As an artist I know remarked recently to a younger colleague, the art market is not the place to determine aesthetic worth. (Both these women, with significant international reputations, are doing very well in the market; no sour grapes here.) It was unnecessary to invoke the corollary that the market is the place to locate reputations - and fortunes. It was my friend's certitude about aesthetic worth that surprised me rather than her remark about the market, an utterance that was purely rhetorical. This fundamental observation, so basic that "everyone" knows it and therefore no one needs to articulate it, should be given a ritual airing at least once a year, much as one parades the statue of the saint or the deity before the gathered faithful.
It is easy to caricature the (high) art world,(1) since so much of what occurs within it is nightmarish in its unself-conscious crudity, double-dealing, and self-promotion. It is not particularly a province of intellectuality, ethics, taste, wisdom, or even knowledge. It is neither an outpost nor an outgrowth of the university. A dealer once pointed to his coffee table and said, "See this table? That's the art world. And you're either on it or you're not." The table, with its flat surface and clearly demarcated edges, perfectly symbolizes the ahistorical, flat field of commodity, without evolution or context. The art market, and the art world it services, is frequently smallminded and parochial, the proverbial Procrustean bed, seeking the smallest salable unit and creating false meanings that replace the lived relations of artists with rationales for the monetary worth of the object. Critics, especially those in the academy, perhaps brooding over their declining role, have lately lobbied to get rid of the idea of "art" as a discipline of study, to be replaced by "visual culture" or some other leveling designation intended to point to the continuity of art with the rest of culture but whose net effect is, of course, the deprivileging of what occurs in the high art world.
Despite all this, the art world is still the place where relatively uncontrolled, barely instrumental, highly suggestive, aesthetically exhilarating, and inconveniently critical cultural offerings are made that may achieve great resonance beyond the petty universe conditioning their appearance. In the matter of visibility and success, another dealer remarked off the cuff that "the art world takes care of its own." He added, only slightly defensively, that it couldn't be expected to "look outside." So while a theorist and teacher, from his vantage point outside the art market, often reiterates that there is no place "outside" the art world, dealers - all dealers - affirm that "outside" exists. After some defining of terms, these people likely would agree. This semantic disagreement is of interest primarily to artists, despite the fact that the most basic assumptions about art depend on it.
There have been times when artists considered the place "outside the art world" - at least in terms of audience - to be coveted terrain. But it has been twenty years since artists made concerted efforts to change the way the art world was organized and power distributed, and to forsake craft values that rigidify the commodity status of art, locking it into specific kinds of audience reception. In the relatively populist 1960s and 1970s, artists developed a host of new forms and methods of distribution to get outside the "art world," outside the entrenched institutions of galleries and museums, which, with direction from one or two critics, kept tight control on the exhibition of art and the circulation of art ideas. What is it, then, that lies outside the high art world?
Certainly there are multiple art worlds, distantly related at best, of which many rarely impinge on the high art world that is the subject here.(2) With respect to the people composing it, the high art world can be figured as a pyramid with an immensely wide base leading up to a very small pinnacle, the acme of success. Or the structure of the high art world can be conceived as a set of interlocking rings, some close to the center, others further away. (This model appropriately suggests classic "world theory," as formulated by Immanuel Wallerstein and others, which divides the world into metropolitan, semiperipheral, and peripheral regions.)(3) This familiar model denotes, according to venerable sociological analysis, an institution constituted in the main by face-to-face rather than impersonal relations - thus the term "art scene," which emphasizes the performative elements of the contemporary art world. The art scene, loosely defined, is a set of social relations within and around the system of production and distribution constituted by the institutions of the art world whose prominence in the contemporary arena advances and recedes. The art world is most potently envisioned as a universe of discourse (secured by its economic base), and if one is not inculcated into its reigning discourses as propagated and promulgated in magazines, journals, books, reviews, classrooms, catalogues, and wall labels; if one does not produce for the market of objects generated within that universe; and if one is engaged in a different discourse and a different marketing system, then it makes sense to talk about being outside. Even those who make videotapes and photographs are uncertain about their status vis-a-vis the art world - their material products are of only marginal interest to the market and only slightly more so to the institutions that face the public and draw audiences.(4) There is functionally an "outside" if one is considering the means of distribution, promotion, and reception for high art. Even so, the insularity of the high art world from the rest of culture is less than it is often proclaimed to be. Some types of nonprofessionalized art, such as that of children, the mad, street artists, untutored "folk art," is repetitively conscripted into the scene and the market - as one form or another of "outsider art."(5) These marginalized forms, as always, feed the art world...