The Evolution of's Economics Genes

The Art Genome Project
Nov 21, 2012 4:40PM

“I’d asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question, ‘Well, what do you love the most?’ That’s how I started painting money.”

-Andy Warhol

Though rarely dealt with as directly as Warhol, the history of art has often concerned money, and more broadly, the economics of art, and the economy. For over a year now, we have debated how to involve these concepts in The Art Genome Project.  

Initially, artists and works that engaged with both the economics of art and the economy in general were dealt with through our Institutional Critique gene, which at one point included works that fell outside the historic meaning of the term—the critique of solely art institutions—and as such, involved critique of cultural, governmental and economic institutions.

Yet as time went on, we realized this was an inappropriate way to deal with these works—especially because it misrepresented the historical meaning of the term. 

So what next?

We were left with two groups of works: 

-Those that engaged with ideas such as world markets, commerce, and issues of wealth and poverty. 

-Those that focused on art as a commodity, especially the value of art objects. 

 However these two groups lacked sufficient cohesion to be understood as two distinct ideas, so we decided to go through both groups and create more specific genes and tags.

One of the major themes that emerged from the first group was commentary on consumer culture. As a result, the Consumerism gene was created. This gene includes both artwork taking on the issue as subject matter as well as artworks featuring what could be understood as the iconography of consumerism. The most immediate example would be the branding and logos seen in Pop Art. Another example would be contemporary photographer Brian Ulrich’s documentation of empty malls and stores.

Campbell's Soup Series, 1968
Guy Hepner

The dual nature of Consumerism—as both capturing an idea/concept as well as immediately identifiable imagery—eventually resulted in an internal debate over whether we should divide the gene in two to make it clearer to users. We decided we didn’t need to split it, but that a good idea would be to create very concrete groupings out of it, such as Advertising & Brands and Industry, and tags like WorkersShopStoreMall, etc. These genes and tags, although related to Consumerism have provided great connections and nuance. Our thinking about Consumerism also spawned the creation of a Globalization gene, however we realized that Globalization (like Consumerism) is also a very general term prone to misunderstanding. We’re currently considering more specific genes such as national identity, migration, and poverty/wealth.

All of this is to say that the development of Artsy’s economics-related genes is a work in progress. Further proof of this is the fact that based on the two groups mentioned above, for a time we created an Art as Commodity gene that quickly became a confusing catchall for works that dealt with the art market, the gallery system, and contemporary art production. Examples were the readymades of Marcel DuchampDamien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skulls, and Terence Koh’s gold-covered feces. The gene has since been retired to make way for new genes. For example, genes such as Luxury Objects and an Institutional Critique-esque gene focusing on the art market are in development, so keep on the lookout.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this, i.e. where we’ve been and where we’re going with these economic genes. Email me or tweet to us @artsy.

-Ibiayi Briggs, Content Partner Liaison/Specialist and Researcher on The Art Genome Project

The Art Genome Project