Want to make sense of the artworld’s irrational ecosystem? Click here to view 2021’s Power 100 in full.
‘How are fashions created? Who creates fashions? Two very tricky questions, certainly.’ Luckily for you, when it comes to art, ArtReview is here to solve these questions painlessly. To make the tricky straightforward and provide an easy-to-use cribsheet detailing the ‘hows’ and the ‘whos’.
At least that’s what its marketing people say. If only things were that simple. (The quotation, by the way, is from Adolf Loos, mocking the ‘Association for Hat Fashion in Vienna’, which met once a year to decide the coming year’s hat fashions for gentlemen in the imperial city. And thus ‘for the whole world’. Remind you of anything?)
The artworld has always been a slightly irrational ecosystem in which the various competing (and sometimes intersecting) values of class, race, gender, historical and current hegemonies and conflicts, economics, ideology, national and global politics, and even old-fashioned aesthetics hold more or less sway. Sometimes (as last year) it’s informed by what’s going on in society and the world around it; at other times it seems to be almost hermetically (and wilfully) sealed from all that. Perhaps what’s most interesting as a subject of study is the way in which these various value systems adapt to or change each other. For however much we might seek to identify with or promote one set of values over another (ArtReview, for example – perhaps naively – likes to think that it operates in an artworld that isn’t governed by commerce and exchange values), as time goes by, it’s increasingly difficult to separate, completely, one set of values from another. Then again, perhaps it was always thus.
As a consequence of all that, at one extreme the Power 100 (now in its 20th edition – those of you interested in history can take a look at two decades of art’s everchanging fads and enduring values on artreview.com) can be (and often is) read as a measure of perceived success on a field of combat; on another it can be viewed as a way of measuring how a change or development in one part of the ecosystem affects the others (the study of which, in the world at large as opposed to in the artworld specifically, has been pioneered by anthropologists such as Anna L. Tsing). Last year’s Power 100, for example, reflected the consequences of lockdowns and reduced travel, two measures that had an immense impact on an artworld (and, of course, on people in general) that thought of itself as global; as a result, it focused on ostensibly less art-specific global campaigns for social justice and reflected a world in which the circulation of ideas had a greater impact than (the much slower) circulation of artworks. While, in that sense, it marked a coming together of the wider world and art, it (necessarily) privileged theory over practice. And yet, if you read through this year’s list closely, you’ll find that theory, or thinking about what art is, what it’s for and what it can be, remains the glue that holds together the various pieces of what we once, quite casually, referred to as a global artworld.
The current list, because it responds to the developments of the past 12 months, continues to reflect issues of circulation and velocity, with some parts of the world or sections of the artworld infrastructure opening up faster than others. As museums and galleries have begun to recover from the pandemic, the manifold injustices and related issues raised by Black Lives Matter, for example, have become less a matter of theory (when it comes to the artworld) and more one of practice. And museums, while they remain a cornerstone of the artworld in every sense, are less flexible when it comes to addressing art’s current concerns, due to the bureaucracy and infrastructures they embody, and remain more reactive than agenda-setting in terms of their output. As various aspects of the art ecosystem attempt to restructure, lateral and contingent organisation becomes increasingly evident, and needed. This is, of course, a generalisation, as many things on a list like this one, which attempts to measure the state of the global artworld in 100 personalities, will always be. Particularly when much of the world in general remains more focused on local realities than global ones.
On which matter it’s probably a good point to reiterate how the Power 100 is constructed. The list is shaped through the input of over 30 panellists and collaborators spread around the world. Each uses three criteria to evaluate who is shaping the development of contemporary art in their locality: that the people in question have been active over the past 12 months; that whatever it is that they do is shaping the kind of art currently being produced; and that their impact can be considered global rather than purely local. Although this last, given current conditions (in which exhibitions, by and large, remain the purview of local audiences rather than globetrotting art-lovers), continues to be particularly hard to judge, when the interaction between the global and the local continues to be kaleidoscopic and tentative. Through this process, some issues and arcs become apparent: debates about what forms activism can take in the sphere of art versus whether or not art has the capacity to be activist at all; or how, as artists increasingly work through digital manoeuvres, there is an equal and opposite tendency towards mucking about in paint and clay; and, of course, the big one (at least for a list like this one) – in what ways, if at all, we might think of the artworld as being global today.
Observing and parsing power can be a means of understanding it, of seeing patterns. And not going by gut instinct or surface appearances. Although the artworld certainly relies on that. Which is also to say that this list is not about the magazine’s taste or likes, or personal positions, but rather about the artworld as a group of people with different tastes, positions and viewpoints see it, and how those disparate viewpoints sometimes intersect or meet. Or don’t. While trying to be as dispassionate and objective as possible. Even if most successful art does depend on passion and a degree of subjectivity. And you can make of all that what you will.
While in art in general anyone and anything (or for that matter any nonthing) can be represented, the artworld tends to privilege some representations over others. Which is one of the reasons this list was established all those years ago. One of the things that the history of this list demonstrates is that while most things evolve slowly in the artworld, other things are more fast-moving (or even faddish, depending on your point of view). From one year to the next the top of the pile can become the bottom, or not make the list at all. This might indeed be the case with this year’s number one, listed according to the standard numbering found on every NFT transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, but more generally representative of NFTs and the cryptocurrency networks of which they are a part. NFTs without doubt offer an alternative to the ways in which art is distributed and circulated, while also introducing it to new networks and new audiences. As commercial galleries and museums (and even magazines) scrabble to enter this emerging territory, it’s definitely a disrupting force in the traditional art environment – while being equally disruptive (in a concretely negative way) to our relationship to the environment in general. That question, of art’s, and the human world’s in general, relationship to the environment around us, is another force that has shaped this list.
All this is of course evidence of the ways in which different ecosystems are interlinked, while at the same time indicating that the list as a whole continues, as it did last year and as we continue to shape and imagine our ‘new normals’, to favour those who introduce disruption, change and newer ideas (a generalism again) over those who don’t. Of course, by next year we may well have snapped back to the old ways of being. But for that we’ll have to wait another 12 months.
ArtReview’s Power 100 – the annual ranking of the most influential people in art – is out now