“Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time.” – Clement Greenberg Avant-Garde and Kitsch 1939.
One of the reasons today’s Modernist Art has an economic theoretical foundation can be found in Clem’s 1939 essay AG&K. In it Clem makes the famous “umbilical chord of gold” statement which linked avant-garde art to the largess and interests of the equestrian classes. Clem made the case that these HNWIs were the reason for an avant-garde’s continued health and existence. Advanced artists need money just like another working stiff, but unfortunately there is a small cohort that might be interested in this kind of art and artists. Only an educated, leisured, monied individual would be able to indulge and invest in these difficult cultural objects. Clem was bemoaning the fact that this cohort of well-healed investors was disappearing (it was 1939, afterall), and so his fear was that the avant-garde would follow suit. 80 years later we are in the exact opposite situation, thanks in no small part to Clem’s efforts to make a viable art market back in the 1950s. We live in a world filled with billionaires competing among themselves to shower gold over certain art galleries, museums, auction houses and artists.
Money is so profoundly involved with the way that we produce, manufacture and experience art works that we can no longer separate the economics from our appreciation, understanding or engagement of any cultural product. Today most of the “major” work we see is haunted not by art history or an anxiety of influence but by its economic history and collecting provenance. From conception to showing, from selling to trading and auction everything we see or experience translates into economic gains and losses and the market mechanics that create that value. What we see on the face of an art object is now always a banality. That is what Modern process has become, and that is the zeitgeist driving our Modernist Era.
The other part of Clem’s AG&K, which we don’t discuss very much any longer was his definition of Modern Art’s former nemesis Kitsch. But this no longer matters. For Modernist Art aesthetics, kitsch or critique, ie. content are no longer problems to enjoyment. The market allows for any kind of Art. What makes it fine art or high art or avant-garde art is the promotion, the collection and the market provenance established by the right kind of money and the right kind of collector. The Art Market protects and strengthens its investments by defining value through money. They covet and protect the work they collect and trade, and so Art is based on the continuity of the established market economy not on the ideas involved in the Art itself. Art is simply a commodity, a widget, a McGuffin, that drives the Market Plot. In other words Art pretends to demand nothing so that it can continue to exist for Money.
If you really want to see how money and art exist in our contemporary art world I highly recommend KIRAC’s wonderful documentary on the irrepressible Stefan Simchowitz. The scene where the filmmakers and Mr. S try to make a deal for a conceptual artist’s work is a classic. Link to the you tube video is here – Kirac 8 The Art of Stefan Simchowitz. This particular sequence begins about 44 minutes in, but the entire thing is truly fascinating. By the end of the documentary you’ll have a better understanding of the last 20 years of art making and the market world that creates it.