Simply put, if you broached the issue of beauty in the American art world of 1988, you could not incite a conversation about rhetoric — or efficacy, or pleasure, or politics, or even Bellini. You ignited a conversation about the market. That, at the time, was the "signified" of beauty. If you said "beauty," they would say, "The corruption of the market," and I would say, The corruption of the market?!" After thirty years of frenetic empowerment, during which the venues for contemporary art in the United States had evolved from a tiny network of private galleries in New York into this vast, transcontinental sprawl of publicly funded, postmodern iceboxes? During which time the ranks of "art professionals" had swollen from a handful of dilettantes on the East Side of Manhattan into this massive civil service of PhDs and MFAs who administered a monolithic system of interlocking patronage, which, in its constituents, resembled nothing so much as that of France in the early nineteenth century? While powerful corporate, governmental, cultural, and academic constituencies vied for power and tax-free dollars, each with its own self-perpetuating agenda and none with any vested interest in the subversive potential of visual pleasure? Under these cultural conditions, artists across this nation were obsessing about the market?—fretting about a handful of picture merchants nibbling canapés on the Concorde?—blaming them for any work of art that did not incorporate raw plywood?
Under these cultural conditions, I would suggest, saying that "the market is corrupt" is like saying that the cancer patient has a hangnail. Yet the manifestations of this pervasive idée fixe remain everywhere present today, not least of all in the sudden evanescence of the market itself after thirty years of scorn for the intimacy of its transactions, but also in the radical discontinuity between serious criticism of contemporary art and that of historical art. At a time when easily 60 percent of historical criticism concerns itself with the influence of taste, patronage, and the canons of acceptability upon the images that a culture produces, the bulk of contemporary criticism, in a miasma of hallucinatory denial, resolutely ignores the possibility that every form of refuge has its price, and satisfies itself with grousing about "the corruption of the market." The transactions of value enacted under the patronage of our new "nonprofit" institutions are exempted from this cultural critique, presumed to be untainted, redemptive, disinterested, taste free, and politically benign. Yeah, right.
During my informal canvass, I discovered that the "reasoning" behind this presumption is that art dealers "only care about how it looks," while the an professionals employed by our new institutions "really care about what it means." Which is easy enough to say. And yet, if this is, indeed, the case (and I think it is), I can't imagine any but the most demented calf giddily abandoning an autocrat who monitors appearances for a bureaucrat who monitors desire. Nor can Michel Foucault, who makes a variation of this point in Surveiller et punir, and poses for us the choice that is really at issue here, between bureaucratic surveillance and autocratic punishment. Foucault opens his book with a grisly, antique text describing the lengthy public torture and ultimate execution of Damiens, the regicide; he then juxtaposes this cautionary spectacle of royal justice with the theory of reformative incarceration propounded by Jeremy Bentham in his "Panopticon."A friend gave me the book when it came out. A bit much, Eagles reference included, but smart.
Dave Hickey It slipped my mind.