Contemporary Art: Who Calls the Shots?

By Lefort, Rene | UNESCO Courier, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Art: Who Calls the Shots?


Lefort, Rene, UNESCO Courier


Despite the international veneer of the art market, research by French sociologist Alain Quemin shows that a handful of rich countries dominates the scene

How has contemporary art been affected by globalization?

Contemporary art lovers and professionals believe that it's becoming internationalized. Any gallery director, art critic, museum curator or exhibition commissioner would more or less agree that it would be absurd to take nationality or country of origin into account when judging an artist's work. All that matters, they say, is whether or not he or she is good. In other words, an artist's fame and market value should have nothing to do with nationality. As proof, those in the art world point to the fact that exhibitions and biennales are scattered around the planet [2] (they are even held in Havana, Taipei and Dakar), and to the rise of Asian artists after the Eastern European wave of the early 1990s. In contemporary art, globalization and its corollaries in the art world--cultural mixing and relativism--are taken for granted.

But do these claims match what is actually happening on the art market?

To answer that question, I have developed or compared several indicators, including rankings of "reputation" by experts (those who contribute to an artist's fame or "name recognition"), the composition of large private and public collections, acquisitions by large museums, participation in major fairs and biennale exhibitions, sales on the international market, and so on. These indicators sometimes give different rankings, but they reveal a very strong geographical hierarchy (see box). The most famous artists and those whose works have the highest market value are from the United States. Several countries in Western Europe form the second group, sometimes equal to or outdoing the United States, especially at fairs and biennales.

A FEW INDICATORS

* Each year, the German magazine Capital publishes a world ranking of living artists called Kunst Kompass. Highly influential around the world, it supposedly reflects their aesthetic value based on the opinions of "experts" and exhibitions in major museums and shows.

In 2000, the 100 "best" artists included 33 Americans, 28 Germans, eight Britons, Five French, four Italians and three Swiss. Of the 16 other artists, only five came from the developing world (South Africa, cuba, Iran, Mexico, Thailand).

* On November 16, 2000, Christies held one of its two major annual contemporary art auctions in New York. Of the 48 artists whose works were sold, 26 came from the United States, six from the United Kingdom, five from Germany, four from Italy, three from Switzerland, two from Japan and one each from France and South Africa.

* On November 17, 2000, Sotheby's held a similar auction in New York. Of the 63 works sold, 50 were by American artists or artists living in the United States. just one was by an artist from a developing country, where he still lives (Mexico).

But the ranking in this group is very marked. Germany is far ahead of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Switzerland. After them, the contribution from other nations, including developed countries such as Spain, the Nordic countries, Japan and South Korea, is insignificant. The third world is at the very bottom of the list.

In art as in many other fields, there is obviously a gulf between a "centre," made up of only a few countries that are themselves ranked in a very rigid hierarchy, and a huge "periphery."

But artists from the periphery, as you call it, have achieved a certain degree of fame and their works have attained a very high market value...

That may be true, but the proportion is very small. …

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