The ‘Art World’ consists of ‘Artists’, those who generate ‘Art’, and everyone else who interacts, directly or indirectly, with the artists and their art for the purposes of showing, critiquing, selling, buying, collecting, promoting, educating, theorizing, researching, documenting, supporting, funding, archiving … etc., etc., etc.
The great mass of the players in this world operate ‘in the small’, both geographically and financially and in terms of reputation and recognition. These are the local artists, local art clubs, local art show venues, local critics. All of them operate on a shoestring; few of them can operate without the equivalent of a ‘day job’. As a consequence theses players move in and out of the Art World as financial circumstances dictate. These players are “in it” mostly for something other than financial reward, mostly for self-gratification and the opportunity to interact with and be stroked by like minded people. Few of the players in this part of the world will make it to the Major Leagues. Only a relatively few even seriously try.
A very small percentage of players in the “Art World” make up the elite, the Major League players if you will. The elite are, for the most part, an international set that enjoys reputation and recognition that span the major art centers around the globe. They are connected to each other in a complex web of promotion, patronage, and celebrity. Those in the Majors actually make a full time living–some even very comfortably so–by their involvement in Art as artists, as critics, as educators, and as directors and curators of the Art World’s most important galleries and museums. Of course it is the Big Money of the ultra-rich collectors, both individual and institutional, that makes possible the easy living in this rarified part of the Art World.
The component of the Art World that deals with the buying and selling of Art (the money side of Art) is generally referred to as the Art Market. This component is so large a part of the Art World that the term Art Market is sometimes used interchangeably with Art World.
The term ‘Art Market’ conjures up a sort of King Sooper’s kind of place where clientele of all walks of life wander in, pick over the art work, gently rap the sculptures listening for just the right sound, fill their carts with those things they must have, perhaps toss in a few impulsive buys, and then, while queuing in a purely classless line for first-come-first-serve checkout, peruse the tabloid rack for juicy art world gossip headlines–“MoMA gives birth to alien Picasso!!” Nothing could be further from the truth.
A better term than ‘Art Market’, and thus a better analogy than a food supermarket, would be ‘Art Department Stores’. For unlike supermarkets, but very much like how the money side of the Art World operates, department stores are tiered into a many-layered, status-conscious, class-focused, pecking order. The lower tiers of the Art Market, just like its counterparts in the department stores hierarchy, operate pretty much within geographical boundaries and deal in high volumes but low margins. On the other hand, the very high end of both structures serves an international clientele, is rooted in a few major international cities, most notably New York, London, Paris, and Berlin, and deals in low volumes but very high margins–BigMoney. It is this Big Money that keeps the high end of the Art World spinning; it is Big Money that keeps the major players engaged, and Big Money that motivates the minor league players in the Art World to try out for the ‘Bigs’.
This line of thinking then begs the questions: ‘Who?’ gets to say that this artist, but not that one, is important; ‘Who?’ gets to say that this Art, but not that, is special; ‘Who?’ gets to discover the previously unknown minor leaguer, and promote him to the Majors.
If one follows Roland Barthes’ approach then the answer is easy, the answer is: ‘you and me’. The answer gets more complicated when social theorists weight in. A Marxist critic like Martha Rosler would say it’s the capitalist-controlled Art Market that has the final say. Other critics would make the argument, as Christopher Phillips did for the photography Art World, that it’s the major institutions of Art–the major international Art museums and galleries–that make the call. Actually, if one considers both the low and high ends of the Art Market, all three answers may be correct.
Those that can only afford to buy low end art buy such art to decorate their lives, and hence they can make the ‘Is it Art?’ call with their hearts. Like Barthes, they can look at an Art piece for whatever punctum, if any, is there for them. However, the high end of the Art Market is different. As Rosler points out, the high end serves a different ‘audience’ (to use her term), and this audience buys Art more for investment reasons and status than as a way to scratch any aesthetic or decorative itch.
The real question for the high end market is not ‘Who?’ gets to say whether ‘this piece is Art’ (or not), the question that really matters at the high end is instead ‘Is he a major Artist?’ High rollers buy the Artist, not the Art. The Art is the investment; the ‘right’ Artist insures that the investment is sound. And here is where I think Phillips has it right. The high end market players, dealers, buyers, sellers–the whole lot–require a universally accepted compass to keep everyone on the same page, to keep everyone pointed to the same true north. Hence the high end of the Art Market looks to the major Art institutions to identify the major league Artists, those whose Art has been decreed to be important, precious, timeless, and to be coveted.