Using Andy Warhol’s quote, “Good business is the best art”, as the tag line for one of its last exhibits of the decade, The Tate Modern’s Pop Art: Art in a Modern World, examines a growing phenomenon in the art world that seems to have culminated over that last ten years. Thanks to artists like Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, and Damien Hirst, not to mention dealers like Charles Saatchi, good business does indeed seem to be the best art – at least judging by the new breed of millionaire artists. If anything, business-savvy artists and art dealers of the twenty-first century have taken Warhol’s axiom a giant step further: Good business may be the best art, but self-creation is the best business.
What is it about the 00’s that has led to artists and their dealers creating themselves as marketable brands? Let’s begin with the premise that art is a reflection of our society and make a quick overview of the last ten years.
Backtrack to December 31, 1999 and the Y2K bug – the cryptically sinister name given to the apocalyptic computer bug of doom that loomed ominously at the end of our millennium countdown. Nothing happened and we breathed a collective sigh of relief and then came the onslaught of 9/11 followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose horror has been compounded by the Orwellian overtones of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security. Add to this a global economic recession, not to mention natural disasters like the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and global warming. Oh, and did I mention the disintegrating line between private and public; and being detained and tortured without reason?
Bali, Madrid, London, and, most recently, the Northwestern flight from Amsterdam to Detroit… none of this necessarily shocks us anymore. What was once unthinkable has become thinkable. 9/11 has torpedoed our consciousness into the uncomfortable realization that an act of terror could happen anywhere. Welcome to the decade of vulnerability.
Far from leading us to cower in some safe corner, however, our vulnerability has led us straight into the realm of self-creation. Huxley’s Brave New World has become Create Your Own World. Compounding this are self-creation facilitators like YouTube, Facebook, the RMB video game (or the Nintendo DS dating game Love Plus that is responsible for at least one inter-marriage between plain Joe real man and virtual hot babe). And what about the unthinkable reality that someone like Sarah Palin stood (stands?) a chance of becoming President of the United States (just read about it in Going Rogue) while the father of her grandchild gets ready to strip for Playgirl? Just consider one of the biggest movies in the last month of this last decade – Avatar – the motherload of alternate-egos and alternate realities. Hmmm… let’s see… live my uneventful life in a wheelchair or close my eyes and become the revered leader of a people?
Is it any wonder, then, that the best-known artists and art dealers of today are branded celebrities who openly promote themselves and their art? Piero Manzoni may have shocked a few people with his 1961 series of Merde d’artista, but today’s superstar artists are past that. Shocking audiences just to shock them is passé. Shocking audiences to create your “brand” is in. Artists now put their brand on restaurants and haute-couture fashion labels while dealers and collectors open their own museums. Andy Warhol may have been what Robert Rosenblum called the court painter of the 70’s, but we, and our artists/art dealers, have become the court painters of ourselves.