Monday, August 2, 2010

Art and Capitalism

Ross Douglas probably had a stiff drink before he made his way into the Circa gallery Thursday last week. Inside I was waiting to give a talk on art and capitalism where I would be joined by David Brodie, Kobie Labuschagne, Marianne Fassler and Douglas in a panel discussion. It was part of a Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism programme organised by Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall of the Wiser Institute at Wits University. The audience were PHD students drawn from a number of disciplines.

Brodie took on the persona of the unapologetic commercial driven art player, confessing that gallerists were like drug dealers in the sense that they pushed their products on consumers, ensuring them that the brand of art that they were peddling would “make them feel good.”

It was satisfying to see that Douglas was no longer selling the art fair as an educational event  - but, of course, he continues to imply that the art fair is a much better alternative to a biennale. Douglas doesn’t get it and probably never will.  Brodie was quick to remind the audience – and indirectly Douglas too – that biennales and art fairs cannot be uttered in the same breath; they are completely different kinds of events with different objectives. 

Much to everyone’s surprise I didn’t talk about the art fair at all;  the interaction between art and capitalism is too obvious in that context and as an event that only takes place once a year its effect is minimal. We haven’t quite reached the stage where artists are producing art-fair-art - although I dare say we are heading in that direction.   I am more interested in the more nuanced and covert ways in which commercialisation shapes art production – such as corporate sponsored art competitions and corporate patronage. One of the questions that we were asked to address in our talks required us to reflect on the ways capitalism permeated art and how it might corrupt the purity of art – the implication here was that this economic paradigm and art were mutually exclusive.