9.5 Theses: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Six, Seven and Eight

Temporary Art Review is pleased to announce a new column on our site: BOOK CLUB.

For the first edition of BOOK CLUB we will review Ben Davis’s 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Starting in October, a new post will be published every two weeks focused on each section of the book. For each section, Temporary contributors will initiate a discussion through the comments in the post and anyone may continue the discussion by contributing their own comments and observations on the text.








About the Book
In 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis takes on a broad array of contemporary art’s most persistent debates: How does creative labor fit into the economy? Is art merging with fashion and entertainment? What can we expect from political art? Davis argues that returning class to the center of discussion can play a vital role in tackling the challenges that visual art faces today, including the biggest challenge of all—how to maintain faith in art itself in a dysfunctional world.

9.5 Theses on Art and Class may be purchased directly from the nonprofit publisher Haymarket Books, a project of the Center for Economic Research and Social Change.

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BOOK CLUB Schedule
October 7: Art and Class – Chapters One and Two
October 21: Art and Politics – Chapters Three, Four and Five
November 4: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Six, Seven and Eight
November 18: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Nine and Ten
December 2: Art and Theory – Chapters Eleven through Fourteen
December 16: Conclusions – Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen

We look forward to the discussions!


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  1. Sarrita Hunn

    This installment of BOOK CLUB covers the first three chapters of the “Art and Its Audiences” section of 9.5 Theses. These chapters include:
    Chapter Six – Art and Inequality
    Chapter Seven – The Agony of the Interloper
    Chapter Eight – Beneath Street Art, the Beach

    CHAPTER SIX: Art and Inequality
    “Dramatic changes are reshaping what it means to work in the visual arts sphere, yet the sense one gets, as various art pundits and commentators try to make sense of the situation, is of explorers making their way through an altered landscape with an old map.”(75)

    In Chpt. 6, Davis attempts to examine the (material) factors that he believes have historically influenced changes “in the visual arts sphere.”(75). This chapter is divided into six sections: The Art Audience, The Art Market, Museums and Nonprofits, Galleries, Artists, and Prospects and Predictions. In general, I found the statistical information that fills these pages very insightful. Here are some highlights:

    The Art Audience:
    “In the late sixties and early seventies, the popular charge was that museums were “elitist”; since the 1970s, the opposite charge of “crass commercialism” has become more apt.”(76-77)
    – In the period after WWII, “one could say the entire New York art world might fit in one room.”(76) In the 40s the estimated numbers of galleries focusing on contemporary American art was about 20 and there was probably not more than a dozen collectors of contemporary avant-garde art.
    – In 1996, a top-attended museum show got 3000 visitors a day. In 2012, that number was 7000.
    – However, once you adjust for population increases and a few other factors, the population attending museum and performance arts events is actually decreasing, and this decrease has been more extreme among ‘less educated’ people, and also among African American and Hispanic populations. “These are not the signs of a field whose future is secure.”(78)

    The Art Market:
    ”Investing in art, in other words, has become a bet by the ultra-wealthy on their own continued enrichment.”(79)
    – between 2002 and 2007, the ‘art market’ has estimated to have doubled to $65 BILLION
    – about half this money goes through dealers and half through auction houses
    – income inequality leads to increased art prices “A one percentage point increase in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1 percent triggers an increase in art prices of about 14%….”(79)
    – In recent years, contemporary art has became the largest category of art by value “contemporary art, by definition more difficult to value since it has no track record, has come to play the role of highly speculative stocks”(80)

    Museums and Nonprofits:
    “Chasing the “Bilbao effect,” therefore, served as an attractive way to short circuit discussion about deeper structural headwinds facing the economy.”(80)
    – the root of all this museum building is the “overabundance of available money” and “A lot of wealth people keen to have their names on wings, galleries or walls of a museum designed by a world-famous architect.”
    – “As a consequence, across the country, cultural institutions saddled themselves with new, flashy buildings that are expensive to heat and guard.”
    – these costs has lead to a concentration of the revenues and assets [similar to larger societal economic inequalities] “The largest 1 percent of these museums controlled almost half of the total revenues and assets.”(81)
    – in the past decade, the number of nonprofit art organizations has grown 45% (greater than an overall nonprofits increase of 32%) “which means that between 2003 and 2009, a new arts organization sprang up every three hours in the United States.”(82)
    – all of this competition means that a full third of these nonprofit arts organizations are running at a deficit

    – inequality is also mirrored among gallery dealers, “Of the world’s more than 375,000 art and antiques dealers, a mere 5000 are said to be responsible for fully half of all sales.” (82)
    – as “the upper middle class has not been able to keep pace with the wealthiest buyers” the middle of the art market has dropped out
    – ‘much of the new money pouring into the art market has come from places like Asia, Russia, and the Middle East.” increasing the importance of international sales for most galleries, which has been a major factor in the increasing number of art fairs

    – “One popular guesstimate from the late 2000s had it that there eighty thousand visual artists between the art capitals of New York and London; of these, just seventy-five are “superstar artists with seven-figure incomes”;…” about 300 more earn 6 figures, and below that artists that are showing but not really sustaining themselves through their work alone
    – “Each generation of artists since the 1950s has been yoked more than the last to academia.”(85) – the MFA growing so popular as to give way to the studio arts PhD

    Prospects and Predictions:
    – “It is customary to trace the origin of the modern art world back to the Italian Renaissance, which gave birth to both the myth of the autonomous genius artist and the art market as we know it, with the emergence of the first specialized art dealers.” – yet, the population of Renaissance Florence was not more than 40,000 at that time – and “The number of craftsmen registered as painters…is thought to have been around thirty.”
    – “The art market in its truly modern incarnation came to be, most agree, in the wake of the decline of aristocratic patronage after the French Revolution and the rise of the bourgeoisie following the Industrial Revolution.” – from the ‘official salons’ of the French monarchy (to artists with academic credentials) which opened with 800 entries – to post-revolution salons (without these restrictions – in the name of democracy) with over 5000 entries
    – this growth of artists expanded beyond the capacity of the support structure and “gave birth to bohemian society” and the “modern art movement, symbolically inaugurated by the “Salon des Refuses” of 1863…”(86)

    “It is impossible to say whether the current unbalanced growth of the visual arts economy will produce some similar sea change or lead to new channels of artistic distribution–or even fresh artistic currents tied to social movements generated by the current instability of capitalism.”(86-87)….and that is pretty much where Davis ends it.

    • Lauren Adams

      On museum attendance, and the data relayed by Davis: Brick and mortar institutions are in a quandary. As the demographics of our country change, so should the audiences of art. . .however as Davis states, it is not necessarily so. Some of the most engaging political and social art works being made out in the world, beyond the big name institutions, are attempting to engage disenfranchised communities. However, I think Davis goes too far in his criticality of the naming/titling of this kind of work and is bringing a fraught conversation into a field that really should have free reign to run buck wild. I think we are actually in a really exciting space where social design and community arts and curatorial efforts outside of big institutions are meeting up with the roles artists have classically occupied and these efforts are engaging new audiences. Is that a possible future? Is it less of a possibility if we get hung up on interrogating it as ‘art’ right now, in this fragile transition?

  2. Mike Calway-Fagen

    My initial question which sprung up within 2 paragraphs of opening up Chapter 6 and based really and completely on the general premise of the book is one of classification. The real question in my mind and something I’ve always been unsettled about is a problem of language and the subsequent assigning of value. Does not the process of separating a thing from all other things by delineating it as art establish its rarity and evolution into commodity?

    Is art production and consumption just a mere fiction of a much larger capitalist fiction?

    As if commodities weren’t obviously displacing a far more vital pursuit-
    Davis points out that, “The amount now regularly brought in by single auctions at the major houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s—where individual trophies can top $100 million—far exceeds the annual allocations in the federal arts budget in the United States through the decrepit National Endowment for the Arts.”


    California and perhaps the rest of the country is considering or in the process of privatizing public university systems.

    Now who gets to be an artist?

    Will we continue to follow the rabbit down the whole of winner-takes-all exceptionalism?

    Forgive my ignorance as I don’t know and neither do I really quite understand how to approach even formulate these questions.

    I, personally, feel powerless and therein lies part of the success of it all.

    • Sarrita Hunn

      I also keep going back to the point about the exploding number of nonprofit art spaces:
      – in the past decade, the number of nonprofit art organizations has grown 45% (greater than an overall nonprofits increase of 32%) “which means that between 2003 and 2009, a new arts organization sprang up every three hours in the United States.”(82)
      – all of this competition means that a full third of these nonprofit arts organizations are running at a deficit

      On top of the fact that a large number are running on deficits, we all know that they all are running on a lot of underpaid and unpaid (intern) staff. So – is this situation really desirable? At what point does it make more sense to stop making new spaces and projects and start channeling our energy toward supporting – and holding accountable – existing institutions? At what point is viability worth risking exclusion? Quality vs quantity?

  3. Jessica

    I, too, appreciated the statistical information, and I appreciated that at least some attention was given to the artist. I am comparing this to another book, Sarah Thornton’s “7 Days in the Art World.” Her only chapter about an artist focused on Murakami and his “studio” – which I think could be used more in the sense of a “production studio” – but, this seems so much less about an artist, or artists in general. I would be curious to know the comparisons between what the production expenses of the most expensive artwork from the 1970s, for example, would be to artwork of present day. Davis mentions the idea of the blockbuster shows that museums must put on in order to attract crowds, but what of the blockbuster studio art production? Are artists expected to spend more and more money on their work to create bigger, better things, setting up a class divide along the way?

    • Lauren Adams

      I think you hit a major point in there that’s problematic for me, Jessica. I think too often Davis is focusing on the ‘art world’ (i.e., NY market) to the exclusion of actual artists on the ground within their studios and communities (which, I would argue, is the majority of the art world). Blockbuster studio art production, as you put it, is a huge problem. Big expensive art throws the entire spectrum out of whack. Davis does reference this article that PETER SCHJELDAHL wrote about “festivalism’ in 1999: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1999/07/05/1999_07_05_085_TNY_LIBRY_000018558
      To quote Schjeldahl, “What’s afoot is a global rationalization of the art game, whereby one kind of artist stays in the studio while another becomes familiar with many airports.” This gap has widened in the intervening years since he wrote that. I mean, you can’t be making this kind of big work that gets shipped internationally and maintains the physical footprint in the giant space *unless* you are relying on a complex system of office assistants, specialized production assistants, art handlers, shippers, etc. It’s like this kind of system totally obliterates the quietude of the space we normally associate with art production and consumption. I guess this also is owed to painting, or an imperfect nostalgia for painting (which was the overarching artistic enterprise until the 20th c), where slow making and slow looking reigned — contemplation of the work being the primary point, which was accessed through extended looking.

  4. Sarrita Hunn

    “People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it.”
    Slaves of the Internet, Unite! By TIM KREIDER

    “You can’t cry about pop stars stealing your subculture while at the same time you don’t get infuriated when some kid who shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch a month ago decides to to dye their hair green, grab an outfit at Urban Outfitters and take a photo of themselves on their shiny Macbook and post it up on tumblr.”
    Death of Subculture – DEATHFACE

  5. "Michael" Cunningham

    Do the auction prices that have dominated my Twitter feed today effect the art-life of anyone reading this? I mean aside from being a stark illustration of the income inequality that damages society as a whole, do these specific purchases effect day-to-day art making any more than real estate speculation or leveraged buyouts?

  6. "Michael" Cunningham

    And these auctions lead me to believe that the art market is so far removed from most artists that it really needn’t be a concern, at least not qua art. It may effect what pieces can be acquired by the Milwaukee Art Museum, but it effects the average art maker as much as the budgets of blockbuster movies and the salaries of Hollywood celebs effect an actor looking for work in Minneapolis.

    • "Michael" Cunningham

      And by art market I mean only the *blue-chip* sales Davis focuses on, not the grand majority of art sales made for more modest amounts – perhaps to differentiate the more pedestrian, day-to-day selling of art should be called art retail.

  7. Mike Calway-Fagen

    Is that true? I’m not sure
    and I’m going out on a limb, albeit a short one, but it does seem that the market reassurance that established works bring with them definitely affect the sales of younger or less road-weary creatives.

    And maybe sales have nothing to do with production or the underpinnings of outlook or style but as Ellen Altfest told me when I asked her at a lecture last week after spending a good hour talking about how honest her paintings were:
    “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”

    This is after I presented the question,
    Ellen, you’ve said quite a bit about the honesty or sincerity with which you approach painting. Don’t get me wrong I’m also a proponent of the same slippery terms. But you also mentioned shifting strategies after a significant newspaper review stated you should pay more attention to detail. I’ve also heard you rattle off museums, writers, residencies, exhibitions, galleries, etc. Do you feel your creative impulses are separate, true, authentic, expressions completely unaffected by the market or its archipelago of influences?

    What’s Sincerity?
    What’s Authentic?
    What’s Genuine?

    When, if ever, do these things get to be real?
    What’s real after all?

    Obviously, Ellen Altfest is no Mike Calway-Fagen but to think that
    I ,like Ellen, am in no way influenced by these factors is naive and reducing a real point for conversation to some teeter totter of 1’s and 0’s.

    Who are “most” artists?
    Are they similar to the subpar non-profits sacrificing quality? Why are there so many artists?
    Back to Sarrita’s two above articles (johnnylove and nytimes) navigating fact and fiction.

    • "Michael" Cunningham

      Hello Mike-

      I haven’t read the jonnylove and nytimes articles yet, perhaps that will be my weekend homework, but I can offer some short direct responses to the rest…

      I wasn’t trying to argue for a pure art practice free from economic influence, I think the caveat I added about “art retail” was, in part, an attempt to avoid that claim. “Most” artists was a sloppy choice. Certainly there is a bevy of artists trying to break into the top tier, speculative art market. An awareness of trends, savvy planning and market responsiveness can serve an artist with this goal well. This can also be true of a smaller local gallery scene highly influenced by what the big dogs are doing. But there are also a lot of folks that have found comfortable niches for making art outside this system. It’s not that I find this outside-the-blue-chip-art-market approach to art-making more pure, I just think it’s a playing field that more folks reach.

      Perhaps Sincerity, Authenticity and the Genuine are simply tools that can be employed in art making. It doesn’t matter how real Sincerity is, it’s like a good judge willfully viewing a situation through a fictive lens called Impartiality. Sometimes Impartiality is more successful, sometimes less, but it is still a useful stance. Some art benefits when the artist strives to be Genuine, it is irrelevant to other art.

      There are so many artist because making art is wonderful. Wonderful, indeed.

  8. Netta Sadovsky

    To put in 2 cents about “Mike” and “Michael” ‘s conversation–I believe by making a work of art you automatically engage with all other works that call themselves art. Such is the nature of language, that you participate in the cultural term and instantly connect to its web of usages.

    In American culture those who sell their work at auction houses for millions have won the capitalist art-market game, their work has been deemed the most valuable. That’s according to the system that as a member of American culture you can’t help but be a part of. But that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine a different world…

    Then one can ask, what culture is the work intended for? What constitutes success within that culture?

    Artists define every element of their occupation, an artist could make a living as a stripper and never sell their work and still be accurately labeled an artist, AND with the content of their work never mixed with the content of their occupation. It’s an empowering position. It is difficult but not impossible for some communities (places like http://www.dancingrabbit.org/) to largely separate themselves from the national economic system. It’s a lot easier to separate your work from any element of the system that seems incongruent…simply by the way you present it or frame it. Which goes back to what “Michael” was saying about a fictive lens of impartiality.

    • "Michael" Cunningham

      Hello Netta, thanks for the two cents. You do clarify some of what I was trying to say.

      I read the nytimes article and at first I thought it was telling creatives that they had to be more realistic and change their thinking so they can be good capitalists. But I thought about it a bit more and I think it is actually saying if you are performing a function for the capitalist system don’t admit it and stop being such a bad capitalist. I think his reference to gift culture is not trying to say “look how naive I was when I was young,” but is actually saying gift culture is fine and good when it really is a full gift culture, but don’t use the ideals of gift culture when engaged in a capitalist project. I have taken to heart a thing I once heard the the potter Dan Anderson say, “One great thing about being an artist is you can price your work for a million dollars or give it away for free.” It’s a privileged position, but I do think it is important that when work is given away, it is given generously because it is valued, not because it is being devalued.

  9. Sarrita Hunn

    Not sure where to reply to so I will just start this new thread. I wanted to expand a bit more on my “Nope.” reply to “Michael” on his auction house question. Of course, that was a bit flippant and meant to be a tiny bit provocative, but one some level I do believe that auction house records have no more or less to do with my individual work as an artist than the price of corn or wheat futures in the stock market. Yes, the price of wheat – now and in some hypothetical future – may cause my Wonderbread at the Wal-Mart Supercenter to go up in price, or even raise expenses for my bakery company, but as an individual I can at some point stop thinking about the value of corn in stock market terms (only) and consider it a more political/ethical decision – take that time spent worrying and spend some extra time to grow the corn myself. Or, to connect this to the other conversation, not everyone has the time or interest to grown their own corn (not to mention that it is not an ecologically sustainable approach to large scale food production) so some may choose to buy their corn at the local farmer’s market or subscribe to a CSA….once you engage a local, or alternative (in this case being anything outside of the corporate stock market), system of circulation the stock/auction market doesn’t matter to you directly at all. The problem is that we are being forced to live in relation to the (stock) market whether we want to or not – through our savings, student loans, and retirement plans. Artists also feel pressure to pay attention to auction house prices – the world outside that paradigm feels less certain (relevant?) – but you do have the choice – and since when was art about certainty anyway?

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