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How the art market became a luxury goods business

Artist Andrea Fraser highlights uncomfortable truths and shocking statistics in her essay L’1% C’est Moi
Andrea Fraser
Andrea Fraser


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Artist Andrea Fraser is taking a bold step in calling out some of the biggest names (and bank-rollers) in art in an essay entitled L’1% C’est Moi. Freely available to download from the Whitney Museum’s website as part of its ongoing Biennial, Fraser’s piece presents stark facts about how many financers and board members of huge art institutions have moved over from or have investments in the financial sectors; draws out uncomfortable parallels as to how ‘countries with the most significant art booms of the past two decades have also experienced the steepest rise in inequality’; and points out the existential crisis artists, critics and curators face as they ask: ‘How can we continue to justify our involvement in the art economy?’ We caught up with the California-based artist and professor at UCLA to find out what motivated her essay and why she feels the art market is now a ‘luxury goods business’.

What was your aim in presenting the names of artists and art patrons in a list alongside their business endeavours?

The research for my 1% essay began with something I wrote for Artforum in spring 2010. I was invited to contribute to their summer issue about museums and the public sphere. I sent in a short text that began with a survey of the extensive involvement of Museum of Modern Art trustees in the sub-prime crisis. Artforum declined to publish the text, saying that they didn’t see the point of calling out individuals. In most cases, I would agree: these structures are systemic. However, the art world abounds with political generalisations and euphemisms that allow us to perform a kind of radicality without ever challenging the structures we function within. Sometimes it is necessary to get down to specifics. 

Is art for a financial elite? 

Most art always has been. The difference today is that it has also become a financial instrument. 

 

For The Love of God

Damien Hirst, For The Love of God (2007)

 

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? 

We are. Artists often paint themselves as innocent victims – or innocent beneficiaries – of economic forces beyond their control. Of course, most economic forces are beyond our individual control. But 'the market' does not commodify artworks: artists do. We can choose not to sell our work. We can choose not to sell it to some people. Some of my work was sold to Saatchi without my knowing about it, much to my dismay. I could have prevented that from happening if I had been more on top of things. It is our responsibility and not only for political reasons but for artistic reasons as well. I very much believe that an artwork can mean completely different things depending on how it is valued, who owns it, and where it is shown. We often pretend that artistic meaning exists in a completely different universe than economic value. That simply is not true. 

Why do you call the art market a 'luxury goods business'? 

I’ll quote Wikipedia: 'a luxury good is a good for which demand increases more than proportionally as income rises.' The economic research I cite in my essay indicates that in the past decade, a 1% increases in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1% has triggered a 14% increase in art prices. 

You attribute the boom in the art market to an increased involvement from people from the financial sectors – why does this make you uneasy? 

My concern is not with people in the financial sector specifically, but with the very direct link—quantified in recent economic research—between the art market boom and economic inequality that has reached levels not seen since the 1920s in the US and the ‘40s in Britain. But clearly, it is not just the art market that has expanded from this unprecedented concentration of wealth, but museums, art prizes, residencies, art schools, art magazines, all of which have expanded in the past decade . The fact that the field in which I work and I personally have benefited so directly from the anti-union, anti-tax, anti-regulation , anti-public sector politics that have made this concentration of wealth possible is abhorrent to me.   

What is the solution for galleries and museums that depend on wealthy donors? 

Galleries and museums depend on wealthy donors to the extent that they do because they are competing in an economy that demands enormous capital investment. Galleries need wealthy collectors to finance the kind of large expensive spaces that attract wealthy collectors and to pay the high costs of going to art fairs that wealthy collectors attend. Museums need wealthy donors above all to buy art that is only as expensive as it is because wealthy collectors, dealers and a few very successful artists have driven prices into the stratosphere. Or they need wealthy donors to expand their buildings to show this expensive art, or to compete with other museums for wealthy donors. The solution is to stop competing in that economy and instead invest in programs that do not require that kind of capital that makes them dependent on wealthy donors. 

What kind of reaction have you experienced from people reading the L’1% C’est Moi essay? Has anyone disagreed with you and sided with the financiers? 

No, although I did hear a concern from one gallery director that the essay might inspire especially cynical art market participants to advocate for more inequality, since it’s so good for the art market. A few people were confused by the title. It’s a reference to the statement attributed to Louis XIV, “l’état c’est moi,” as well as to Gustave Flaubert’s famous remark, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” I’m not actually 1%, although I think I did made it into the 10% this year, with my UCLA salary and some museum sales.

What do you think? Is art a luxury goods business? And do you agree or disagree with Andrea Fraser that more artists should take control of the market and refuse to sell their work to certain buyers? Let us know in the comments box below. Meanwhile, if you're interested in the more positive ways that art has changed the world around us for hundreds of years you can't afford to miss out on the recently published and exceedingly wonderful Art Museum which features 2500 works of art over 1000 stunning (and rather large) pages. In the words of The Times: "The Art Museum is a colossal tome that, ranging across continents, periods and artistic approaches, sets out to compile the perfect art collection. Here, for the man" (and we would add, woman) "who has everything, is the Mona Lisa, and plenty more as well, from Byzantine mosaics through Benin bronzes to the abstractions of Brice Marden." Buy it in the Phaidon online store


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