in Features | 13 OCT 05
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Issue 94

How has art changed? Part four

Some questions seem so obvious they are almost never asked. With the proliferation of museums, biennales and fairs, and the sheer amount of work now being made, shown, and sold, the art world has obviously changed substantially over the last 40 or so years. But what have been the most important shifts in art and the structures that surround it? frieze has asked 33 artists, collectors, critics, curators, educators and gallerists to respond

in Features | 13 OCT 05

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and co-curator of the show ‘Uncertain States of America’ at Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo (October 2005) and co-curator of the Guangzhou Triennial in Canton, China (November 2005).


Olu Oguibe

An artist who has exhibited his work in biennials and triennials around the world, and also curated major exhibitions for numerous spaces, including Tate Modern and the Venice Biennale. He is an Associate Professor of Art and Art History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent book is The Culture Game.

Over the last 40 years contemporary art has witnessed few significant changes besides the numerous trends and fads that provide the art world with much-coveted entertainment. Photography gained prominence. Video art failed to fulfil its early promise. The much-touted dematerialization of the art object proved to be a mere discursive fantasy, as even ‘new media’ artists continue to privilege the marketable object. Eventually cynicism has replaced genuine curiosity and engagement even in post-colonial contemporary art. More significant, however, is the consolidation of women artists’ place in discourse, display, documentation and practice. Despite continued gender disparity in visibility and remuneration, women artists have registered their presence beyond contest or erasure. This is particularly important because younger artists can now take the possibility of success and recognition for granted.

Equally significant is the decline of the critic as a culture broker. Of course, critics remain important arbiters of taste, but the all-powerful, fate-determining critic that emerged especially in mid-century America and brokered careers, movements and canonical paradigms, leaving powerful imprints on the discourse of contemporary art, is no more. Today that role is played by the curator. That, too, will change.

Regrettably, artistic autonomy has also declined. In the 1960s and early 1970s artists boldly and consciously distanced themselves from the establishment, and in the process opened refreshing avenues for expression. However, that independence is all but completely ceded today as artists jostle for position and jockey to mortgage their work, careers and convictions for success, thus relegating themselves to pawns in the culture game.

William Pope.L

An artist who lives in Lewiston, a small scrappy town in the state of Maine located in the blow-hole of the USA.

For me, neither art nor the art world has changed very much in the last 40 years. On the surface, it may seem to have changed, but on closer examination I do not think so. For example, the ubiquity of electronic media and photography in so many exhibition venues today seems very similar to the 19th-century’s hegemony of painting. Then as now, an artist’s mettle was measured by the fashion in which he meddled. Today though there are more material, technological and professional avenues open to artists, the institutions that cultivate them inculcate a class amnesia similar to that of past generations of Modernist culture-makers. In the late 19th and early 20th century artists tended to come from the privileged and upper classes, with perhaps a few upstarts from the merchant classes. Today, at least in the USA, many artists come from the middle class and even the lower class. Has this important shift really changed the structures that make the art world go round? And if so, how so? To whose benefit? And what of the late 20th-century inclusion of more women and minority folk in the art world mix? Shouldn’t that have changed something?

Something has shifted. No one can deny this. But what’s more interesting is how capable the art world is of absorbing these shifts and, if not nullifying them, then ignoring or altering them such that their one time criticality and difference seems softened or disappeared. But perhaps this disappearing act is an ideological illusion. Perhaps the criticality of these shifts has changed something. Maybe these shifts have been veiled to appear as nothing and the changes they caused made to look insignificant. Isn’t it easier to believe that it just doesn’t fucking matter? Isn’t it easier to believe that, if everything is fucked, then we don’t have to give a fuck? Artists have always loved to think the worst of each other and their home called the art world. In a strange way, we like to soil our own nest. Maybe it’s a defensive gesture. We feel we’d better do it to ourselves before some non-artist does. Maybe we just like to wallow in filth and deny our hands are dirty. I think we artists are afraid that our work is worth nothing, that it’s frivolous. I think the danger is not that the art is frivolous; I think the danger is that the people who make it might be so.

Adrian Searle

Writes, curates and is the art critic for The Guardian newspaper.
In the last 40 years we have witnessed a vastly increased internationalization of art and the art world, which, largely, can be accounted for by better communication, especially via the Internet, and cheap air travel. We have watched the biennialization of the art world, the rise and rise of the curator and of the collecting classes. We have been blockbustered, and watched the art museum become a theme park for mass tourism. I’d like to say there’s a more informed public, and higher visual literacy than before, but I’m not sure if this is necessarily true. It’s OK to like art now, but what difference does it make if you do?

It is easier to be an artist now, but harder to know what art to make. For art and artists London has changed for the better, New York for the worse. Berlin is cheap, Paris is still sleeping, Madrid is a mess and Shanghai is not a realistic option. Nevertheless, the world gets ever more horrible, everywhere.

Marjetica Potrc

A Ljubljana-based artist and architect. Her work has been widely published and exhibited; she has had solo shows at the Guggenheim Museum, New York (2001), and the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2004).

Democratization: Everyone can choose their time. Ours is a non-linear time. Rarely nostalgic, it celebrates its ruptured condition as time is continuously collapsed between contemporary cultures – rural India co-exists with Bangalore, nicknamed the Indian Silicon Valley, which co-exists with the one in California. Time is being continuously collapsed between present, past and future as well. Let me mention two examples I love from the world of art. Poetry in Motion inserts the past in the present, while the movie Brazil (1985) inserts the future in the present. Poetry in Motion is a project by New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. For the past ten years, as you ride on the subway in New York, you can read poems by both contemporary and older poets, which are placed next to advertisements – for example: ‘A man has four things / that don’t work on the sea: / anchor, rudder and oars, / and fear of drowning’, from Proverbs and Songs by Antonio Machado (1875–1939). The movie Brazil, which was shot 20 years ago by Terry Gilliam, was enjoyed then as it is today for the very reason that it lets you shift between times. Then, a bomb in a restaurant read like dark science fiction; today the same image could be in Iraq, Israel or somewhere much closer to home.

Seth Siegelaub

Was born in New York 1941 and has been active as a plumber, art dealer, publisher and independent exhibition organizer; a researcher and publisher on left communication and culture; and a bibliographer and publisher on the history of textiles. He has lived in Europe since 1972 and currently lives and works in Amsterdam.

The Economic Sphere: The art world has grown from a small specialized ‘ghetto’ to become an important economic–industrial sector with more of everything: artists, art schools, art museums, art foundations, art galleries, art curators, art fairs, art auctions, art magazines, art gallery buildings, art advisers, art supply stores, artists’ studios, art restaurants, art collectors, etc. It has also become an important factor in urban planning and tourism.

The Social–Cultural Sphere: The contemporary art world has shifted from the periphery of capitalist society to become a fully-fledged part of its growing entertainment sector, along with pop music, fashion and film, with the same models of ‘stardom’ and ‘celebrity’.

The Artist: The artist has evolved from a ‘bohemian’ ‘outsider’ to become an almost ‘respectable’ ‘liberal arts’ profession and ‘career’.

The Art: Art-making has metamorphosed from a primarily ‘critical’ or aesthetic activity into a more or less acceptable form of mass entertainment as it has become a more marketable commodity and ‘investment’.
The Museum: The museum has transformed itself from a private club to become a new type of mass-market cultural enterprise: blockbusters, bookshops, gift shops, restaurants, catering and party services, sponsoring, branding and property development (‘speculation’).

Amsterdam, July 2005

Ricky Swallow

An artist who represented Australia at this year’s Venice Biennale. He has forthcoming shows at PS1, New York, and Stuart Shave’s | Modern Art, London. He avoids dairy products, meat, painting and video but makes sculpture and watercolours, and eats seafood.

The most important shifts have possibly been the continental shifts. Having only served a ten-year sentence out of the 40 years in discussion and innarested [sic] in years and years before those years in terms of where I dig for my own work, I’m not sure what I can add to the discussion. If I think of the word ‘shift’ or ‘shifts’, it makes me think of moving on or away from something and I guess that can be seen positively or negatively. For example, is the shift dragging us closer to a better understanding of art? And are we recruiting any new believers? Or have the shifts diluted art and produced multiple arts served in varying strengths to a roster of regulars and weekenders? I feel at the moment there is too much art … the shifts could explode into disorders, with individuals seeking prescriptions to ease the onset of art fairs, biennials and triennials. By ‘individuals’ I’m thinking mainly of artists. It’s important that the structures supporting any creative endeavour are open to change/replacement, even to giving way at some point, providing the ruins are still worth visiting.

Joel Wachs

A former city councilman for the City of Los Angeles and is President and CEO of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York.

The commercialization of art and the increased emphasis on art as an investment has adversely affected all of the structures that surround contemporary art, including the acquisition and exhibition of art by museums, the writing about art, and in some instances the creation of art itself.