Modernist Art and Its Market

Article excerpt

Oskar Bitschmann. The Artist in the Modern World:A Conflict between Market and Self-Expression. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 270 pp., loo b/w ills. $40.

Gregg Horowitz and Tom Huhn, eds. The Wake of Art: Criticism, Philosophy, and the Ends of Taste. Amsterdam: G+B Arts, 1998. 204 pp., b/w ills. $34.5o, $18.95 paper.

Rosalind E. Krauss. The Picasso Papers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. 272 pp., 76 b/w ills. $25.

Fiona McCarthy. Stanley Spencer:An English Vision. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Washington, D.C.: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 1997. 208 pp., 82 color ills., 54 b/w. $45.

Nicholas Serota Experience or Interpretation:The Dilemma of Museums of Modem Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. 63 pp., 55 ills. $ 14.95

Alexandra Anderson-Spivy with an essay by Holland Cotter. Robert Kushner: Gardens of Earthly Delight New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1997. 87 color ills., 3 b/w. $50.

John Zinsser. Continuous Model:The Paintings of David Row. Munich: Verlag Robert Gessler. 1997. 127 pp. $49.

The subtitle of Oskar Batschmann's new book, "A Conflict between Market and Self-Expression," is surely misleading. He implies that treating artworks as commodities is somehow at odds with seeking self-expression. Instead, what the massive evidence gathered in this book shows is that the modernist art market has been driven by a fascination with such selfexpression. The reason some few artists have achieved fame, and appropriate financial rewards, is precisely that they have identified original forms of self-expression. In that way, great painters are like famous pop musicians or successful filmmakers. Some of Batschmann's materials-his account of the modernist avant-garde in Paris, for example-are familiar. But his discussion of such figures as Asmus Jakob Carstens, Rosa Bonheur, and Anselm Feuerbach was new to me. It is important that this book deals with the German as well as the French side of the nineteenth century. I was a little surprised to find the Abstract Expressionists called "the storm troops of freedom in the Cold War" (203-5), a phrase which in translation from the original German has infelicitous implications; and I was curious about what the author, a professor in Bern, meant in speaking of Felix Vallotton's "cruel Swiss objectivity" (icr). But these are minor queries.

What is revelatory about The Artist in the Modern World is how much is learned by treating the history of modernism not in stylistic terms, but as the story of an evolving market in novel commodities. Batschmann's Gustave Courbet is not a would-be revolutionary but a clever, gifted hustler; in controlling the audience for installations, his Bruce Nauman is a shrewd, innovative entrepreneur. There is an unfortunate tendency for people interested in the connections between art and commerce to treat art in reductive terms. This is why high auction prices and the vandalizing of expensive masterpieces fascinate both the public and art historians. But unless we understand how art is sold and promoted, how can we properly grasp its purely aesthetic qualities? Much of the effect of most recent U.S. art depends on its being presented in upscale galleries-and that would be impossible without the financial resources of successful dealers. "I hate being called an art dealer," one dealer once said to me. But without several generations of such gifted business people, the U.S. art world could hardly exist. And then our puritanical leftists, writers whom I admire, who denounce the society of the spectacle would have nothing to criticize.

The one serious self-imposed limitation of Batschmann's account is that it says too little about the commercial background of the art market. In discussing Documenta, for example, it would be illuminating if he had explained why it was set in such an out-of-the-way German town. In discussing Joseph Beuys, what certainly would be useful is some explanation of how such a striking personality became a major producer of commodities. …