The Visible Hand
By Paul McLean
It seemed the art media was stymied in 2014, trying to come up with an appropriately glitzy, meme-y narrative for NYC fair week, which ought to be the city’s most glamorous annual artsy spectacle. The coinciding opening of the Whitney Biennial one would think should make any art beat writer’s task all that much easier. Given the timely release of global sales data, painting a happy picture for the art market (nearly $66 Billion) ought to be a piece of cake! Projecting the rosy outlook for the robust economy for collectible art should yield streams of celebratory artspeak from the analysts and commentators in the field. Why then, would the responses to the Armory Show and its satellites and the Biennial be, well, so lame, if not limp?
Aside from the expected navigational guides and top ten lists for attendees, the reviews of the Armory and Whitney, etc., lack enthusiasm. Some articles instead offer explanations for the lameness pervading two of the world’s premier art functions. The New York Times’ Ken Johnson suggested the Armory Show “evokes cut and paste.”  “At the heart of this is a process of executive decision making,” Johnson thinks. Sounds like a management problem. Other art reviewers, maybe trying to be positive, resort to the comparative, asserting that the 2014 iteration of Armory is at least less lame than its recent predecessors. “This year’s Armory Show may have stopped the bleeding for an art fair that has suffered from years of lackluster energy,” Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian writes, in a review that points to some silver lining. As for the Whitney’s efforts, the critical response ranged to the harsh. In the title for Andrew Russeth’s story on 2014 Biennial, we have it un-parsed: “[It] Disappoints, With Misfires, Omissions, Only Glimmers of Greatness.” He writes, “This year’s biennial is not a disaster, but neither is it anything close to a success. It is deeply dissatisfying…”
So, what is the real story of the 2014 Armory Show, Whitney Biennial and NYC ‘s ritualistic, yearly spring art week? Leave it to New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz, who has a nose for such matters, to frame the problem in his story on the Biennial. About halfway through his piece on the Whitney show, which he describes as “optically starved, aesthetically buttoned-up,” Saltz frames the Biennial in relation to the market. If the market is anything, it is risk-averse. “Careful correctness abounds. Hot young artists and market favorites and spectacles have been shunned,” he observes. “The curators are so determined to stay pure, to avoid acknowledging the machinations of commerce, that the show is completely disconnected from the entire world.” Actually, the third sentence is a half-truth, and the first couple are problematic. Saltz never addresses the bigger picture, at any rate, as the Whitney acts as a market maker for its exhibiting artists. The Biennial is a commercial launch pad, and a spectacle itself. The non-artist beneficiaries are a mixed lot, including galleries, collectors, auctioneers, academics, writers, publishers and so on. Whether "the public," or even "a public" is a beneficiary is arguable. Purity, as framed by Saltz, doesn't pertain.
I would argue instead, more directly, that the spectacle on display at the Armory Show and its satellites, and at the Whitney Biennial - the star of the Big Apple’s spring art week in 2014 - is the market itself. For insiders, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees. The critical problem for art writers penning stories about NYC's spring art week could be reduced to a perceived dearth of art stars and/or masterpieces in the Biennial, as Saltz suggests, or it could be the blanched selection of notable new works where comfortable known quantities abound, as others suggested. However, I would suggest that, viewed through a different lens, we might be witnessing a phenomenon of mismatched criteria. We might be noticing that other concerns besides aesthetic ones are apparently the distinct, driving forces at NYC’s signature art spectacles. I would argue that we are no longer seeing the work of the artist’s hand at the pinnacle of the art world, but the unfettered expressions of an “invisible hand.”
Rather than engage this topic as a systematic or categorical analysis, I would rather confront it as a time-based phenomenon. Supporting anecdotal information, or the subjective approach, or any of the most common methods for explaining the Why of a scenario with as many moving parts as NYC’s spring art week for obvious reasons will fail. The point here is not necessarily to persuade the reader. The demographics of the art-literati predominantly include opinionated, informed and attenuated individuals. In short, the art reader is most often what arts management terms, “a stakeholder.” No, the best direction from which to advance on the problem of mediocrity at the top tier, or institutional stratum, of the art world is from every direction; that is, dimensionally.
The global art market is linked to all other global markets, if by no other measure than currency. Markets are features of economies. The dynamics of economies are complex and dimensional. The interactions, appearances and disappearances inherent to economies do not reduce easily to any meme, which can be said of any and all large-scale, dimensional human exchange mechanisms. What about something as arguable as "the idea of art," which isn't necessarily the same as art itself? Adding market discourse to art discourse makes things even more complicated. It is true: We are discussing shared experiences, when we discuss art. Experience seems to be more than mechanical. Markets, on the other hand, reduce everything to the mechanics of currency. Economics may be to a degree a subjective or interpretive discipline, which takes into account the perceptual, but mostly as perception drives behavior. We cannot dismiss the link between perception and perspective, or point of view, when discussing art. In marketing, perception is a phenomenon that can and should be managed, even manipulated. We can continue to drill down into divergent interests attaching to art and the market, especially the art market, but ultimately the central issue is relative. What is art for? Do art and markets share purpose?
I have extensively argued previously that art and markets diverge substantially at the transit of purpose, where ideology meets action. Art is driven by values and meaning. Markets are driven by value and means. In appearances, as in image, the spectrum of dimensional art addresses Vision, the visible, the visual and their abstracted derivatives, such as the copy. The market renders the optical quite differently.
Perspective is an important determinant in assembling an account of an event, and perspective is derivative of internal interpretation of externalities. Art itself could be described as a medium optimized to deliver internal interpretation of externalities. Modern marketing might be described as the process by which internal interpretation of externalities is converted into an effect of market management, if not, in the extreme, social command and control.
Eventually, an individual can establish a professional perspective, within the parameters of market management, and even command and control matrices, simply through persistence, plus a modicum of intellect. Being the smartest manager in the room is potentially a liability, as the Enron fiasco famously proved, especially in the absence of a modicum of ethics. On the other hand, as Wall Street has famously proved, antisocial or even sociopathic tendencies can be a prerequisite for success. Intelligence is possibly the least essential requirement for a manager. According to Peter Drucker, the manager:
1. Sets objectives.
3. Motivates and communicates.
5. Develops people.
“Being intellectually brilliant” is not on this list anywhere. What about being the smartest artist in the room, or the smartest arts manager?
In the art world, as in higher education, administration (another term meaning management) outnumbers the intellectuals in the organizational framework of the field. When artists appeared, due to numerous factors (politics, decentralization, technology, collectivism, communication, multitasking, etc.), near the end of the last century, to seriously threaten the vertical hierarchy of the art world, situation management became imperative to those who were threatened by this bottom-up reformation movement. The role of the curator was redefined. The de-definition of art itself was critical. Recent advances in democratizing the arts were rolled back or re-appropriated. Democratizing programs for art, such as state- or community-funded rural non-profits, were selectively strangled. Art at the federal level was demonized by powerful (bi-partisan) contingents, resulting in the de-funding of individual art grants. Local coverage of art was disappeared, mainly through the successful centralization of the press in monopolistic media syndicates. Copyright-driven consumer portable art industries displaced fine art and replaced it with their creative products, eventually at the institutional level. Art, we were told, needed to run more like a business. Art institutions were pushed by their boards into foolishly leveraged capital expansions that left them impoverished, and, ultimately, indebted to the plutocracy for their survival. Local art economies were deflated through mechanisms like art fairs and untaxed, online mass retail exchanges. Art students and their academies and teachers were converted into commodities. In the resulting arrangements, often (as in Cooper Union's tragic case), art school missions aligned more with the financial sector, or more broadly - neo-liberal economics - than the Humanities. Irrationality as a quality inherent in art economies helped further the interests of those operating in and for closed, exclusive professional networks. Celebrity gradually came to outweigh other considerations in determining art and artist quality. The massive numbers of newly-minted artists graduating from programs across the country allowed for extraction/exploitation economics to sweep away other more democratic models. False-democratic models were promoted in their place, which include open winner-take-all competitions, pitting one artist against all others. And so on. Most importantly, the power of the super-wealthy to govern or determine the programs of major institutions had to be buttressed. Through the markets, and specifically the auctions, in alliances with major galleries and museums, the art barons again asserted their governance, as the authorities for selecting art and artists for celebrity, wealth and conservation. They often did (and do) so through proxies, and these proxies needed to be more powerful than institutional career professionals, particularly those whose allegiances might lie with anything other than their own, individual careers, and the desires of their new masters (sometimes the same as the old ones).  The term "mastery" in art has probably never been more debased.
What if art itself were co-opted, so that its prime function would be to serve the global marketplace and its prime beneficiaries? What if the art world is a rigged game? What if art could be managed, through selectivity and other means, so that it only exhibited signs of market authority? What would such art look like? Would it look like what we saw at the Armory, the other art fairs, at the Whitney?
What if the goal of co-optation of art in its social utility could be achieved without intervention upon the art and artist, basically through co-optation of the environments in which art appears and is accessed by the public? Is what we see promoted as art a function of natural or managed, artificial selection? we might wonder.
Selection protocols are noticeable in changes in format, affecting access, availability of relevant information and organizational behaviors, among other things. Selectivity is a soft science. My org-behavior professor at the Drucker/Ito School of Management, shared leadership authority Craig Pearce, argues that selection is a prime factor in successful organizational outcomes. What is the structure and criteria for selection? For Pearce, it is a question of developing an environment for chemistry and trust [see Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership (with Jay Conger; p.258)]. For whom at the art fairs and the Biennial were the organizers focusing their efforts to establish chemistry and trust? Granted, comparing the formation of corporate management teams and spectacular art events is a bit of an apple-orange exercise. Or is it? After all, we are addressing dimensional phenomena, and it is clear that the ranks of art buyers today and the ranks of the corporate C-class do have points of convergence. We could look at these systematically, but for the purposes of this text, the justification for noting selectivity as it's played out at NYC spring week, is at least partially perceptual. We're not going to have access to data that might be helpful in expanding this thread, because where it exists, it is silo-ed by the private parties directly involved, and professional services attached to the industry, such as it is. Remember, the art business is for the most part an unregulated secondary commodities market, at least as demonstrated at the major art fairs.
Let's look at a few incidentals, leaving off critique of artworks, their currency and value and presentation, for which we are rich in art writer accounts. The cost of entry to the Armory Show has increased, from $30 in 2013 to $40 this year for a single day pass (without discounts). The security detail at the Armory Show was significantly expanded, “beefed up,” almost militarized. The Biennial narrative at the Whitney emphasized the importance allocated to the curatorial triad charged with selecting participating artists and exhibited artwork. In fact, the show design was territorialized to accommodate this narrative. Volta, another of the fairs I attended, is linked to these and the many citywide art-week events through a sophisticated transportation, communication and pay exchange network. Effectively, the functionary attendee could operate strictly within the loop created for her or him by the event management team(s) of the participating entities. As most of the artsy “in-crowd” know, however, it’s the ancillary and off-grid activities that define whether one is a VIP or not. Which art week exclusives one attends, which of the many coinciding openings and receptions and parties one appears in, and in what proximity one stands to the host or star, and so on, speaks to one’s status in the domain. Being observed and documented is important to be a player. Media vehicles like the Artforum Diary and Scene & Herd sections keep a running record of what and who are hot, verifying credentials and accrediting the currency of the assigned status quo. For example, this year AF Diary writer Linda Yablonsky Armory described arts week as a “commercial conflagration.”  At the end of the week, her ersatz review of the event is, “Everyone says the Armory Show is dreadful. Yet, said dealer Monika Sprüth of Cologne and London, ‘Everyone’s here. All of the important collectors.’” Yablonsky’s notices and anecdotes amount to verification of the acceptability of the affairs of the manageable art world for the exclusive purposes of its prime beneficiaries. At the end of the day, though, what is the most important characteristic for a VIP profile? In today's art world, and at NYC spring art week, it is simply, Who Spent How Much for What? Consumer buzz, one can argue, has consumed the rest of the conversation at the top of the contemporary art pyramid, or platform.
Why should this concern anyone? Because one of the valuable social utilities of art is its capacity as a conversation starter. If one thinks of art ecologically, it occupies the pinnacle of the free speech food chain, especially now, due to the shift to 4D in art, which allows most every thing, person, medium and discipline to express itself under the umbrella of art. That feature alone is endlessly inclusive. One upside to the Whitney Biennial 2014 is that the show internally acknowledges the shifting parameters of dimensional art as a practicum. The downside is that the format of presentation itself is designed for unnatural, informal or formal containment for free exchange. It is impossible to hold an exposition for freedom in a prison, no matter who is selecting and who or what is selected. The art fair structure, which is not much different than a rural state fair structure, or industrial conferences, outside of content and art-industry-centric logistics and criteria, is far less kind to art. If the typical white-cube gallery exhibition format for contemporary art reduces art, artist and artistic production to an equivalent of the 2:37 second pop song for radio, the art fair booth reduces it to a 30 second sample in an online music store, like iTunes.
If one cares at all about the conversations in our society that art can help generate, and who dictates the terms and content of those conversations, and how, then this issue should concern one. All we have to do is reflect on the politics of America, and the state of political discourse post-Citizen's United, to comprehend the importance of free and open exchange in the public sphere. There we have the Koch brothers, among others. Has this development enhanced free speech in America? For whom?
Reducing art talk to money talk is equally destructive. The fact that this is happening at the top tier of the art world should trouble anyone who is a stakeholder. One could argue that all of us are, or should be, stakeholders in that central cultural conversation on values and meaning, in a democracy. The narrative that the art world is an exclusive clique, with opaque and inaccessible networks, conversations and practices, fueled by vast sums of money, and is a blatant sign of unfettered power and cultural dominance - this is a narrative created by and for those who benefit the most from divorcing art from the general public, as a viable vehicle for free speech specifically and democracy in general. In a functional democracy, art and its discourse belong to the people, which is not the same, obviously, as a select few owning it and propagating (if not propagandizing) it. Art in a democracy should never be permitted to be a tool by which the wealthy exert their dominance over the rest of the citizenry. Nor should art be permitted to be employed as a means by which the wealthy flaunt their immunity from taxation, perpetrate money laundering or fraud, or otherwise manipulate the markets to work exclusively to their benefit. Lest we forget, during this year's NYC spring art week, an inexcusable number of Americans are out of work, living in poverty, subject to crushing debt regimes. The infrastructure of the nation is decomposing. The public education and health systems are under assault by privatizers. Our country is mired in extended Mideast occupations. We appear to be on the verge of a new Cold War. The surveillance/prison/police state is burgeoning, even as its true nature is being examined. Policies of austerity, although their proponents have been thoroughly discredited, are still being enforced on America, even as those who caused the most recent financial crisis reap rewards for their monstrously destructive behavior. A fair number of the unaccountable elites, and their beneficiaries, attended the NYC art fairs and the Biennial, and all the BEST parties. They bought chunks of the festivities through a plethora of means, including foundations, endowments, charities, purchases, grants, sponsorships, blocks of tickets and so on.
There is a question of context. We who exist outside the margins of this fractional society, which through its own devices defines itself as the art world, permit the art world so determined. Whether we admit this truth to ourselves, or not. In the run-up to NYC spring art week 2014, again we hear talk of an “art bubble,” often as an art market dynamic, sometimes - from supposedly sympathetic corners of the cultural or “creative” commentariat - as social dynamic. The New York Times published a human-interest story on artists who are struggling to find sustainable, affordable studio space in the city.
The question is, When do the 99% stakeholders excluded from the undemocratic art world scenario (defined as it is now, again one might argue, by the 1%, for the .01%), decide by whatever means necessary to reform the art world, flip it, for the purposes of art and democracy, by and for the 99%?
The art world as it exists now IS THE BUBBLE. The art world bubble, as such, is part and parcel of the overarching property, ownership regime, which derives its power mostly from continual extraction and exploitation over time, enforced by management programs, rooted in command and control complexes that include monopoly media. To pop the art world bubble necessarily leads us towards confrontation with the prevailing systemic Problem afflicting humanity on a glocal basis. Art offers just one avenue to that vital confrontation, but it is a viable path. What would that look like? A William Powhida wall piece? Morris Graves’ spirit birds? Or something much different.
Lest we forget, artists are citizens, too, in a democracy. And democracy, at least in America, is revolutionary.
Evidence of the artist’s hand in the artwork has been a critical topic for decades. The discourse attaching to this subject raised questions about the artist as a proxy for the hand of God, serving as a specific, professionalized emblem of the heroic figure, fostering an exclusive definition of the artist with gendered, racial, political and psychic specifications. With the erasure, or at least de-substantiating of these identity-linked ideas or ideals for the artist’s hand, what has emerged as the prevailing force in art? Adam Smith’s invisible hand (of greed). If you find this concept offensive, perhaps you should make it your objective to chop off this invisible hand, which is visible everywhere now in the art world.
March 23, 2014