The end of the artworld

Read J.J. Charlesworth's column, from the March 2013 issue

It’s an early January evening at London’s ICA. I’m here as part of a panel debating whether or not we’re witnessing ‘The End of the Artworld…?’ Alongside me are The Art Newspaper’s newshound editor-atlarge Georgina Adam, the avuncular Cork Street dealer James Mayor and youngster commercial gallerist Danielle Horn. Given the hysteriainducing title, it’s inevitable that the discussion veers towards the downbeat, even though we’re being briskly compered by the ICA’s restlessly enthusiastic director, Gregor Muir. What’s with the mood of crisis at large in the artworld, we wonder. 

Something is happening – a concatenation of crises, in fact: the hyperinflation of the art market, which seems to be thriving in inverse proportion to the fortunes of the broader economy; the continuing expansion of art fairs and megagalleries, while middle-market and emerging galleries close or are struggling to survive; the growing instability in the relationships between big artists and big dealers, as artists like Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama leave dealers like Larry Gagosian, and more broadly, a situation in which other artists forget their loyalties to their old galleries and jump to whoever will cut them the biggest deal; not forgetting the crisis in art criticism, with high-profile critics saying they’ve had enough of the artworld’s inanities and are outtahere (see my column in ArtReview no 65). Though to be honest, when it comes to that last point, I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t supposed to be a crisis in art criticism – we’re a manic-depressive bunch, us critics.

I’m not so sure the artworld is about to end, but something significant is definitely happening. It’s most immediately apparent in the way that top-flight galleries are consolidating their positions by exploiting the maturing forces of globalisation: as markets for contemporary art start to establish themselves in China, India, the Middle East and Latin America, the big galleries are following Gagosian’s example (albeit at a slower pace), opening a store in every city across the world. The global network of biennials and art fairs has done its work – to expand the culture of contemporary art to every corner of the world’s elite – and now the biggest players no longer want to have to go via fairs to reach that market. So if the 2000s was the decade of the art fair, the 2010s is the decade of the galleryas- chainstore, setting up wherever the newly minted and mobile communities of ‘high-net-worth individuals’ call home.

This, we conclude, is having knock-on effects: smaller and younger galleries have found that the market for new work has shrivelled away; art buyers have become more interested in art as an ‘asset class’; the relationship between dealer, artist and collector has become more anonymous and businesslike; and critics wonder what their role is in a system that seems to be increasingly closed off to a broader public discussion.

But as the discussion develops, I’m starting to wonder if the real question is: should we care that much? I start to argue that to think of the strange evolution of the top end of the artworld as if it still had a relationship with the rest of us is to misunderstand what it has become. Instead of talking about such a top end as the ‘upper crust’ of the artworld, maybe it would make more sense to think that it has actually mutated into something completely unforeseen – just another form of private luxury consumption that has become disconnected from any kind of serious or meaningful cultural discussion about art. So just as there are trade fairs and showrooms for luxury cars, luxury yachts and luxury wristwatches, so there are trade fairs and showrooms for ‘top-end’ art. And the reality is: I don’t really care about it, or I care about it as much as I care about yachts and watches – which is not at all.

This may be an off-the-wall position to take. And yet the proof of it is that none of the art consumed at this level is ever that interesting. Does it need to be? It only really has to work for a public concerned with a certain comfortable level of distance and exclusivity, and one that is essentially becoming more private, even though it revels, insecurely, in a spectacle of publicity. Historically, when art loses its ties to a divergent and complicated set of publics, it starts to atrophy, to turn in on itself – nineteenth-century academicism, 1960s formalism, 80s po-mo – sooner or later, someone somewhere else finds something more interesting to do. And before you know it, a living art culture takes shape elsewhere. Which is perhaps to say that, with the current fixation on the apparent excesses of the artworld’s top end, we may all be looking in the wrong place. Because something is happening/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?

This article was first published in the March 2013 issue