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Gathering Objects or Preserving Knowledge? - David G. Torres

The market has a profound effect on collecting. In the art world everybody makes lists, and the names always coincide. These lists satisfy people because there are no disagreements, but we might ask what has happened meanwhile to criteria and debate. Promoting knowledge and debate is supposed to be the basic purpose of critique. The great majority of art critics and curators define their professional profile precisely as art critics and exhibition curators. I do the same. This is a convention. But a convention marred by multiple contradictions. There seems to be a general consensus that when one works as curator to an institution one has to give up critiquing exhibitions. It is as though being a curator one has to conceal the real criteria according to which certain things are valued and others rejected. This hints at the constant suspicion that the critic/curator is acting out of interests that are not always related to criteria, valuation, discourse or research. In this way, critiquing/curating is connoted as an activity tied to politics in the more administrative sense of the word, that is as an activity ruled by a series of incompatibilities. Although it is usually described as a need for independence: not letting yourself be influenced by the realities of a complex system of relations. And there, in that wish for independence, is where we find the aloofness, when not the rejection, in face of everything that smacks of the market.


Few curators and critics will admit to knowing the first thing about the ins and outs of the market. They will tell you they have never acted in connivance with the art market and deny that it has ever affected their decisions. Though, certainly, critics and curators visit galleries and write about their artists; we also visit fairs, though not with a buyer’s eye, but inconvenienced because it is not possible to see anything, and even so we value their quality and the good or bad health of sales. And to discredit an exhibition we can even use the argument that its owes too much to the market and to the power of the galleries. So, do we or do we not take into account the art market?


The market has a profound effect on collecting. Collecting, to date, involves buying works; although collecting is not just gathering objects, but establishing a discourse through works, artists and facts. Very often, it means singling out unattended moments and therefore emphasising artists and works which, if a certain consensus is reached around them, eventually acquire economic value. Building up a collection, establishing its discourse, is not very different from planning a series of exhibitions or simply curating one. There too general contexts for reading are established, significant works and movements are sought out, proposals are accepted or rejected on the grounds of a discursive logic and, even more so, on the grounds of a critical logic.



I belong to a generation that came to exhibition curatorship from critique. For me, like many of my colleagues, curatorship was simply the exercise of critique by other means. Through exhibition curatorship instruments were brought into play that were similar to critique, but visually deployed. Exhibitions also allowed us to work with the content, develop the discourse, put criteria into practice and demonstrate our commitment to contemporary creation. Right there is where the suspicions arose: is it possible to critique an exhibition organised by a museum for which, at the same time, you are preparing a project? But the freelance curator works for many institutions, which, by the way, are suspicious of the critics. So rather than the independence of the critic/curator, we ought to speak of multi-dependence.


The critics who had appeared to fill the numerous new institutions being built everywhere with content suddenly found they depended on those very institutions. Ever since then, critics do not write adversely because they depend on the institutions they write about. And their writings now only have room for describing, not for judging or assessing, because exhibitions call for loans, talking to galleries and collectors who also have other artists on their lists who must not be disappointed. Lists, everybody makes lists.


Artfacts, on its web site, ranks artists according to their market prices and their prestige value, that is according to the number of exhibitions held in museums and institutions or galleries outside their country of residence. Christie’s and other auction houses draw up their own lists of artists’ prices. Curators were not going to be left out. In 1998 CREAM was published, a list of 100 contemporary artists picked out by 10 curators. The event has been repeated every two years, emulating the system of art biennials. Taschen, for their part, also issue their own lists: 100 artists and, later, women artists. But Taschen are not backed up by a list of prestigious curators. The result is much the same, though. Everybody makes their own lists: the market, the curators and Taschen… and the names coincide.


These lists, without a doubt, keep everybody happy because there is no disagreement. But what happened to criteria, content and discussion? One gets the impression that critics, magazines and exhibitions avoid confrontation with an economic power – the same one that gives artworks and artists their economic value – whose only aim is to ensure that their collections will continue to rise in value. And why all the scruples, all the correctness, all the attempts to avoid suspicion and show the incompatibility between the critic/curator and the market? The critic/curator does not implicitly take part in the market and is not just a cog in the consensus-based rather than discussion-based valuation machinery. Though claiming to be clean, the critic, being pluri-dependent, takes part in a market that is part of the general art market: the institutional one. To put it another way, the art market is systemic, and all the stakeholders are part of it. Any strategy for change must be based on a critical awareness that does not avoid friction or confrontation, a critical practice that does not try to satisfy its desire for purity with ideas like supposed independence. And perhaps the present situation of crisis is perfect for recomposing that state and reconsidering the significance of the market and that of one of its parallel movements, collecting.


Chris Dercon, Director of the Tate Modern in London, in a speech he gave in May 2011 in Barcelona’s CaixaForum spoke ironically of private museums and defended public institutions as the only ones capable of ensuring a relationship with their audiences that was based on more than just economic productivity. He would do well to look closely at private museums. In recent years, in Barcelona, some collectors have decided to set up their own museums in keeping with the tendency begun in the United States. In fact, the tour of the different museums set up by the main collectors in Miami, with breakfast thrown in, is as important as the visit to the Miami Art Basel fair itself. This is actually a development of the role of the collector, who no longer needs to be on a board or incentivise the setting up of museums but who builds his own museums. Collections built up with works by artists whose presence is assured on any of the lists the auction houses or curators draw up and which the budgets of public institutions can hardly be expected to compete with. This is why Chris Dercon pointed out the terms of that competition in the relationship with audiences: the public and and the public function.


But those private museums were set up in the West before the crisis. Before the crisis in the West, that is. While Europe and the USA decline economically, Brazil, India and China continue to grow. In the art market as well. Peking and Shanghai are still opening up entire neighbourhoods devoted to galleries, private art centres, museums and artist’s workshops, sometimes in spaces combining all of these at once. The Chinese art market is highly endogenous; basically it buys local art, to the extreme that some young Chinese artists fetch higher prices than leading names in Western art, in an economic spiral that has sublimated all the economic, formal and conceptual quirks of Western art.


The healthy Chinese market actually sublimates the economic schema of the art inherited from the West since the end of the 19th century, in the same way as the collections that have become private museums. Meanwhile, other cultural spheres, from music to film, with larger economies than art, have been forced to reconsider their economic system by the internet’s communication and distribution blueprint. In his talk, Chris Dercon not only spoke of audiences and relationships with users, but also of the museum of the 21st century as a place which will no longer be a container, so much as an archive; an active archive which in itself is knowledge, because it can be travelled and connections can be made to it. From this point of view, the whole of the economic system surrounding art will sooner or later be affected. Faced with a system based on the archive and on distribution, the blueprints we have been using until now, tied to the unique artwork and limited copies, may cease to be valid. The same goes for the idea of the museum and of collections as valid places for the safekeeping of artworks. The symptoms are already emerging. In the same way as the drop in sales of compact discs coincides with the rise of live music, in art we are now getting used to the artist’s fee, exhibition copies and archive copies. What keeps the unique copy going, apart from a mercantile logic? Or again, what is the difference between the artistic appreciation of a video by John Smith seen at a museum and one seen on YouTube? There is only one possible answer: the discourse. In speaking of the audience as users, of active archives rather than containers, museums and collections are no longer associated with the accumulation of objects but with the culture of knowledge: rather than safeguarding objects, it will be a question of preserving knowledge. Discussing, thinking – not lists –­; that will be one of the functions, not just of the professional critic, but of critical thinking.


Published in Barcelona Metrópolis – Autumn (October – December 2011)



In a photograph of The Who, Pete Townshend appears with an adolescent look posing in a safari-coloured shirt that harks back to the military (both the shoulder flaps and the colour) and is full of logos and medals. In another photograph taken sometime later, though now in black and white, Keith Moon, the drummer of The Who, poses among Lambretta scooters wearing a turtleneck jersey on which appear in writing the letters POW. POW are the initials used to designate and identify prisoners of war. The strategy of The Who was the underlying strategy that was used years later by London’s first punks with a mixture of logos, medals or signs that would range from the A within a circle representing anarchism to the swastika. Thus the aim was to dismantle all the signs by taking them out of context, used very skilfully by the highly situationist techniques of detournement and very Dada.


1 Comentario

  1. AnnaRoldn dice:

    I’ll try again

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