A young American painter - Julian Schnabel (b. 1951) - currently enjoys the rare privilege of a one-man show at the Tate Gallery. Thousands of hard working living artists are ignored by the Tate. They must be wondering why Schnabel and not them. Is the intrinsic aesthetic quality of his work so remarkable that a one- man show was inevitable, or are there other reasons for his rapid elevation?
Within the Western economic system some works of art are commodities: they
have exchange and investment value. Art does not merely reflect the general
economy, it is part of it. From the economist's viewpoint, artists are small
independent producers manufacturing works 'on spec' for a market. (Most
artists own their means of production but they generally lack capital and control
over the means of distribution, marketing and publicity.) There are many more
aspiring artists than patrons and collectors, consequently the market in art is
extremely competitive. Immense overproduction ensures that the majority of
artistic enterprises are doomed to commercial failure. However, a few artists
succeed; like Picasso they become wealthy and celebrated. (It is reported that
Schnabel's paintings have rocketed in value from $2,000 to $50,000 in three-
Who determines which artists succeed? In the West it is the artworld; that is, an
elite urban minority consisting of artists, dealers, collectors, patrons, arts council
officials, museum curators, critics, art historians and their associated
institutions, organizations and journals. As far as modern art is concerned, the
artworld's taste prevails over that of the general public and the popular press.
Although the artworld, like the rest of the economy, is divided into public and
private sectors, the two sides are interdependent and frequently collaborate
('collude' might be more apt). Schnabel's exhibition is a case in point: it is a show
mounted in a public museum with the help of the owners of Schnabel's paintings
- Doris and Charles Saatchi (experts in advertising), Mary Boone and Leo
Castelli (American dealers). The help of Anthony D'Offay is also acknowledged.
(Simultaneously two of Schnabel's paintings are on display at the D'Offay
Gallery in Dering Street in a mixed show of new painting.) Dealers are happy to
co-operate with museums during the early phase of a painter's career but once
there is a queue of buyers waiting for canvases they are much less willing to lend
to museums and exhibitions - to 'subsidize' the public sector - because it ties up
An exhibition in a public museum of an artist previously shown in private galleries signals wider public recognition; the show functions like a hallmark of state approval. For the artist it is promotion of an extremely valuable kind: all the public museums throughout the world become potential customers; demand for the
artist's work is almost bound to increase, and as a result it will command higher prices. The generosity of the collectors and dealers in lending Schnabel's paintings to the Tate cannot be regarded, therefore, as entirely disinterested. Even when such people do not benefit financially from their support of new art, they gain in terms of social and cultural prestige.
It should be recognised that power within the artworld is not equally distributed.
The taste of a few dealers and collectors is often decisive for the direction art takes.
Museum curators tend to follow their lead. By the time the art journalists arrive on
the scene, the result of the game has already been fixed; their cries of 'hype' are thus
too late to have any effect.
To succeed in the art market artists must produce the kind of work the influential ones require (dealers have no use for community murals with socialist messages and speak of them with contempt); it must satisfy their taste and alsoth eir
commercial success because the operation of the market demands it: to distinguish the new products from the old and from rival contemporary works, the new items must possess novelty and shock value. The whole history of modern art is the story of a succession of fresh generations of artists anxious to displace their elders, of new movements whose aim is to supplant established ones. Again, Schnabel is a case in point. His works cleverly blend the old and the new: he satisfies the preference of the market for 'easel' paintings (rather than videos, performances and conceptual art statements) but he also introduces various novel features: gigantic size, rough
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