Oscar Wilde had it at least half right when he said, “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money.” I can assure you that bankers are more intoxicated by art than artists are by money. This makes some people nervous.
On the seasonal circuit of galas, openings, and collector dinners (which always remind me of diplomatic functions where the unspoken objective is intelligence-gathering), I hear a frequent concern voiced between the canapés and cocktails: When did the art world become so financialized? The question reveals a yearning of sorts.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia (albeit false) for a time of pure connoisseurship, before the hegemony of the market. Maybe it’s just billionaire-fatigue, by millionaires who can no longer afford to buy pictures. Amongst art critics, “money corrupting art” has its own provenance, from Jed Perl lamenting culture’s “retreat before the brute force of money” in the New Republic, to Peter Schjeldahl’s ire at the “plutocratic orgy” of a recent auction season, to the late Robert Hughes’s annoyance that art has become a “cruddy game for the self-aggrandizement of the rich.” In this era in which critics are prone to engaging critiques of identity and class as much as with the art itself, highlighting the role of “money in art” has become its own form of aesthetic condemnation.
So are the barbarians really at the gate?
History shows us that art’s union with finance—art critic Clement Greenberg called it the “golden umbilical cord”—is hardly a recent development. Indeed, today’s art ecosystem—that fabric of artists, dealers, collectors, curators, flatterers, and social-climbers—grows directly out of a few innovations by those dreaded financiers. Peek behind the curtains of art history, and you’ll find an enduring romance between art and capital.