An experimental approach
to an exhibition 

A Guessing Game of Prices

Art criticism? That’s done and over with, a friend—a passionate and dedicated art critic of several decades—tells me. Professionals like her can’t hold their ground against the market anymore. She is not resigned, but she recognizes the way relationships between the market and art present themselves in the new art world order between Beijing, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, Basel, London, and New York. These relationships attest to the hunger and need for art as a matter of lifestyle and celebrity, but not for the sort of art which we as children of the Western version of modernity would describe as critical. Another acquaintance of mine, who works as an art critic, tries to enumerate how many truly independent art critics still exist in the German-speaking world who can make a living as critics in the strictest sense and who do not have to hire themselves out as curators, catalogue writers, gallery copywriters, and speechwriters, or have to accept other odd jobs in the art and media business, or have to tap secret reserves. He cannot think of anyone but himself, and he also leads a truly precarious existence.

Of course, art criticism still leaves its scent marks. It marks and ennobles the ever more self-confident fairs and biennials, which demonstrate with a critical text or a critical symposium that they have understood the antiauthoritarian lesson of self-reflection. Self-criticism has become part of every opening weekend—but it should please refrain from being truly hurtful, and, more importantly, from questioning the whole charade. Traditionally, public institutions such as museums or art associations and public galleries were meant to be a counterforce to the market. That which need not be marketable should have room in these institutions. However, they have encountered more and more obstacles in their “relationship work,”1 pressured, among others, by the voracity for events and sales numbers and simultaneous sermons about the importance of art as a critical corrective. Institutional criticism has become a standard of ostensibly critical exhibition practice, often brought into position at least rhetorically, taking account of the blurring lines between political activism, artistic practice, and social interventionism—or at least wishing to give itself the appearance of doing so. However, the freedom of the White Cube to deal with complex and frequently contradictory phenomena such as disagreement in the process of participation is bought with an almost unbreakable sense of self-sufficiency. Many questions posed in the interiors of the well-guarded museum, at times with great vehemence and persistence, are only posed and answered right there and do not find their way into a heterogeneous, broader public. At the same time, the act of glancing at one’s own criticality functions as an indicator of one’s own progressiveness.

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Competition for criticality creates not only meaningful distinctions, but also new exclusions and delineations. Whoever produces and reproduces critical art and its discourses always runs the risk of becoming a mere template oneself, whose replication hinders, rather than encourages, the criticism of a criticism that is becoming stale. Sometimes the line between a standard of (institutional) criticism and a standard empty phrase is very thin indeed. Upon taking office, few museum directors, few gallery directors, would miss an opportunity to announce a critical treatment of their collection, the canon, contemporary art, and society in general, and to loudly protest the invasiveness of market mechanisms in a time when public funds are dwindling. However, if one takes a closer look at the exhibition programming, one notices how normal it has become to put private collections on view in public museums, and for these shows to then manipulate the market value of the works on view and to advertise the collector’s name. How normal it has become for large galleries to (help to) establish not only the names and prices, but also the exhibition policies in public institutions. And how normal it is for public institutions to bow to the partially self-imposed pressure of quotas and success, which suggests those very same questionable solutions as a consequence of art marketing.

Conversely, semi-commercial events such as biennials, which are integrated in the city and regional marketing and have expanded significantly in recent years, or purely commercial enterprises such as large galleries, fairs, or auction houses, are learning from art historians—and critics. They scholarize their own enterprises by employing internal curators and art-historically trained specialists equipped with the critical vocabulary of the hour. In comparison with public institutions, some of which have been budgeted to death, these offerings are increasingly appealing and therefore contribute to the symbolic upgrading of the distributed art products, which may in turn have a positive effect on the price and thus recoup the costs of discursive embellishments.

On the other hand, one has to be careful not to fall for a romanticizing of true art as the evil market’s Other. Separating art and market is a purity fiction based on an idealization of art and its absolute autonomy. Art is only relatively autonomous. It does not act apart from the market, much like it does not exist apart from the world. Rather, an entanglement with the market is the price it needs to pay for its release from the dependency on court or church clients (who, by the way, also liked to pay with money). But art had a special relationship with the market—to whose singularity all relevant actors on the art market2 contribute in the end. This relationship can only be described as paradoxical. It is art’s refusal to be a commodity like everything else which renders it a special commodity; the inherent and discursively supported criticism of the triviality of exchange relationships is an essential part of the suggested value, which in turn contributes to the price formation in the market. “Market phobia is good for business,” writes art critic Isabelle Graw and suggests terming the symbolic value distinguishing art from other commodities as the price of the priceless.

The complex interconnection of art, market, and criticism also leads to some attempts to make plausible the pricing for high-end art products, often viewed as miraculous and with a certain fascination, with references to production costs, mastership and uniqueness as in haute cuisine or haute couture. Additionally, today’s art world presents itself as an attractive stage for more and more people with money and/or other capital, since artist criticism of instrumental-rational society has been so successful that today everyone wants or needs to be creative in one way or another. Analogous to fetishizing brands, logos, and celebrities, playing with names and the abbreviation of what they ought to mean becomes a foundation of business. Whoever goes to the Art Basel or Frieze in London nowadays is able not only to purchase art advertised as “exquisite,” or disdainful capital assets in the form of objects, but also to participate in a lifestyle that includes the right parties and acquaintances and is considered sexy and glamorous.

Not only can one purchase flaming images against capitalism and its racist, sexist, economic, and ecological warps at such large fairs, but there are also works available which are not even works in the traditional sense and, therefore, represent the current development stage of commodity and object subversion.3 Nowadays, there is even a market for activity instructions for the ephemeral situations constructed by Tino Sehgal, which leave nothing but a memory. The permission to perform them under highly regulated conditions reportedly cost up to 100,000 Euro. Sehgal’s art is fleeting; it promises no permanent value and, therefore, no good investment. It is fragile.

FRAGILE is also the name of an unusual exhibition. It shows homogeneously designed, off-the-shelf art-handling cases, adjusted to the various formats of the works and stacked in the exhibition space to look like a skyline. The cases are only labeled with numbers and indicate neither the artists’ names nor the artworks. Only a plate with an artist list gives the names of the participants, but there is no list of works.

Nevertheless, visitors are able to buy the works that were waiting in the cases for their next destination. With this, of all times in the course of the financial crisis, the market finds its way back, albeit for a short time, to the arbitrariness of pricing, of which the art market is always accused. After all, one never truly knows why and when which price manifests exactly, and that is the appeal of speculation and the adventurous rumors about ludicrously expensive images, the thrill of which lies in the very impermanence of the sums. 

The hidden works in FRAGILE are for sale. At the same time, visitors almost inevitably discuss the relationship between the sublime value and the literal price of art. Both concepts originate from individual estimations which, however, have to be socially vetted and approved. The acknowledgement of others is needed in order to assess the symbolic value of a work of art, which exceeds the mere private cult value. In order to determine the price of a work of art, which often seems so arbitrary, certain market conditions and, with them, a social situation between vendor and potential buyers have to exist.

FRAGILE is a minimalistic installation with serial elements which toys with pairs of opposites. At the same time, the exhibition refers to the concepts of storage and transit, to the place of production and the location of presentation, to sameness in art in its attribution of substance as an aesthetic object and its endless difference of form, hidden away in handling cases. Therefore, FRAGILE ultimately presents itself as an act of thinking about the fragility of trust relationships bundled up in money and value ideals. In the end, the price is predetermined and substantiated by the prestige of the art expertise of those involved. Buyers purchase a proverbial pig in a poke. A pig, however, which is known to be alive and kicking. (Thomas Edlinger)

1  This was the subtle title of the 2011 exhibition about the relationship between art and institutions in the Künstlerhaus, Vienna.

2  Such as, for instance, artists, collectors, galleries, museums, conservators, restorers, appraisers, exhibitions which increase the value of the works, the secondary auction market, and the accompanying discourse of critics, who may even be allergic to the market.

3 This subversion has had many ramifications since the thunderbolt that was Marcel Duchamp’s urinal—ranging from the subsequent avant-gardist furor bolstered by manifestos to the grotesqueness of post-situationist neoism’s complete refusal of everything, which describes itself as “a prefix and a suffix with nothing in between.”

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An experimental approach to an exhibition
Idea, concept: Gregor Eggenberger & Nela Eggenberger

BAWAG P.S.K. Contemporary, Franz Josefs Kai 3, 1010 Vienna
November 28 – December 15, 2013

With works by:

Georg Aerni, Irene Andessner, Jordi Bernadó, Stéphane Couturier, Christoph Dahlhausen, Jan De Cock, Peter Dressler, Lorenz Estermann, Thomas Florschuetz, Thomas Freiler, G.R.A.M., Manfred Grübl, Markus Guschelbauer, Nan Hoover, Hermann Huber, Judith Huemer, Lukas M. Hüller, Helmut & Johanna Kandl, Herwig Kempinger, Anastasia Khoroshilova, Jürgen Klauke, Sigrid Kurz, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Tatiana Lecomte, Paul Albert Leitner, Marko Lipuš, Edgar Lissel, Ernst Logar, Anja Manfredi, Ángel Marcos, Brian McKee, Sissa Micheli, Mihael Milunović, Julie Monaco, Gerhardt Moswitzer, Walter Niedermayr, Markus Oberndorfer, Ona B., Roman Pfeffer, Klaus Pichler, Wolfgang Raffesberg, Arnulf Rainer, Aura Rosenberg, Simona Rota, Gregor Sailer, Eva Schlegel, Werner Schrödl, Elfie Semotan, Paul M. Smith, Kamen Stoyanov, Michael Strasser, Jeanne Szilit, Borjana Ventzislavova, Massimo Vitali, Anita Witek, Andrea Witzmann, Erwin Wurm, Robert Zahornicky, Gregor Zivic, Leo Zogmayer