Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Managing the Reputations of the New British Sculptors

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Managing the Reputations of the New British Sculptors

Article excerpt

In the mid-1970s Britain was regarded by domestic and overseas commentators alike as little more than a backwater of the international art world, for which New York served as the hegemonic centre. Yet by 1990 Britain, and in particular London, was one of a number of art world centres that had weakened New York's dominant position, and was poised to attract worldwide attention with the emergence of the so-called YBA group. This change accompanied a significant expansion in the global market for contemporary art during this period, which then accelerated over the subsequent two decades. In order to understand the causes, manner and consequences of these changes, we need to attend as much to art institutions and agents, including curators, critics, dealers and collectors, as we do to individual artists and the work that they made. The art world is organized around the need to select and promote certain artists and their work, and to deny the entitlement of others to such treatment. This selection is necessary because there is limited space available to display 'important' artworks in museums, limited attention that influential commentators can devote to them, and limited funds to pay the artists who produce them. Any artist who wants recognition for their work, or who wishes to support themselves financially from their artistic practice, has to engage with this art world, which is animated by conflict and negotiation over which artists should be so rewarded.1 This is what connects the speculator, the aesthete and the critical theorist. Artistic reputation is seldom if ever fixed and agreed; it represents rather the provisional end-point of a process that is never finally concluded. The conflict and negotiation is not just over the evaluation of specific artists and their works, and over the criteria to be used, but also over who has the power to make and to influence such valuations.

Individuals working in both public and private sectors are involved in promoting, influencing or managing artistic reputations, albeit some may do so more consciously, more willingly, or with more interest in financial considerations than others. The conduct of financial transactions is as much a part of the art world as the display and discussion of artworks. This is not intended to imply that all such transactions within the art world are necessarily legitimate, appropriate or to be tolerated. Nor does it mean that it is never problematic when art world individuals try to influence the display or discussion of artists and their work for financial reasons. It does suggest, however, that the distinctions between what is tolerable or problematic and what is not are a matter for debate regarding specific practices in specific situations. This way of looking at the art world is proposed as a necessary complement to those accounts that highlight the negative, 'excessive' influence of financial factors, often characterized as involving the 'commodification' of art. Writers including Julian Stallabrass, Chin-tao Wu and Hal Foster have chronicled (and critiqued) the extent to which, in contemporary visual art, the cultural has become commercialized.2 In recent years, however, academics working in the fields of economics and marketing as well as in art history and cultural studies have begun to question how useful it is to look at the production and promotion of contemporary art in terms of the oppositional model of 'culture vs. commerce', and have suggested approaches and perspectives that attempt to move the discussion on from this conflict.3 Rather than assuming that cultural and financial issues can be clearly separated, and that the latter can be regarded as an undesirable intrusion upon the former, they argue that the cultural and the financial are inextricably connected in a social, intellectual, commercial and political process that determines artistic success. Given the importance of reputation management for artists, it is argued here that examining their careers from the perspective of modern marketing can help to provide a more holistic perspective on how the commercial and cultural are interwoven. …

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