Losing the battle, losing the war

This review was first published in the May 2024 issue of The Critic.

Since at least the 1960s, the art world’s key tenet has been that all art is political. The explicit purpose of artistic practice, therefore, is to change the world. In the art school, art theory promotes critical trends which currently include decolonialism and degrowth. The exhibition programmes of public galleries and museums are as likely to focus on climate change as they are on the plight of migrant workers from the Global South. The distinction between art, art activism, and the political desires of artists has become so blurred that today, all politics can become artistic.

By the art world’s reckoning, this paradigm’s impact on the world has been almost entirely positive. Artists see themselves as society’s moral leaders. Museums are their cathedrals whose altars extol their political virtues. The industry’s international junkets like this summer’s biennial in Venice become forums for progressive debate on topics like dismantling the nation-state. Individual artists like Nan Goldin who campaigned against the Sackler family sponsorship of museums, meanwhile, are celebrated for ending America’s Fentanyl crisis.

These are remarkable success stories until one considers that the art industry, which alongside artists, curators, galleries, and museums also includes collectors, dealers, art fairs, and financiers is a veritable cesspool of hypocrisy, corruption, and abuse. The hold that art has over capital and state power looks rather shaky when its effects are counted in earnest. But the most pernicious effect of aligning art with political activism is that the distinction between the two is lost.

Rachel Spence’s Battle for the Museum is one of a recent spate of books that catch the art world manifesting these contradictions so blatant that they occasionally turn into revolts. Spence, an art journalist and critic who writes chiefly for the Financial Times, enumerates the industry’s excesses and transgression in what reads like an interminable social media thread. The book’s pages are heavily peppered with evidence of art market fraud, the disastrous environmental impact of the global art biennial circuit, and the sector’s rampant exploitation of its labour force. These are by now worn tropes. Spence will surprise no one, for example, when she denounces the art world’s willingness to take cash from oil businesses, disingenuously acknowledges her jet-set complicity in the CO2 emissions problem, and then calls for more climate art while preaching degrowth.

In typical art world fashion, these vignettes – so copious that any outsider will find them bewildering – contrast with a largely unexamined belief in the art world’s underlying universal good. When she celebrates the New York art world’s protests which forced the resignation of the arms dealer Warren Kanders from the Whitney Museum’s board in 2019, Spence is no more able to attribute this success to a moral or political mechanism than when she metaphorically accuses the former Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick of treason for accepting a job as Saudi Arabia’s public art supremo.

It wouldn’t be fair to single out Spence’s account of the art world’s failings as lacking a realistic theory of political power. The writer endorses the feminist scholar Laura Olufemi’s claim that “art is a priori in a state of resistance to capital, misogyny, and racism” and thus excuses herself from having to consider art – the practice around which the industry she describes in such painful detail evolved – as distinct from the art world. Olufemi’s view, which is nearly universally held by today’s art crowd, is peculiar given that the relationship between the good and the beautiful ceased to be a concern for art with the onset of Modernity.

The move from ‘art’ to ‘the art world’ mirrors the social and political rise of the individual. From the artefact, the focus moved to the artist. Spence backs up Olufemi’s dogma with citations from the 19th-century artist, designer, and Arts and Crafts movement founder William Morris. Morris is celebrated for his socialist activism and his ideas of aesthetics have been influential on art’s relationship with politics. Spence, like Morris, would have us believe that all art could be a force for a particular vision of the good if only it were given a chance. She forgot, unfortunately, that even Morris betrayed his political ideals by continuing to profit from the sales of his green wallpapers even after the arsenic used in their production and extracted from a mine he owned was proven to cause death. Art’s politics was deadly long before Kanders’ weapons dealing made him a pariah of the Manhattan art scene.

Spence’s distracting predilection for art world intrigue is typical of the industry in which everyone gets to see themselves on the right side of history. At the book’s outset, the author declares that her thinking about contemporary art began in earnest at the grand opening of Palazzo Grassi, the private museum of billionaire and onetime auction house Christie’s owner François Pinault in Venice. The vast, global machine which creates, adds value, and finally consumes artistic ideas is almost unparalleled in bringing shoulder to shoulder the collecting one per cent, the bourgeoning critical-curatorial classes, and the lowly artist refusés. As it does, it brazenly pretends that these groups are all united in the same political project.

What Spence and the art world’s critical cadres wilfully ignore is that there is no way to exorcise the ghosts of capitalism from art’s institutions. There is no boundary between the artist, the museum, and capital at large and there can be no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ actors without an organising principle that would define the roles of each. Despite bearing the word ‘museum’ in its title, the book thus offers scant insight into the particular nature of these institutions and, like much art world’s activism, resorts to lobbying for technocratic solutions that would mitigate the influence of the ‘bad apples’ like Kanders. She approvingly cites, for example, the Instagram generation’s favourite art critic duo The White Pube’s call to turn Tate into a cooperative and thus cut the director Maria Balshaw’s £165,000 salary in punishment for sacking the museum’s gift shop and café staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Instead of contending with the museum’s (let alone art’s) purpose, Spence looks to the HR department. In an art world reformed in this vision, the welfare of art workers – a collective neologism that puts artists, curators, store technicians, and cleaners in the same bracket entirely evading any earnest questions of labour and class – would be the measure of a museum’s artistic success. In pursuing a politics, the art world abandoned all concern for art in favour of the interests of the new creative-managerial class. There are no artworks in Spence’s museum, and no audience, either.

All the same, Spence has high but muted hopes for this project, as do many of her peers. The book ends with a postscript for Palestine, a cause close to many art activists’ hearts. Their political response to this tragic conflict, however, has amounted to little more than authoritarian in-fighting which has torn apart multiple artistic institutions. One can only hope that this museum ‘battle’ will prompt some reflections on art’s and, indeed, the art world’s political functions.

Battle for the Museum by Rachel Spence is published by Hurst.