“For almost every decade of the 20th century, a new art movement or “ism” developed: Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Conceptual art, Minimalism. So what about the 21st century?” asks Josh Baer in his industry newsletter, the Baer Faxt. “Two decades in and the ‘ism’ that took hold is, in fact, the art market.”
Being an adviser embedded in the New York art trade, Baer would say that. But the question is nonetheless timely, given the ongoing sense of stasis affecting much of the West’s visual arts culture. Meanwhile, global auction sales of contemporary art between July 2020 and June 2021 reached an all-time high of $2.7bn, helped by a 5% boost from NFTs, according to Artprice.
But is it really the case that the 21st century has not yet produced a meaningful art movement? And does it matter?
“After Warhol, art world observers thought in terms of ‘scenes’ more than movements,” says Hal Foster, the professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University, who, along with many others, thinks art movements have had their terminological day. “In the wake of the fast and furious run of movements in the 1960s and 70s, most artists, critics and curators became suspicious of ‘isms’. They seemed to be taken as brands more than as projects.” That said, Foster concedes that “formations” have since emerged, but these should be understood as “conceptual orientations of varied practices, rather than self-declared groups of a select few”.
But call it what you will, wasn’t there something collective going on when, say, the Young British Artists (YBAs) were in their creative pomp at the turn of the century? Or, more recently, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, now that a whole new wave of artists of colour have achieved recognition in the market and in museums?
But the question remains whether these have been coherent artistic movements, or whether these are looser groupings that the market has found profitable to label.
“Institutions are losing their power as framers of art history. The big ‘ism’ of the 21st century is Globalism, because every museum figured out that its claims to universalism were not actually applicable to large portions of the world,” says John Zarobell, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco and the author of the 2017 book Art and the Global Economy. “And the market for contemporary art really took off, making the art of the present in most cases more valuable than the art of the past, so the idea of the art market became dominant.”
Things were different in the early 20th century. Gertrude Stein recalls Picasso in 1903-07 “becoming the head of the movement that was later to be known as the Cubists”. Marinetti, in his 1909 manifesto, asserts “courage, audacity and revolt” will be the “essential elements” of Futurism. Avant-garde artists from this era of momentous technological and political change had a tremendous sense of their own agency. They really did think the art they made could change the world. Now it is the price of art, like the $25.4m recently paid for a half-shredded Banksy, that above all else makes the world take notice, if not actually change.
After Pop art, it no longer made sense to see any one mode of making art as a revolutionary transformation of all that came before itRichard Noble, professor of art
As many critics have observed, the avant-garde seems to have run out of gas. “After Pop art, it no longer made sense to see any one mode of making art—Ab Ex, Minimalism or Situationism—as a revolutionary transformation of all that came before it,” says Richard Noble, a professor and the head of the art department at Goldsmiths College, London. “The idea of the avant-garde and the kinds of aesthetic and political perspectives it generated cannot survive in cultures where the idea of revolution is as debased as it is in ours. The market has no doubt had some influence on this, but so did the collapse of the Soviet empire”
There are also practical considerations. Throughout most of the 20th century, artists could find inexpensive spaces in which to work and live. “There were lots of old industrial buildings we could repurpose to put on exhibitions. That’s how we started. By breaking into places and securing them,” recalls the artist Michael Landy, who was part of the YBA set in the late 1980s.
Now, virtually every building in London is an investment vehicle. Student accommodation is currently “the strongest performing asset class over all other forms of commercial investment”, according to Sterling Woodrow, a property investment company.
In the 21st century, the training and output of artists have turned into investment opportunities. The Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens recently wrote that he regarded the 2008 financial crash, the culminating “failure of laissez-faire economics,” as the most momentous geopolitical event of the last 25 years, explaining Trump’s presidential victory, Brexit and the rise of authoritarian populist governments.
Stephens writes: “The excesses of the financial services industry and the decision of governments to heap the costs of the crisis on to the working and lower middle classes have struck at the very heart of democratic legitimacy.”
This piercing analysis in turn prompts the question, if laissez-faire economics delegitimised democracy, did it also delegitimise the art that democracies produce? The super-rich have spent billions on art as an alternative asset class, and some artists have made millions supplying them. Isn’t art marketism (as Baer might put it) enough to put people off art, just as they’ve been put off democracy?
Artists are now too busy making inventory for exhibitions, fairs and auctions to think about art movements. Many are “creating just to meet demand,” as Baer puts it. “I’m not saying there hasn’t been any great art in the 21st century; there just hasn’t been a great art movement. The market is a disincentive to experiment,” Baer says. But what about NFTs? “NFTs are a medium, not a movement. No one is going to tell me that a CryptoPunk is on the same artistic level as a Cezanne.” But in March, Beeple’s NFT Everydays sold for a record $69m. The highest auction price so far this year for a work by Cézanne, that titan of Post-Impressionism, is $55m.
In Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You?, Alice, the central character, reflects: “I think of the 20th century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong.” When it comes to the question of creativity, and the experimental movements that make art so compelling and world-changing, is the market simply the wrong answer?