Today from our friends at Guernica, we bring you an excerpt from Alex Zafiris’ recent interview with Ben Davis. Zafiris notes: “As with all empires, the art world is driven by money. What differentiates it, at least in some cases, is its very particular set of values.” This interview was originally published on October 1, 2014.
Artwork by William Powhida, from the cover of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class by Ben Davis.
In 2010, Ben Davis, a young art critic and regular contributor to Art Papers, ArtReview, Adbusters, The Brooklyn Rail, Slate, and the Village Voice, produced a pamphlet, “9.5 Theses on Art and Class,” that pointed out that the discussion of artist economics had stagnated. In it, he boldly outlines the paradoxes and struggles inherent in the art world through the lens of class. Last year, he published his first book, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, named for and containing the original pamphlet, alongside a collection of essays on politics, inequality, commerce, and hipster aesthetics in art. He posits that artists are middle-class creative laborers, only mildly distinct from their non-artist peers in that their autonomy stems from a singular, individual talent.
Guernica: The ongoing, central tension of the art empire is that between creativity and money. The parameters of this conflict vary wildly, depending on whom you speak to. Can you define it from your personal point of view?
Ben Davis: I guess I’d challenge the premise of the question. I don’t think that the ongoing tension of the “art empire”—if by this we mean the top tier of the international “art world,” museums, galleries, and auction houses—is actually between money and creativity, in the sense that there is a hard choice between what sells and artists getting to express themselves in some authentic creative way.
That certainly happens, and the very rich control the art market, which means a minority taste—often a pretty stupid and crass taste—has a disproportionate amount of influence over what succeeds. But throughout history, the very rich have also patronized, funded, and wanted to associate themselves with creative things. If things were as simple as the equation “success = corruption” then you wouldn’t need criticism.
Guernica: Artistic practice is most often defined as a privileged activity, whereas “creative expression” is something that transcends social, political, and economic barriers. What kind of traction does exceptional individual power—charisma, talent, skill, unusual perspective—really have? Who/what is the authority?
Ben Davis: I mean, this only becomes an issue because some people actually make their living off of their creativity, and what’s more, some people who make their living off their creativity, contemporary artists, seem to get a particularly good deal. Otherwise, it would be enough to say that, well, we all are creative in our own ways, what’s wrong with that?
But that having been said, there’s a whole interesting debate right now about whether creative labor actually is a “privileged” activity. There’s very much this sense that the “privilege” of art is being used to seduce people into doing work for free, to get away with not paying people who are creating something of value, and who have to survive.
Read the full article here.