TIAMSA Conference 2018 – Section 1: Transformations By Pol Edinger
The Blickle Kino at the Museum Belvedere 21, located in immediate proximity to the prestigious Schloss Belvedere hosted the second of the three day TIAMSA conference. The Blickle cinema – the only original one of its kind from the 1950’s in Vienna, is named after the donor of its exquisite renovation in 2012 Ursula Blickle. All in all there were 12 talks on the day revolving around the issue „Art for the people? Questioning the Democratisation of the Art Market“. Following is a summary of the first section of that day’s talks entitled “Transformations”, chaired by Christian Huemer, Director of the Belvedere Research Center.
Filip Vermeylen of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam was the first lecturer to present. His talk was entitled “A mass market for art? Democratising tendencies in the art market of the Low Countries during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”. As he himself rightly noted at the start, this was the only talk with a pre-French Revolution topic.
Considering the rise of a mass art market in the Dutch Republic during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the lecture looked at the diffusion of paintings among the different social classes of that time. Furthermore, it asked whether this dissemination is a key argument to the hypothesis that the art market showed democratising tendencies. By reference to a variety of engravings, drawings and paintings Vermeylen was able to show that art was visible almost everywhere in the Dutch Republic. As art fairs grew, pictures with price ranges from inexpensive to expensive were available in the streets in small booths, offered by art salesmen and even in bookshops. In a painting showing a typical Dutch house by Francois Bunell, there are even pictures fixed on the exterior walls, visible only to the passers-by. The astonishing and swift rise in the number of paintings is not only due to the Dutch economic miracle, which raised the general incomes and provoked a flourishing of the urban space and middle class. With immigration, especially from Flanders, new influences came. Even more interesting to me, was the argument that Vermeylen illustrated with the example of the painter van Goyen. In 1624, van Goyen sold a commissioned work for between 600 to 800 guilders. Yet, only four years later, the same artist was selling pictures for 20 guilders. Naturally, there is an apparent difference in the quality, both of the execution as for the materials used. But nonetheless, van Goyen apparently adapted to the developing and growing art market by providing artworks of lesser quality to be sold for a fraction of the price of those works executed for the rich elites. The expansion of the art market and the increase of its participants brings changes in techniques used, the conduct of the artist, and the creation of new professions, the most prominent being the professional art dealer. But are the people really buying these artworks? Is the supply really able to reach the different social classes? As an economist, Filip Vermeylen’s proposition for finding that out is a statistical one; looking at
inventory lists of deceased persons which were created to document their estate. With this it is possible to then prove that the observations of travellers to the Dutch Republic, who were amazed to see that pictures were present almost everywhere, are true. Vermeylen could show that, from the early 17th century to circa 1650, the average number of paintings in households, especially in the Dutch Republic’s main cities, had risen substantially. The indications from the inventories were ordered in categories of number of rooms. Ordered like this, the data can show, that the higher classes, with more rooms per household augmented the number of paintings the most, while the poorer households nonetheless also acquired more and more pictures, too. The evaluation of the inventories’ data demonstrates the power of paintings in Dutch society. What becomes clear is that the inclination of buying art is not only connected to the economic situation, even if it is one core reason of it. The Dutch art markets were booming out of several other reasons too and for a complete perspective on these developments, Filip Vermeylen concludes very rightfully, that there is a need for platforms like TIAMSA, which can bring people from different academic fields together, thus enabling a productive interdisciplinary discourse.
Following Filip Vermeylen was Lukas Fuchsgrubers lecture on ”The Auction House as an Urban Space in 19th Century Paris”.
The Parisian Auction House Hôtel Drouot was founded in 1852 and was located near the rue Lafitte, where luxury items and art were exhibited and sold. The monumental building occupied a whole block, measuring almost 20 Meters in length. Even the building as architectural element, can be considered as an example of the Haussmannian transformational power that shaped the city in the 19th century. But the Hôtel Drouot was not only part of the “urban fabric” as a building.
From 1805, the state controlled all auctions, only allowing officially certified persons to hold and supervise them. In Paris, 80 auctioneers supervised every single auction. This of course lead to a growth of power of the state, exemplified in the construction of the Hôtel Drouot, which, in the 20th century, had become the French equivalent to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. However, the highly effective infrastructure of the auction house is not only a physically present symbol of the capitalist society, but also fundamentally changed the social appreciation of art and other commodities. On the lower floors of the Drouot, the auctions of objects of everyday life took place, while on the highest floor, in an exquisitely decorated room, the luxury items were sold. The Drouot is a place of public discourse, commerce and capitalism and offered at the same time the possibility of merely looking at art. Thus, the public was able to enter the sphere of the auctions, which were formerly only accessible to the elites. Along with the fact, that artists also began developing specific strategies to successfully exhibit and sell their works at auctions (works that not seldom were especially painted for these auctions), the Drouot played a major role in broadening the attention of the public and connoisseurs alike to contemporary art by living artists. The Hôtel Drouot was part, not only the urban fabric as a building, but just as much of the social urban fabric of 19th century Paris.
After having had insight into an economic approach and an art historical one trying to elicit assessments by looking at a precise auction house and its historical development with partly sociological questions asked along, Clarissa Ricci presented her research to the Venice Biennale of 1970. The Lecture of Ricci, Postdoc Fellow at the Iuav University in Venice was entitled „The production of art in the age of political practice. Venice Biennale 1970”. The Venice Biennale 1970 was massively influenced by the student protests of the late 1960s, resulting in a fundamental reformation of its core structures. Ricci’s profound reconstruction of the events was highly enriching and I shall try to summarise it in the following paragraph.
As the Milano Triennale of 1968 was subject to aggressive student protests, during which works were damaged or even destroyed, the atmosphere ahead of the opening of the 1968 Venice Biennale was tense. And indeed, a group of students formed a protest that encroached upon workers of the Biennale and the public, thus expanding the problem to a much larger scale. The government consequently felt forced to interfere with the result that the Biennale premises and the city were heavily guarded by the military. Naturally their presence only fuelled the intensity of the protests that were not specifically directed only against the sales department of the Biennale alone, but rather were demanding for a fundamental reform of the format. These turbulences finally led to the demanded reforms, which were slowly decided and realised in the two years leading up to the 1970 Biennale. An assembly of 50 people led the preparations, insisting on direct democratic participation. Among the changes, were for example, the abolishment of the price indications next to the works. Different rooms were especially established to enable meeting, discourse and exchange of ideas. One could visit the ateliers of the artists even before the opening and all meetings were open for all. All this might be summarised in a sentence from the 1970 Biennale catalogue itself, stating : « The Biennale per se is nothing, it is made by the visitor. » Furthermore, the Biennale addressed the problem of most of the works being owned by galleries, which in most cases sold them only after the Biennale, when prices had increased due to the enhanced exposure. Thus the organisers wanted to protect the artists and the rights on their own works, offering a platform where visitors could buy works immediately from the artists themselves.
In her historic overview of the 1970 Venice Biennale, Ricci was able to show a concrete example of a successful democratisation of obdurate structures.
The first section of the TIAMSA conference was concluded by the fourth lecture held by Ronit Milano from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and entitled: “Moralizing the Art Market: A Socio- Economic Perspective on online Auctions”. The overall structure has now chronologically arrived in the present time, looking at online auction houses and their impact on the structures of the art market.
The Internet promises a process of democratisation. Its global scale and the fact, that origin or affiliation to a certain social class do not limit the individual in it, are key arguments of that promise. But this is only one side – looking at the Internet, we cannot overlook the power with which pop culture is dominating its structures. Big money and Big names are the most powerful instruments of
that pop apparatus, shaping the market and transforming it into a market of Bigness. The masses using the Internet are potentially capable of utilizing the essential direct democratic powers that are coming from its own quantity, enabling this mass to share ideas and information independent of current social restrictions or opinions. But what mostly happens is that the market of bigness provides the individual with nothing more but the feeling of participation. Milano claims this is exemplified in the online auction house, Artsy.
Online auction platforms are mostly not profitable. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are also still making most of their profit on the physical market. One reason for this might be the special difficulty of the tangible quality of the products offered for sale: buyers of art prefer being confronted live with the desired object before deciding to buy it or not.
Artsy, founded in 2009 and today the biggest online auction house worldwide, is situated in the top league with Christie’s and Sotheby’s. But the most artworks sold and bought via Artsy come from the bottom price section with works costing up to 50‘000 $ – which is not the case with the other two traditional auction houses already mentioned. This nonetheless does not mean, that the online auction house is doomed. The so-called „Millennials“ are digital natives and already spend much more of their money via online transactions. Even if the dimension of capital is – at the moment – still unequally divided among „Millennials“ and the older generation, and the older generation preferring physical auction situations and holding larger quantities of money, time will pass and the younger generation will eventually take the lead. This may then come to institutionalise their buying behaviour as status quo. An important criteria we have to keep in mind remains though; only being a suggested participant in the market of bigness is a condition that makes all those participants simply accept what the powerful in that market decide and do. Which means a fundamental downgrade of democratic practice and is the opposite of a democratisation of the online art market. Milano concludes, that a purer democracy does not seem to be part of a neoliberal economic system. We have to ask different questions in order to effectively change and positively influence that same system.
To conclude, the art market has, since its establishment, witnessed continuous transformation, either inflicting changes or being changed by social, political or economic groups or movements. With the last lecture by Ronit Milano we have arrived at the cautious attempts to understand our own current situation and the transformation we are an immediate part of. Platforms like TIAMSA gain their raison d’être precisely out of this discursive analyses. By bringing together different academic fields and enabling broad interdisciplinary discourse between them, we might arrive at a more complete understanding of our own times and transformations and consequently be able to act towards a more just future for all.
Pol Edinger has completed a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature at the university of Vienna. He then switched to Art History and is currently writing his master’s thesis about semiological and structralist readings of Cubism at the Institute for Art History of the University of Vienna.