Conference Review: Art & Market: Alienation or Emancipation?

Art & Market: Alienation or Emancipation? (St. Gallen, November 2016)

International congress organised by the Research committee Sociology of Arts and Culture (RC‐SAC) of the Swiss Sociological Association and the Institute of Sociology of the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland)

Organising committee: Andrea GLAUSER (UNILU), Olivier MOESCHLER (UNIL), Valérie ROLLE (LSE) and Franz SCHULTHEIS, Patricia HOLDER, Thomas MAZZURANA (UNISG) Scientific committee: the above‐mentioned persons and Jens KASTNER (Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna), Alain QUEMIN (University Paris VIII) and Ulf WUGGENIG (Leuphana University, Lüneburg).

Review by:

Anne-Sophie Radermecker (Free University of Brussels, Asp. FNRS);  email :

The international congress Art & Market: Alienation or Emancipation?, organised by the Research Committee Sociology of Arts and Culture (RC‐SAC), was held in St. Gallen, from November 17-18, 2016. This two-day conference saw nearly 30 participants mainly from Swiss and European academic institutions, and covered a wide variety of art market studies, with over 26 papers declined through 6 sessions. Based on a sociological approach, the program brought together junior and senior researchers from a wider range of disciplines to discuss the art market in a broad sense, including fine arts, creative and cultural industries (Frankfurt School), music trade, and cultural policies to re-address their reciprocal relationships with the market. The conference guideline relied on the assumption that the market plays an ambivalent role in the sociological analysis of the art worlds, especially since it evolves between two opposing and conflicting notions of alienation and emancipation, inherited from Bourdieu and Becker’s theories. Presentations were given with the intention of finding out the specific conditions and configurations that contribute to these processes of servitude or liberation from the market, by considering fundamental notions such as originality, nonconformity, authenticity, and criticism.

The first afternoon took place at the Militärkantine. After a welcome address by Olivier Moeschler (UNIL), session 1 (Reflexive ambivalence. Self-discourses of Artists and the Art Market) examined the artist’s professional career and his self-positioning in a globalized art market, by focusing on contemporary artists and jazz/popular musicians. Speakers successively discussed the artist’s perception – as a ‘culturepreneur – of the current configurations of the art system, as well as his relationship with the audience and demand, his willingness to adapt his own behaviour and creativity to deliberately follow or avoid the market’s leading trends, and his choice to differentiate himself by adopting a personal positioning toward the art world. All three presentations pointed out the selective process in which art is engaged in such socio-economic context. One particularly interesting remark concerned the difficulty for sociologists to apprehend the artist’s subjectivity – when claiming his autonomy against the market system, for instance – which may not concretely reflect his living situation.

Session 1 was followed by a keynote given by U. Wuggenig and S. Rudolph ((Leuphana Universität Lüneburg) who debated the relative autonomy of contemporary art in a context of economization and financialization. Their findings showed that the current star-system in which this market segment is engaged tends to cause a misleading bias of the exact nature of a market regulated by superstar artists and critics. Session 2, chaired by Prof. F. Schultheis dealt with the figures of authors (writers, musicians, singers) by considering the impact of prizes on the artists’ careers, strategies, reputations and perspectives. They also questioned how the market responds to strong media coverage in terms of sales, and how the public’s critical reception is affected by super production.

Day 2 took place at the University of St. Gallen and was mainly dedicated to the contemporary art market and major actors (artists, art galleries, art fairs, etc.) who work to support and develop this field. The third opening session (Cultural workers. Art as Market and as Industry) was probably the most heterogeneous of all. Several issues were discussed, such as, the way the market succeeds in imposing mental representations to purchasers through its discourse (especially for Old Masters Paintings), the individualization of the artist in the  context of monetary economy as a way to differentiate himself (in the case of Early Modern Japan), the stratification of cultural and creative workers’ experiences in the labour market, and, finally, how the process of deaccessioning by museums may enhance or affect the intrinsic value of art objects in the art world. Both notions of experience and representation – which influence art pieces and artists alike throughout their individual life courses – were linked by these four lectures. Each showed how these dynamics are positively or negatively conditioned by the market’s structure.

The next keynote speaker was Prof. A. Quemin (Université Paris-8) whose aim was to reassess Raymonde Moulin’s theory concerning the creation of art value. For his presentation, he paid special attention to a method of sociological analysis – chiefly relevant for art market studies – used previously to classify leading Paris-based art galleries in a ranking, published in Le Journal des Arts during FIAC 2016. This points-based system designates specific values to the galleries’ presence and activity in relation to important events (such as attendance to art fairs) in order to measure their objective weight in the Parisian landscape. He pointed out the necessity of practicing participant observation in order to be welcomed in the art world as a colleague, above all. Those trustworthy relationships allow researchers to collect informal information that are sometimes more significant than the classical data collected during scholarly interviews.

Session 4 (Marketable Art. Galleries and Gallery Owners as Central Intermediaries) attempted to rationalize the collective profile, modus operandi, and field of specialization of these key actors and organizations by categorising them into definite groups. Numerous similitudes were pointed out, regardless of the national context in which these actors are engaged.

During lunchtime the organizers arranged for a guided tour of St. Gallen University, renowned for its impressive collection of modern and contemporary art by Gerhard Richter, Alexander Calder, Pierre Soulages and Modigliani, and others. All works were on display in the central building of the campus. The apparent absence of security measures made this display particularly enjoyable.

Session 5 (Art and Capital. Art Fairs and other Platforms) started in the afternoon with the presentation of F. Schultheis and T. Mazzurana’s research, recently published in a book entitled “When Art Meets Money” (2015), consisting of an in-depth anthropological study of Art Basel. Paying specific attention to the notion of ‘space’ and its strategic management in an art fair, Schultheis and Mazzurana reassessed a lesser-known bourdieusian concept dedicated to this notion and confirmed its relevance in 2016. Other speakers insisted on the importance of collective entrepreneurship and innovative social spaces (art events, art spaces, etc.) in the emancipation of local economies and their edification as creative centres.

The day’s last keynote speaker rightly returned to the use of artificial index and ranking in the art worlds. Arguing that these indicators actually do help to better understand the current paradigm of the art market, N. Moureau (Université Paul-Valéry – Montpellier 3) also outlined several limitations of such rankings, such as the underlying subjectivity that steers the construction of these tools, the need for transparency in methodology and data used, and the fact that rankings are not representative of a global market as they do not include the private sector.

The sixth and closing session (Reductive assessments. Rankings, Expertise, Potential) was directly related to the previous issue. Based on case studies, it gave an overview of the complexity of intangible regulatory mechanisms (quantifying observations, algorithmic intermediation, realization of individual potentials) that govern the current economy of the art worlds and tend to shape the artistic creativity and, more broadly, our taste and cultural practices.

The conference ended with a visit of the Sitterwerk in the Sittertal (, a fascinating industrial site specializing in bronze casting, where the art world (artists, craftspeople, scientists) meets the art market; this relevant activity closed an ambitious and well-organised congress. Art & Market: Alienation or Emancipation? was indeed successful in its diversity and richness of content and in the sharing of yet unpublished materials and findings. The overt emphasis on the contemporary art scene succeeded in shedding light on new questions, distinct from those provided by a strictly historical perspective. The supply side was, however, more carefully examined than the demand, as key actors such as purchasers, collectors, and the public were hardly considered. Similarly, there was more emphasis on the creator than the art object, which is not surprising given that the conference was based on a sociological approach. However, this perspective might be considered misleading in light of the conference’s title.

A particularly interesting aspect of the conference was its transnational viewpoint as some papers addressed both globalized and emerging art markets such as Dubai, Thailand, or Singapore. Moreover, the recurrent use of common methodology based on empirical qualitative analysis and ethnographic materials allowed for constructive debates between the attendants. There was, however, a regretful lack of general panel discussions on underlying topics connecting all the presentations. Questions were individually addressed to speakers, without consistently and concretely considering the two core subjects, the notions of emancipation and alienation, which were sometimes left unmentioned during panels. Some concluding remarks would have elucidated all these issues while strengthening the coherence of the two days.

Other interesting relevant topics emerged from each panel but were also left without further development. Two examples: the changing perception that actors have of an object’s value during the different phases of its career inside the art market; and the recurring need for the market to build artificial typologies (of taste, artists, galleries, etc.) that affects the way we look at the market and conduct our research on it. The tension between subjectivity and objectivity (i.e. subjective and objective culture, value, (self)-positioning, etc.) in a monetary art market was also mentioned throughout the conference and remains an interesting subject that deserves further reflexion.

Abstracts and photos of the conference are available on the official website: