Student Blog: 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. Belvedere 21 was originally built as the Austrian Pavilion for the 1958 World Fair in Brussels and was later transferred to its present location where it opened as a museum for contemporary art in 1962.

All in all there were 12 talks on this day. What follows 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 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 noted at the start, 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 centuries, 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. A painting representing a typical Dutch house by François Bunell even shows 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 in terms of execution and the materials used. 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 and in the conduct of the artist. It also creates 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 by looking at inventory lists of deceased persons which were created to document their estate. In doing so it is possible to confirm the observations of travellers to the Dutch Republic who were amazed to see that pictures were present almost everywhere. 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. He arranged the informations gathered from the inventories by ranking individual houses according to their number of rooms. Ordered like this, the data show that the higher classes, disposing over more rooms per household, boasted the highest increase in the number of paintings in their possession over a given period, yet the poorer households nonetheless also acquired more and more pictures over this period. The evaluation of the inventories’ data demonstrates the remarkable presence of paintings in Dutch society. What becomes clear is that the inclination for buying art is not only connected to the economic situation, even if the latter provides one core reason for the boom. However, the Dutch art markets were booming for several additional reasons and Filip Vermeylen concluded very rightfully, that – in order to complete our understanding of these developments – we a need platforms like TIAMSA which can bring people from different academic fields together, thus enabling a productive interdisciplinary discourse.

Filip Vermeylen’s lecture was followed by Lukas Fuchsgruber’s 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 transformation that shaped the city in the 19th century. But the Hôtel Drouot was not only part of the “urban fabric” as a building.

Hôtel Drouot, Paris

From 1805, the state controlled all auctions, only allowing officially certified persons to hold and supervise them. In Paris, eighty auctioneers supervised every single auction. This of course led 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 symbol of the capitalist society, it also fundamentally changed the social appreciation of art and other commodities. On the lower floors of the Drouot, auctions of objects of everyday life took place, while on the highest floor, in an exquisitely decorated room, luxury items were sold. The Drouot is a place of public discourse, commerce and capitalism but also offered the possibility of merely looking at art. Thus, the public was able to enter the sphere of the auctions which formerly had only been accessible to the elites. Along with the fact that artists also began developing specific strategies to successfully exhibit and sell their works at auctions (some of which were especially painted for these sales), 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 not only part of the urban fabric as a building, but just as much of the social urban fabric of 19th century Paris.

After this lecture, combining an economic with an art historical approach by assessing an auction house and its development with partly sociological questions, Clarissa Ricci, Postdoc Fellow at the Iuav University in Venice, presented her research on the Venice Biennale of 1970 with a contribution entitled „The production of art in the age of political practice. Venice Biennale 1970”. The 1970 Biennale was massively influenced by the student protests of the late 1960s, resulting in a fundamental reformation of the Venice Biennale’s core structures. Ricci’s detailed reconstruction of the events was highly stimulating.

As the Milano Triennale of 1968 was subject to aggressive student protests during which works were damaged or even destroyed, the atmosphere preceding the opening of the 1968 Venice Biennale was tense. 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 only directed against the sales department of the Biennale, but rather demanded a fundamental reform of the Biennale’s format. These turbulences finally led to reforms which were slowly implemented in the two years leading up to the 1970 Biennale. A committee assembly of fifty people worked on these changes, insisting for example on direct democratic participation and the abolishment of the price indications next to the works. Different rooms were specially designated to enable meetings, discourse and the exchange of ideas. One could even visit the ateliers of the artists 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 their enhanced exposure. Counteracting this, the organisers wanted to protect the artists and their rights to their own work, 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 a 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”. Following a chronological path, the section thus arrived in the present with a look at online auction houses and their impact on the structures of the art market.

The Internet promises a process of democratisation. Key arguments in favour of that promise are the web’s global scale and the fact that origin or affiliation to a certain social class do not limit the individual’s movements in it. But this is only one side as we cannot overlook the power with which pop culture is dominating the internet’s 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 based on sheer 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 that this is exemplified by 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 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 most of the artworks sold and bought via Artsy come from the bottom price section with works costing up to 50‘000 $ – which is not true of 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 through online transactions. Even if capital is – at the moment – still unequally divided among „Millennials“ and the older generation and even if the older generation prefers physical auction situations, time will pass and the younger generation will eventually take the lead. This may then institutionalise their buying behaviour as status quo. An important criteria must be kept in mind, however: minor participants in the market of bigness will tend to simply accept what the powerful in that market decide and do – a pattern of behaviour which counters democratic practices, resulting in the opposite of a democratisation of the online art market. Milano concluded, 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 transformations surrounding us. Platforms like TIAMSA gain their raison d’être precisely out of such 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 on semiological and structralist readings of Cubism at the Institute for Art History of the University of Vienna.