women and people of colour. The heightened awareness of social injustice engendered by the pandemic has given even greater urgency to this trend. On the other hand, blue-chip sales, already hampered by a paucity of trophy material and buyers able to pay the requisite seven- and eight-figure sums, were further diminished by last year’s suspension of in-person auctions. In the absence of an overarching, legitimising narrative, art ceases to be a reliable long-term investment and becomes, like fashion, something that changes with the seasons.

Correcting the art world’s discredited narratives requires more than increased inclusivity. What’s needed is a change in the balance of power, away from the market and back to artists, curators and art historians. Connoisseurship and expertise have lately been out of favour, but not all art is created equal. Those who spend every day interacting with objects really are better qualified to judge than those who don’t. Race, gender, sexual orientation and geographic origin are not merely boxes to be ticked, but rather part of a larger constellation of social, historical and cultural inputs that artists interpret according to their individual needs and abilities.

Ultimately, each artist sets their own terms and must be evaluated based on their success in meeting them. When we learn to fine-tune our judgements accordingly, we will have created a true art world, an arena that embraces artistic achievement however and wherever across the globe it may manifest.