It is the opinion of this writer that arguments investigating the problem of knowledge acquisition and historical production are so convincing that it is expedient now to look outwards and practically. The argument has been won. The necessary reforms as a consequence are a matter of time. We might even say that we are planning for a world without Knowledge, at least in the way it has been considered in the past. Therefore, it is one of the objectives of P(AF) to explore, through its system, form and contradictions, habitual practices in the visual arts that are dependant on a belief about knowledge acquisition. By analysing what is taken for granted about visual art, I wish to locate a substructure of assumptions that operates beneath our interactions. The aim is to enable artists and the general public to become aware of how they think about objects currently designated “art”.
In the course of organising P(AF), the writer comes into contact with possibly hundreds of artists worldwide. She is always hyper conscious of the discussions. What I mean is that I am always considering the structure of opinions. He is interested not simply in the content but the form. Unless attention is drawn to its existence, as I playfully did in the first four sentences of this paragraph, the form is apparent yet concealed. More importantly, form often prefigures content. In recent months, my attention has been drawn to attitudes concerning “vanity galleries” and I propose to offer some thoughts concerning these attitudes, because they presuppose knowledge acquisition from art objects. Note that I am not interested in “vanity galleries” per se, nor engaging the content of opposing arguments. I am interested in just what I said: attitudes. I want to try and understand the predicates for these. I am therefore interested in discovering truths that are assumptions internally.
Judging from the libellous “scam cries” surrounding legitimate organisations and venues on the Internet, we need to define the meaning of “vanity gallery”. Firstly, it is not a venue that an owner or agency rents out to artists, nor is it an exhibition, competition, festival, expo or fair. It is an organisation with a gallery space that offers regular exhibitions and promotion to an artist for a fee. There is normally a legal contract in place between the artist and organisation. The “vanity gallery” format has become more apparent to me through discussions with US artists and it is definitely more widespread there than in the UK. My conclusion drawn from these discussions is that the “vanity gallery” has a negative status in the artistic community. It is possible that a minority of these organisations are deliberately unprincipled, and/or partaking in criminal activities, and deserve interrogation (but one must always look closely at the interrogator). The majority are certainly not like this though. They function like traditional agencies in any profession. It is this type that I refer to when I talk about “vanity galleries”. However, what intrigued me was that the negative reputation of these galleries rarely was based on practical issues. More often than not the negative status turned upon the politics of the exhibitory system: the artist paying fees to the gallery as opposed to a commission-based system. (It should be added, however, that some “vanity galleries” do actually take commission percentages as well as fees for services.) But what really upholds the attitude is a belief that each system can determine the invalidity or legitimacy of an artist’s status. “Pay to display”, as the neat catchphrase goes, even if the gallery is operating legally, is just not what serious artists do because it potentially damages their reputation. Before I say something about the presuppositions behind this attitude, which open up debates about epistemology and objects, I would first like to look briefly at the history of artists’ attitudes towards dealers and offer some thoughts concerning business assumptions.
The Commission-based System
It may seem odd to raise a matter that might otherwise appear conclusive. But stupidity is a good launch pad. An element that interested me in the debate is why most artists believe that commission-based fees are fair. I am not talking in comparison here. I want to discuss this system in isolation. A commission fee is where a third party extracts a percentage on sale. This percentage can be as high as forty to sixty per cent. The problem is that sales are not uniform processes and labour intensity can be difficult to quantify. When considering this I was reminded of a US direct marketer who turned down a flat fee for an eighty per cent commission rate only then to scoop, after a few weeks work and to the horror of the charity that contracted them, over $800,000. Percentage-based compensation, although not illegal in that industry in the US, is now forbidden by professional bodies and, in a number of States, subject to Attorneys General. But the history of this system in the visual arts is worth considering too, because artists have not traditionally supported it.
The modern dealer system has its foundations in the late Nineteenth Century and precipitated during the Twentieth in tandem with the Modernist Story. What did artists think before there was a systematic dealer framework endorsed by media outlets, peer-reviewed journals, Art History courses and myriad consultants and critics? Artists were essentially small-business traders, often with diversified income streams. Sometimes they had wealthy patrons, but income came also from retail (art shops), restoring art works, designing household goods, training apprentices, teaching freelance and, if fortunate, commercial or real estate (Turner possibly owned a pub; Gainsborough had a shop). Often, they would deal in prints and possibly in antiquities or so-called “Old Masters”. It was taken for granted that an artist developed business and account managed clients. Artists were entrepreneurs always developing new business processes for selling their work. For example, the American eighteenth-century artist John Singleton Copley hired a private pavilion in London to exhibit Death of the Earl of Chatham and charged visitors admission fees. The first art academies in Britain and the US were artist collectives in spirit, as were the first public exhibitions where income was made from catalogue and admission fees rather than art sales. The few dealers in contemporary art that there were (mainly print dealers) were not respected partly because they either paid artists little and/or extracted income from artists’ sales. The idea that a third party sold work to clients on an artist’s behalf and took a slice of the proceeds was scandalous. The attitude towards percentage-based compensation has changed as the dealer framework has increasingly wedged apart artists from their clients.
The fairness of the commission system today appears to be located in a belief that dealers take financial risk. In some instances, a dealer or gallerist may well take financial risk, but that is rare. There are too many overheads on gallery premises, marketing, staff, and insurance to name a few expenses. Can a dealer really take risk, the kind of risk that artists think they do? Of course not. They cannot afford the time or expense to develop every artist on their books into a brand. In order to sell an artist’s work- their product (the art)- it must be made to fit with the market by the dealer. One rarely starts with a product and then fits a market to it, no matter how much Art History attempts to weave its myths. Artists are expected to alter their product to correspond with the requirements of a client base. Once the market uses an artist’s product, they will be expected to repeat it, perhaps slightly varying elements. If all this is starting to sound mechanical, it is. The artist becomes manufacturer demoted to factory worker (or a pseudo-industrialist employing myriad factory workers). The dealer does not really take risks. They know which works will sell to their client base and will accept pieces where they will take income. It is far more calculated and precise, as one would expect of any intelligent business owner. If the market for an artist’s product declines, so will their purpose for the dealer. Media outlets help advertise the dealer’s branding of the products, as do auctions, cultural history and university courses in Fine Art and Art History to some extent. It is not money or celebrity that drives artists in pursuit of this system offered to them as the ideal by art colleges and the Media. It is instead a sense of perceived recognition, the pinnacle of which is to be recorded in the annals of Art History. It is to be in that “book” as a “great artist”. The perceived failure of which has left many artists frustrated, disappointed, depressed and, in some extreme circumstances, even dead.
Knowledge and Art Objects
However, there is a far more consequential issue than business suppositions underpinning the attitude against “vanity galleries”. It has wider implications for the industry because it involves a belief about knowledge acquisition. There is a notion that if an artist pays a fee to a “vanity gallery” then that financial exchange compromises something of the artist and their work. This “something” is measurable and often amounts to a qualitative statement. By accepting a fee a third party is presumed unable to exercise objective judgement and the artist in question is promoted regardless of quality, ability or relevance. The criticism of this exchange carries a moral undertone, suggested by the derogatory epithet “vanity gallery”, which suggests that it could be construed as a modest form of bribery. Whether the exchange is right or wrong is not my focus. I am much more intrigued by a problem that is hardly discussed. And the complication is this: the criticism assumes that it is possible to locate and access knowledge in art objects. In order for the attitude to function, the user must believe that a subject can locate pure, unadulterated, objective knowledge for analysis without contamination. But this “reality” is problematic. It might even be called an intellectual “scam”.
In order to understand this better we need to sharpen the focus on practical workings. If an artist does not pay a fee to a dealer the notion is that the art work is somehow more legitimate and qualitatively superior. The process of selection carried out by a dealer or committee has not been undermined. But let us look more intensely at the filtration process. I am not talking here about the mechanics of a filtration system, but on what that system is dependant on in order for it to operate as a filtration system. What we discover is that it seems incapable of functioning without this assumption about the object at its core. But it is a premise that is masked, or, more often, unbeknown to the language and concept user. Descriptively, it means that a dealer (but it could be anyone) can “see” and extract knowledge, usually considered separate or “out there”, that is somehow within art objects or their reproductions. Essentially, the art objects embody knowledge. The technical marker sometimes used is the word “presence”. A critic discerns presence in an object labelled art and then communicates what that presence is to an audience, some of whom, so it goes, cannot identify it. That is apparently why we need critics (and art historians) to help us recognise presence in objects. We come across such claims about art objects all the time without ever considering suppositional foundations. In fact, we probably do it ourselves.
For example, at a recent opening of an exhibition in East London an art critic dismissed most of the art on display as “bad”. How could this judgement have been formed without a belief that the linguistic marker (“bad”) corresponded to an epistemological “something” discernible within inert objects hanging on the walls? The critic’s language betrays an assumed identification of presence. Perhaps another example will explain how this critic’s language patches a dilapidated logic. Below is a quote from a recent major curator from a national museum (italics are mine):
I believe that I can perceive elements in the works that interest me, which permit us to get a better understanding of the specific form of this present kind of “modern”, and, indeed, to define it.
The curator, under the guise of a mediator or catalyst (descriptions used by recent high-profile curators that assume objectivism), is little other than a modern bourgeois shaman. It has a whiff of pregnant infallibility. But perhaps the actual contradiction in the quote is that line, “that interest me”. How can a subject discover a “specific form” of a “present kind” through things that interest them? How can presence be discovered in a pure form empirically? And that is the problem with our aforementioned critic. The epistemology is assumed and embedded into a flow of poetic markers under a guise of reasoning. It is fancy (mild psychosis?) that it is possible to extract knowledge from an inert object. There is no immanent Quality, Seriousness or Relevance of any object designated as art other than agreed upon by consensus. If an artist is told that their work is “good” or “bad”, no matter how important seeming, or claims to experience or special knowledge are made, there is no basis on which that decision has been made without some belief that objects embody information that can be accessed. The process is always vague and fuzzy, which emphasises the problematic of language. This is not a simple issue concerning the relativity of “objective” knowledge. It is more to consider the structure of the opinion.
Attitudes that involve an assumption about presence and objects can lead to undemocratic principles in the art industry. And I am suggesting that the criticism of “vanity galleries” and some of the attitudes concerning the politics of artwork presentation are as undemocratic as some of these organisations are underhanded. This is in no way to defend the organisations that abuse artists, but it is to suggest that the criticism against such gallery formats in general could be a form of intellectual abuse. Such an assumption about epistemology and objects enables individuals to assert dominance over other individuals, and could, in some circumstances, lead to a kind of technical and aesthetic authoritarianism. How often does one come across an artist who claims, or an industry specialist that claims for an artist, superiority, contemporariness, radicalism, seriousness or some extra relevance for the art production? (Embarrassingly, it is sometimes done with unconscious use of an art-historical framework.) Conversely, less confident artists, without a trace of false modesty, denigrate their work. Yet, both attitudes are dependant on the very assumption that I have been outlining. But it is more serious when a group asserts a claim to knowledge. If insinuated that knowledge is immanent and discoverable, or claimed to be knowable through initiation, then consensus is ring fenced. The question should always be whose agreement is it based on and is it possible to disagree with that group. I have already suggested it above in my discussion concerning the curator and infallibility. And, it has to be said, it is a major problem in the industry known for its elitism. Consensus is not objective. It is temporary, arbitrary, and artificially reinforced by Art History. It is one thing for a major collector like Charles Saatchi to identify surface problems in the industry, as he has done recently, but we must probe much deeper and tackle the core problems if we are to transform the industry, and its pedagogical wings, from the inside out. This is perhaps one method for generating a more democratic and diverse cultural sector.