Does Art Matter?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Detroit and the Art Market

For quite a long time, Detroit was divorced from the conventional economy, and everyone —industrial workers, contractors, grocers, and especially artists—lost their association with commerce and the associated process of commodification. In the last two decades, art acquisition and investment have become a high-visibility status symbol for wealthy individuals, many of whom are not interested in art but in diversifying their portfolios—as art has become the new economic futures market. Meanwhile, Detroit has remained firmly disconnected from economic development or speculation of any kind.

What emerged was art from the fringes, borne of the need for representation and self-expression rather than material gains. Art, when untethered from the influence and control of capitalism, is dangerous. I deem it no accident that investment has come to Detroit, determined to wrest power back from a near-sovereign city. Nowadays, when it comes to Detroit, filled with a preponderance of creative and artistic talent, sooner or later someone will ask the fatal question, “Yes, but where is the market?”

When pertaining to the “art market” in question, I am not concerned with who buys art—I’m concerned with who doesn’t.

Let’s talk about the history of art. Not recent history, when Pop Art triggered rampant growth in art as an area for investment, or semi-recent history, when some of the most canonical and currently high-valued artists, like Pablo Picasso or Vincent Van Gogh, were working. I’d like to go back 35,000 years in human history, to the Cave of Altamira in Cantabria, Spain, host to paintings made by Paleolithic human settlers, with the most recent paintings recorded at 14,000-18,000 years old.

What was life like, 14,000 years ago? Every day was a struggle for survival. There is no room in society for excess or glut—this was a time when the weak, the old, and the deformed, might well be left on rocks for the good of the collective. Yet somewhere in this mix, with a daily routine that included collecting food and running from sabre-tooth tigers, someone was making art.

This is all the proof you need that art is not a product of advanced society. Art has been with us since we were recognizable as a species. Art is not superfluous, not a luxury, not just for the wealthy. Art does not need to live in climate-controlled museums or glass display cases. Art predates any concept of economy by millennia. Art is crucial to our understanding of the world and our ability to meaningfully engage with it. Art is quite at home in caves.

When we talk about how to value artists, we are attempting to overlay a contemporary concept of economy and compensation on a practice that is primitive and fundamental to our society. Just as there have always been healers, there have always been artists. Just as the professionalization and commodification of medicine as a science has come with both advantages and drawbacks, the professionalization and commodification of art presents real complications.

When reference is made to “the art market,” there are a few assumptions that are commonly made along with it:

  • That the “true” art market involves rich people
  • That it is fitting and proper for artists to cater exclusively to massively endowed organizations and individuals
  • That success as an artist amounts to selling your intellectual or creative property for vast sums of money to an elite few
  • That artists who are “successful” within the context of the Art market have achieved this on the strength of their work—or, put another way, that when artists go to market, their artwork is what they are selling
  • That buying art is the same thing as supporting artists

“Art market” has become synonymous with “rich people,” and around Detroit they’re in the Metro suburbs, in the white collar communities of Grosse Pointe, Birmingham, and Rochester Hills. While Detroit proper may be (incorrectly) characterized for its decades of desolation, the surrounding regions have always been some of the most fiscally upmarket in the entire country. Most often then not, art market patrons within this demographic will drive 25 minutes into the city to visit a gallery, perhaps to make a purchase—but more typically, when they buy art, they are flying to New York or beyond to drop far more money on industry-ratified artists. They may support local arts organizations through philanthropy, but they do very little to support local artists.

Artists in Detroit feed right into this system, generally griping about the lack of support from these big ticket buyers and institutions, dreaming of the day the art market will rain favor and fortune down on them, like manna from heaven.

I care about art, its intersection with society, and the people who make it. The whole system of art-as-commodity relies on courting big money buyers, and convincing artists that they might be the one to hold the winning lottery ticket. The few living artists that are beneficiaries of this system do benefit wildly, but they represent a negligible percentage of working artists. Success as an artist is often conflated with gaining access to this arena, and rarely do we see models for success that focus on the promulgation of meaning within oneself and society. A society that claims to value art will centralize art-making as a valid pursuit and facilitate it through direct support of artists.

For centuries, the upper class, including the church, has provided patronage for artists, thus enabling them to create art objects. Arts philanthropy is commonly seen as a kind of altruism—a display of not only good taste but extreme generosity—when, in truth, it is a complicated system that pays itself back in kind. Sometimes collectors donate pieces because they are building provenance for other parts of their collection. In addition to, quite frankly, saving money that would otherwise go to paying taxes. Oftentimes, collectors have a sincere love for art, while others simply relish the prestige of seeing their name on a museum’s “Platinum Donor” wall. Whatever the reasons donors may have for supporting the arts, it is mistaken to imagine that most, or even much, of the money in play within institutions and grant-making organizations actually ends up in the hands of artists.

Galleries form a crucial link in the art market. They typically, pick up half the price tag on art sales. You can’t show art without having something to show. In the United States, artists follow the speculative model, a situation where a professional is consistently expected to produce without assurance of payment, and getting half taken off the back end when something finally sells. This assumes sales and trading are happening with the artist in the loop, when in reality, collectors, galleries, and auction houses are constantly benefitting from the rising cache of a given artist, while the artist typically only receives money from the initial sale.

Finally, the art market on this level involves a great deal more than the art objects or concepts in play. Artists who succeed in big-money environments have to be not only extremely socially savvy but also willing to sell themselves as entertainment to these big-name buyers. At its most innocent, it forces artists to act as their own sales representatives, marketers and public relations firm. At its most treacherous, it may reduce artists to little more than highly paid consorts, as performance artist Andrea Fraser underscored in her controversial video piece, Untitled (2003), which was exhibited at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York City in 2004. In the hour-long video, Fraser has sex on screen with an art collector who paid $20,000 to participate in the artwork.

Anyone with depth of experience in the high-end art market can tell you that Fraser’s act was not a metaphor. Anyone with real care for art and compassion for the circumstances of artists has to wonder: what changes can be made to the idea of Art Market to prevent commerce from making whores of us all?

Good news: the Art Market can really just mean the people and organizations that buy art. It can be a decentralized ecosystem that can operate on many levels—small and large, local and international. If we object to the ways in which an upper class controls the resources that support the production of art—and therefore the resulting propagation of meaningful, critical thinking, and empathy within society—we have a clear ability to change that by buying art, or otherwise finding ways to support artists directly, so they can do this crucial work.

If we wish to preserve our voices, we must find means to support them. If we want art that reflects proletariat interests, created by people unbeholden to the wealthiest sector of society, we must find a way to give artists the freedom to create without starving to death. When you invest in art, you are not only supporting an artist, you are also supporting the advancement of a free society that retains the ability to reflect upon itself and imagine better things.

Seems a small price to pay.