How the market made modern art

During the Utrecht conference, I encountered Jeff Taylor, a young American scholar based at the CEU of Budapest,   who was presenting his research on the rise of modernism in Hungarian art. His work is very interesting as it offers a history of art considered as any other business or economic activity. His PhD thesis will be published and to be frank I can’t wait. Here is the insightful interview he granted me this week via email.

Jeff Taylor

Jeff Taylor

1. You are in the art market by trade. Has this experience proved useful for your research?

Yes. I started Hungary’s leading commercial art transportation company over 10 years ago, and sold it two years ago. In the meantime, I also became involved in the trade as what we’d call an art agent, helping clients to purchase art and antiques in Central Europe, either guiding them to sources or bidding for them at auctions. This experience has been immensely useful in my research, both because I’m very familiar with the art world of 100 years ago as this is very much what people want now, and also because it showed me the incredible amount of over-production of artworks at that time.

2. What are the main conclusions of your recent thesis on the 19th-century Hugarian art market?

My essential conclusion is that with the establishment of formal training for artists and salon system for exhibiting, painters began arriving on the market in numbers that could never satisfied by existing means of distribution (mainly the salon). This produced an ever burgeoning Artist Proletariat who constantly sought out new methods of retailing art. First it was a competing salon, then it was galleries. Increasingly, to separate themselves from the mass of painters, artists began to portray themselves in groupings and exhibitions that would proclaim their modern-ness. In other words, the market made modernism. 

3. Do you think it is possible to extend those conclusions to other countries, other periods or other art forms?

Absolutely, I think it’s quite possible to draw similar conclusions from the Paris, Munich, and Viennese art markets.

4. Can you give a few examples?

For example, the artists who formed the Munich Secession  (the first Secession) were not so much Refuses. Rather they were established artists who resented the Glaspalast’s (main salon in Munich) egalitarian policy of letting almost any painting exhibit 3 works, but no more. These founders of the Secession saw themselves as geniuses and rejected the idea of being egalitarian to these kitsch Lederhosen painters. The seceeeded, in other words, so they could be modern genius painters and exhibit their work in appropriate concentrations so the public could appreciate their unique status. In this sense, like in Budapest, Modernism is created to pull the artists above the mass of the artist proletariat.

5. You studied the impact of the economy upon the production of artists, but do you think, like Richard Florida for instance, that artists have a special impact on the economy at large?

I definitely think they do. Concentrations of artists usually drive the creation of galleries, and galleries are essential to successful urban zones, and whenever galleries move in, property values rise. Furthermore, from an urban planning point of view, galleries are important because they’re one kind of retail that will not move to a mall, but generally stay on urban streetfronts, and they add prestige to the surrounding enterprise. A lively gallery zone combined with appropriate nearby restaurants and cafes then create an art and nightlife zone which can become an essential marketing tool for a city to sell itself .

Jeff, thanks a lot and really amazing study!

One Response to How the market made modern art

  1. Trout says:

    Thank you for this interview, I look forward to reading the thesis. As an artist, I’m really interested in how the arts economy developed.

    You mention Richard Florida, and I’m curious what you think generally about his theories? Or maybe a bigger question, how should economic theories deal with non-economic pieces of the picture?
    I’ve written my take here:
    Thank you, I hope to read more about the thesis!

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