/ January 22, 2010

"Price Fixing"

THE FRONT COVER of Isabelle Graw’s new book, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, may sport an image of Madonna with her arm slung around a tux-clad Andy Warhol, but there was precious little glamour in evidence at the volume’s Thursday-night launch. The Goethe-Institut’s intimate Wyoming Building in the East Village was instead packed beyond capacity with a mob of neat, earnest young grad students, a sprinkling of the esteemed theoretician’s high-powered colleagues, and—intriguingly—Miami supercollectors Donald and Mera Rubell. Onstage, Graw was joined by art historian Thomas Crow, drafted to interrogate the Texte zur Kunst cofounder at length following her own presentation. Offstage, she was observed with characteristically hawklike intensity by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and partner, seated up front on chairs that arrived at the last minute with strict instructions to leave well alone.

Goethe-Institut director Gabriele Becker introduced the speakers, pinning the crowd’s size on the fact that Graw was a “brand name” (raised eyebrows from Graw) “very well known in New York.” Beginning stiffly but gradually warming to her theme, Graw outlined a view of the contemporary art market as a “dialectical unity of opposites” or “double game” in which financial value and symbolic value continued to assert their own autonomy while to all intents and purposes operating as a codependent pair. “The justification for ‘price’ is art’s ‘pricelessness,’” she exclaimed by way of example, eliciting a wave of gentle laughter from the crowd. “Is that funny?” she asked in response, seeming genuinely surprised. Arguing that the market had helped pave the way for the current proliferation of branded luxury goods, but also that the hyping of new international art-world capitals was as yet unjustified, Graw observed that “the market is a net enclosing the social,” adding a cheeky reminder that “every net has its holes.”

According to Graw, now growing more emphatic by the minute, the term art is “inherently evaluative” and has never been “an economy-free zone.” Nevertheless, she continued, the special status first claimed for it in the eighteenth century (by Kant et al.) was at least partially justified. “I refuse to believe in art as a mythic unity,” she vowed, “but I do credit some examples with a high degree of epistemological potential.” Any artists in attendance might be forgiven for having felt like the targets of some faint praise indeed, at least until Graw’s belated concession that “artists inject life into things.” “Far be it from me to spread cultural pessimism,” she continued, “I try to designate potential spaces for action.” But wholehearted embrace of celebrity culture was not, she concluded, one such way.

With nary a pause (why bother, since the crammed room was virtually inescapable?), Crow leaned in to press Graw on her purported dissociation from “the lament of cultural critique” (Graw responded that she was attempting to break with the apocalyptic tendency of her Frankfurt School forebears) and to question her dismissal of Jeff Koons as an artist coasting on critical props earned for an earlier body of work. “Pinault, Gagosian, Jacques Chirac,” she spat back. “That’s the exclusive VIP art world in which Koons circulates these days. The ‘Banality’ series was his best because it really broke with the idea that art has a ‘rescuing’ function.” Asked about Koons’s flirtation with celebrity, she lumped him in with “the Britpop artists” (presumably the YBAs, unless Damon Albarn has branched out) and rubbished his ass-kissing strategy: “He smiles into every camera! I’m more interested in artists who refuse such expositions or who try to negotiate their relationship to these conditions in a more dialectical fashion.” But—to Crow’s and the audience’s frustration—she refused to name names. “Read the book,” she plugged.

After some perhaps too quick dilations on the varying power and “impotence” of the critic (“There could be a relation between the poverty—the pathetic fees—and one’s credibility”), they arrived at the Q&A. Some unusually serious—and, in one case, comically long-winded and self-serving—questions from the floor saw Graw emphasize that “the market may still allow some freedom” and declare that, “for me, heteronomy is written large.” Queries came and went and Graw refined her position minutely, but one particular voice from the front row wasn’t about to let her have it all her own way. “Not all practices in the past twenty years succumb to your diagnosis; some maintain criticality,” thundered Buchloh. “To what degree is the totalizing nature of your diagnosis handicapping us from constructing alternate oppositional forms of cultural practice?” Graw, somewhat flustered: “I don’t subscribe to a totalizing view. There is, if you read the third chapter, optimism in my approach! I insist on the possibility to reject these conditions, without denying that they reach into my own practice. I . . . claim . . . agency! Hopefully.”

Images: Left: The display for Isabelle Graw's High Price. Right: Art historian and critic Thomas Crow with critic Isabelle Graw.