Who Runs the Artworld

In this collection of essays, editors Brad Buckley and John Conomos have assembled an impressive set of authors, including Amelia Jones, John Welchman, Bruce Barber and Gregory Sholette. The front cover features a performance protest by Liberate Tate against British Petroleum’s sponsorship of the Tate Britain, ‘Human Cost’, in which a female figure in a foetal position lays in a simulated pool of oil in the interior of the gallery. This provocative image sets the agenda for the themes inside and, in this respect, 'Who Runs the Artworld' may be considered a parallel tome to Naomi Klein’s 'This Changes Everything' (2014). Collectively, the response to the question, 'who runs the artworld?' takes a decidedly activist bent.

The book is organised into three sections under the headings of Money, Power and Ethics. Under Part I: Money, Gregory Sholette, author of the influential Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (2010), reprises Carol Duncan’s 1983 essay, from which the book takes its title. Paying homage to Duncan, and other critical thinkers, Lucy Lippard and artist-critic Hans Haacke, Sholette tracks how their insights into artworld industrialisation and control paved the way for his own concept of artistic “dark matter” – a flipping of Duncan’s concern for the “waste of thousands of failed artists” into the positive concept of a creative pool of excess energy supporting alternative art circuits from a base of dark or informal economies.

Also in the section on Money, Bruce Barber’s essay models the artworld on the Wall Street logistics of a giant Ponzi scheme, supported at its base by an underclass of volunteer artists and underpaid art workers.

Countering with an alternative economic model to Wall Street, John Welchman draws on rebate politics and Mauss’ theories of the gift through a focus on two key artworks: Mike Kelley’s ‘More Love Hours That Can Ever Be Repaid’ (1987) and the Art Rebate project (by Louis Hock, Elizabeth Sisco and David Avalos, an untitled group of artists). Welchman devotes considerable analysis to the 1993 exhibition La Frontera/The Border, for which the Art Rebate artists redistributed $4500 of their $5000 project grant money from the Centro Cultural Raza and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, to undocumented immigrant workers in the form of 450 10-dollar bills signed by the artists.

Highlights of Part II: Power, include Juli Carson’s “Libidinal Economies”, which reflects on “art in the age of bull markets”. This includes an analysis of artist collective Strike Debt, which intervened directly into the Wall Street markets by purchasing bad debt in the secondary debt market in order to absolve defaulted debtors. Their action exposed the market practice whereby bad debt is sold for pennies to rapacious debt collectors who, in turn, extract even more interest and costs from hapless defaulters. Carson describes Strike Debt’s aim of breaking the cycle whereby “one person’s debt is another person’s profit”.

Adam Geczy tracks the historical rise of curators as a new hybrid of scholar, cataloguer and creator of cultural knowledge, including a reflection on the “soft politics” of contemporary curatorial practices in our era of “High Art Lite”. Engaging the thinking of Nietszche and Lacan to argue the ethical case for curatorial subversion – the “curatorial delinquency” proposed by Buckley and Conomos – he analyses the disingenuous double plays of contemporary corporate sponsorship, and recalls the revolutionary and genuinely critical modes of curatorship of the 1930s, when Alfred Barr Jr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, created the critically productive “laboratory ethic” of early modernism.

One of the strengths of this collection is that it is not shy of calling its own to account. In Part III: Ethics, Amelia Jones revisits her earlier thinking on the commodification of the artist as fetish, with a critique of the economic substrate masked by performance art, including Marina Abramovic’s contemporary reenactments of her earlier performances. Her arguments extend to other high-profile performance artists, Barney, Emin, Kusama and Beecroft.

In one of the most provocative essays, Ian McLean challenges Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor’s lack of inclusion of contemporary Indigenous art of the Pacific into the many high-profile international exhibitions he has curated. Acknowledging Enwezor’s enormous contribution in brokering contemporary African art onto the world stage in the 1990s, and the importance of Enwezor’s critique of Westernism, McLean is nonetheless disturbed by Enwezor’s oversight of Indigenous art.

Tracing Enwezor’s personal journey “from colonised Indigenous to postcolonial national citizen to transnational cosmopolitan”, McLean makes a clear and sympathetic appraisal of what he views as Enwezor’s political turn from the perceived colonialist primitivism of pre-World War Two Indigenous African art to African modernism and, currently, to global transculturalism. However, as McLean convincingly argues, this has left Enwezor with a suspicion towards the contemporary Indigenous art of the settler nations of the Pacific – Australia, New Zealand and Canada – a serious curatorial oversight.

Overall, this collection of essays is highly recommendable for its charting of the actions of forward-thinking activist artists and art collectives within the broad context of neoliberalism’s pervasive economic influence and, further, for situating these practices within extended theoretical debates that draw on modernist art history, contemporary art theorists, and seminal philosophers, such as Marx, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Adorno, Mauss, Lyotard and Žižek.

Who Runs the Artworld: Money, Power and Ethics
Edited by Brad Buckley and John Conomos
Oxfordshire: Libri Publishing, 2017

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 42, 2018

Gatekeeping & Ethics in a Globalised Artworld
16 + 17 August 2019
National Gallery of Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne


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