The term “globalization” is ubiquitous and imprecise. Nonetheless, it is high time to think about what it means for the art market and the broader sphere of artistic production. I will venture not just one, but three possible responses to this question: the Good, the Bad, and the Ineffable.
The Good: Globalization equals cross-border exchange of value-added economic activity. What’s not to like? Goods and services change hands across land and sea and people make money as a result; the number attached to the global art market is only $60 billion so it is a paltry fraction of the economy but it has grown considerably. Clare McAndrew reports that global imports of art grew 280% in the 25 years between 1986 and 2011 and, in the same period, experts grew by 500% worldwide.1 In the art world, one could hardly have a contemporary art exhibition these days without the cross-border exchange of goods and services that stimulates several industries (shipping, security, artistic production, etc.) and yields immediate and tangible benefits to artists, curators, dealers, critics, and even the general public. For art fairs and biennials, now cornerstones of artistic distribution and consumption, globalization is the lingua franca. In fact, as globalization has increased, so have the manifestations of such events. A level estimate is that there are now around 200 art fairs and 150 biennials globally. Surely this has led to some fatigue among jet-setting curators, dealers, and artists, but who are they to complain? They benefit enormously from this expansion of the artistic distribution mechanism and visitors from all over the world flock to their local biennial or art fair to absorb the currency of contemporary art. This is all for the better: more artists are getting paid to make art, more visitors are having the opportunity to experience art from around the globe in person, and more money is changing hands. The art world expands; the market for contemporary art grows.
The Bad: Globalization is a game for the winners because as multinational corporations and other non-state actors steer the expansion of the global economy, the less fortunate are left to fend for themselves, with little support from the state whose role has historically been to defend the interests of its citizens. Instead, states support the interest and expansion of the market and those who profit thereby. Paradoxically, this new role expands these states’ own fragility to market pressures, making them even less able to control their own destinies. Corporations move all of their production facilities to the most advantageous domain to lower labor costs and tax burdens. As more individuals enter the workforce globally, working conditions deteriorate overall and sweatshops and other slave-like work environments become more the norm. In this picture, the arts play a subsidiary role to shore up the legitimacy of the elite who accrue extensive capital through such unseemly means. Thus, the art market is a way to normalize relations between the patrons and the workers, allowing a handful of artists and dealers to prosper enormously at the expense of the masses of artists who toil with little opportunity of compensation. Furthermore, creative content is outsourced from global contemporary artists working in low-wage environments and dealers sell their works to urban elites in global financial centers. The expansion of the art world under this version of globalization means that freedom of expression among artists is compromised under the pressure to conform to the market in order to succeed financially
The Ineffable: Globalization could also be described as the mash-up of all cultures and forms of economic activity from high-tech industrial production to spear fishing, which together generate the global economy. Every region is connected through transportation and information systems and distribution is more global all the time, so products like art that were once regionally specific are now universally available. Global integration presents a series of conflicts between creators with widely divergent ideas of what constitutes art; nevertheless, globalization allows one to see them as forming a kind of continuum. In this context, globalization is the abstraction through which we come to envision what artistic production all over the world at the same time might look like. We can imagine all the artists of the world somehow working together to produce the art of the present: contemporary art. As any biennial visitor knows, art world globalization does not really add up to any image but is a shifting mass of aspirations, materials, confrontations, limitations, and regards croisés. The art market we have today is incredibly diverse but highly decentralized. It is lumpy and bumpy and not coordinated or controlled by any one entity, be it auction house, gallery franchise, or museum brand. This ineffable globalization is both process and metaphor, but its end result is ever changing and its meaning is ever receding. Impossible to master, it may be just as difficult to grasp.
Whether you perceive globalization as good, bad, or ineffable may be based upon whether you are profiting thereby, but it is important to consider that one’s conceptions are informed by what sociologists like to call embedded processes. If you went to art school 20 to 40 years ago in the U.S., you have had the opportunity to learn multiple art making strategies and approaches to media for producing a coherent body of work. You rightly think of yourself as the actor who is uniquely responsible for the development of the work and you recognize that while the best artists are not always the most successful, they stand by what they have done and do not pander to a market. If, on the other hand, you studied during those years in a country with a strong academy system, from France to Mexico to Pakistan, you may have only been introduced to traditional means of making artworks and then had to learn all the radical alternatives on your own, finding ways to subtly bring them into your work. If you graduated from art school in the last 10 years, the market—whether the market for art or for attention—is the arbiter of all and you know you need to find the means to embrace it in such a way as it embraces you in return. Each of these positions represents an embedded perspective because it is informed by the entire social apparatus of art education in your location at the moment you attended. The question of how artists make the most important work is now very similar to how to make the most valuable work. It is no longer only a question of artistic creation but of market innovation. If radical artists of the 1960s attempted to intervene in society, path-breaking artists of the 21st century are attempting to intervene in the economy.
To be fair to all these positions, the transformation we are currently witnessing represents a shift from a focus on advanced industrial society and its numerous ills, to a recognition that such a concept is not universal, but an ideological construct. What we now perceive to be universal is our ability to exchange, or what Adam Smith called our inherent proclivity to “truck and barter.” Since Smith recorded these reflections in the 18th-century opus Wealth of Nations, it is hardly accurate to claim that the market is a new model for the 21st, but under the terms of globalization we can see just how important exchange is. It starts to seem universal because only the abstraction of the market can hold all the various participants in the global economy in a single conceptual apparatus. Thus, the market may be the only thing we all have in common and is therefore our most valued metaphor for how all the people on the planet are part of the same game. Whether we are discussing the manufacture of heavy machinery or the production of installation art, the economy could be the only way that divergent approaches and results can be reconciled and compared. It is of no surprise that artists have become more concerned with the economy. And if you have a pile of student debt from attending art school, it is hardly brazen to think about the ways that you might make a profitable living by selling your art.
The real question is: does this mean that artistic work is now alienated labor? In other words, to shift from Smith to Marx: who owns the current economy, and, more to the point, who owns your work? There is a double entendre here too obvious not to point out because, of course, every artist wants their work to be owned by collectors who have paid for it and who value it. This is how professional artists pay the bills as artists, but this is also the validation of artistic practice. Success means your work is desirable to others who will pay money, who will even bid against others, in order to own it. On another level, an artist’s work must remain her own because her creative vision brought it to being and its significance and value rest upon the salience of that vision, its ability to connect to a tradition of art making, and it’s representation of the moment of it’s creation. This might sound like an observation, or even a statement of fact, but it is what social scientists call a normative claim and this particular one is key because it undergirds the entire market apparatus. In other words, for art to be valuable it must be supported by the assertion that artistic work is not alienated labor, that the art is not made to cater to the market, and that it is unique and the product of an artistic process if not a struggle of some sort. To say as much might sound cliché. Most normative claims are clichés; they are clichés because everyone accepts them—if not as truth, exactly, at least as gospel. This principle protects every participant in the art world because it allows us all to believe that we are really generating an alternative to the rough-and-tumble world of business. It provides our raison d’être even if we do not believe it entirely.
Can such a normative claim hold given the nuance and complexity of a global artistic workforce and distribution system? As more artists, dealers, curators, and critics enter the world art mechanism at a variety of levels from divergent points on the globe, the conversation shifts and the norms are not so normal anymore. When the embedded positions multiply and reproduce, what can we agree on? I would assert that it is impossible to say what the normative claim for the contemporary art world is, given the intersection of interests and values that now compose its domain. While art centers still exist—and even continue to dominate certain dimensions of the market—they are now part of a decentralized world in which decisions are made and reputations solidified based on heterogeneous networks of actors whose understanding of fundamental artistic and art market concepts may indeed be incompatible. Globalization allows us to conceptualize this, to package it, and to explain away some of the fundamental disagreements. It is a vast, decentralized structure in which participants of differing levels of authority and significance come to engage in a similar, if not singular, domain.
Economic questions, including but not limited to those concerning the market for art, change the way that we consider the meaning of art, especially contemporary art. This means that the art world is changing and the normative claims of the modernist avant-garde, for example, do not operate as they once did. Art and money have always fit hand-in-glove, so it is not new that dealers, artists, and even curators have self-interests within to the public sphere of art. What is different is that those of us in the art world can no longer allow ourselves to believe that we dictate the terms of our own productions. This complicates the question of alienated labor. While we may be alienated from the means of production as cogs in some grand art distribution machine, it also means that we are less alienated from other similar workers (artists, curators, dealers, etc.) because globalization fosters international communication and exchange of ideas, as well as products. Our embedded perspectives may be very distinct indeed, but the terms of our global conversation are dynamic and are right now being reinvented by artists everywhere.
1) Clare McAndrew, The International Art Market in 2011. Observations on the Art Trade over 25 Years (Maastricht: The European Fine Art Foundation, 2011), p. 139.