Relations between art and the public are shifting now as they have always shifted. The way an artist produces and presents her work is contained within certain parameters, but these parameters are always shrinking and bulging, transforming with or without her assent. There is no strictly defined career path for the artist, nor has there been a single path consistently over the centuries. Saturated by the possibilities of the internet, it is easy to forget that the gallery system of producing one-man shows was a dramatic shift to adapt to the overwhelming thrust of the market that engulfed art with the collapse of the Künstlerhaus and Salon monopolies on the careers of artists. It is easy to forget that the Salons enabled arguably more democratic production of work than the courts and the church did. We are certainly having the ground pulled out from under us again, but rather than being swept along by the unrelenting and ever intensifying tide of the market, we must sit up and, like the Viennese Secession, ‘address the problem head on’ (Huemer 2006: 146).
The most profound question concerning an artist’s career at the time of the Wiener Secession, which was founded in 1897, was understood to be the competing pull of art on the one side and money on the other. It takes money to make art, to live in such a way as to be able to devote oneself entirely to one’s work. Where royal careers no longer exist and ambitious public projects like the construction and adornment of the grand public buildings of the Vienna Ringstrasse are exhausted, artists must find other means to make their careers.
Klimt made his name by securing work on several of Vienna’s significant new public projects, namely the Burgtheater and the entrance stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. He and his colleagues were employed for a task that required great skill and a unified vision. I am embarrassed to call the reader’s attention to the type of public projects that are funded now—the murals intended to brighten up the soul-destroying underpasses of Brisbane’s train station nether regions are regularly conceived by amateurs who submit simple photographs, completely undesigned, of native flora, which artists, paid as labourers, are induced to transfer by projector onto the concrete and colour in, skill and artistic vision be damned a thousand times to the depths of hell. In consolation, however, Vienna also seems to have run out of meaningful public projects, and Klimt and his colleagues found themselves at the mercy of the mysterious institution that was the Künstlerhaus, akin to the Paris Salon.
The Künstlerhaus was an exhibition hall, and it all sounds very obvious now to exhibit artwork. However, bear with me through a few interesting logical twists. In public projects, art importantly had a function: whether to cheer unfortunate public transport alleys populated by junkies or to magnify the glorious warm feelings democracy stirs in us via soul-stirring symbolic fountains in the driveway to the Wiener Parlament, these projects are conceived for a specific and defined purpose. In earlier times, the exhibition was really an event, a rare occasion which lifted the work of art out of its public function and set it before us on simply its own terms. The exhibition transformed the artwork into an end in itself. Painters could probably hardly believe their luck that their work could flourish on its own terms and not bend to utility.
What would seem to be a promotion in the value of art, however, was coupled with the crippling phenomenon of the market. Gottfried Semper (who was to go on to design the Kunsthistorisches Museum with Karl von Hasenauer) recognised this shift in 1851 when he wrote, ‘The path that our industry, and with it the entire artistic world, is following unrelentingly is obvious: everything is calculated and adjusted to the market’ (in Huemer, p. 146). No longer responding to a brief, each work of art must stand on its own, and rise above all others to compete in the ruthless marketplace. The exhibition hall, then, which started out elevating the work of art beyond utility, reached its logical conclusion in metamorphosing into ‘the central exchange medium for the defunctionalised work of art’ (Huemer p. 146).
The Künstlerhaus, rather than respecting this newly elevated art, became ‘a market hall, a bazaar, where dealers flaunted all kinds of wares’ (Huemer, p. 147). Huemer (p. 147) goes on to describe ‘the barely administrable flood of submitted works, which the commissioners hung, after selection by jury, like mosaics on the exhibition walls. Thousands of paintings were displayed, hung in several rows, frame to frame, to make the greatest possible use of the space available for display.’ The Wiener Secession arose in direct response to this unsavoury development, setting out to defend the artist in the inescapable market environment on his own terms, openly rejecting this hideous meat market of paintings.
We have entered the world at a time when the market is already a fact. We do not have the luxury of debating the question of ‘business or art,’ as artists of earlier times did—art is business, and we, like artists of every time, must work within the constraints of our own time. Our options seem ever more dramatically diverged: the market forces us to fend for ourselves, to defend our own product, define our unique selling point, and target our own niche client base in the slow decay of the gallery system. The government denies us real work, awarding us petty projects that involve amateurs of the community or inept children, and doling out pitiable sums for work bound by restrictively specific selection criteria. The outlook is not good. But even Klimt dramatically turned his back on the state, proclaiming, as one equally passionately might now, that ‘official organisations would support only the ‘weak’ and ‘false’ (Huemer, p. 145).
In Klimt’s (Huemer, p. 145) own words:
I would never—particularly under this Ministry—take part in an official exhibition, unless absolutely forced to do so by my friends. Forget the censorship. I am going to take matters into my own hands. I want to liberate myself. I want to break away from all these unpleasant, ridiculous aspects that restrict my work, and return to freedom. I refuse all official support, I will do without everything.
Taking matters into our own hands, there are two attitudes we might adopt towards the marketplace we find ourselves nestled in. The first is one of acquiescence, embracing the commerciality of art and developing one’s product to fit trends and consumer desires. This might be to take on commissions of people’s indistinguishable blob-babies, or otherwise generally taking briefs from others who are willing to fund small, private projects. It might be create work with the intent of having it made into consumer products: iPhone cases, clothing, notebooks. These ventures have their merits—art becomes accessible to all, fulfils immediate needs and desires, brightens the world. Things of utility may as well be attractive. However, the work seems stunted at its inception, and as Hermann Barr (in Huemer, p. 147) demanded to know of his Wiener Secession, ‘Shall the Viennese painters be damned to remain petty businessmen, or should they attempt to become artists?’ Artists choosing to operate in the market on the consumer’s terms, accepting that ‘paintings are like goods, like trousers or stockings, to be manufactured according to the client’s wishes’ (p. 147) are at the mercy of those who know very little about and demand very little from art.
The second attitude grasps the last remaining threads of integrity of art as an art form, clinging fast to those old ideas of a higher function of art. Painting as an intellectual pursuit is as profound as any other academicism; a visual philosophy that wrestles simultaneously with physical substances and with emotions, psychologies, experiences of the world and abstract ideas, painting is but another means of thinking through and encapsulating notions that others drape with words, poetically or scientifically or otherwise. Politely declining well-intentioned governmental suggestions, limiting the energy one spends on fun commercial detours, the artist can set her own brief, driven by the highest intellectual considerations, by the most difficult questions she faces as a human being. In this sense, perhaps art is not an end in itself, but simply another medium in the pursuit of knowledge, sitting alongside philosophy papers, physics experiments and the most penetrating literature. It is created not for the exhibition, nor for the unknown future buyer, but for humanity.
This doesn’t solve where we, as painters and other artists, sit in the modern marketplace. But remembering that other intellectuals forge careers in the same world as us, perhaps we can look around for inspiration as we secede from the currently accepted methods of doing business in art. Tony Abbott might have erased the Science Ministry, but the founder of Blackberry loves theoretical physics so much he set up the world-class Perimeter Institute outside of Toronto. The Queensland Literary Awards might have been scrapped by Campbell Newman, but impassioned supporters have continued to award financial prizes through crowd-funding. Sotheby’s might never look at you in your lifetime, and your humble manner of sticking paint to linen might not be interdisciplinary enough for the meagre governmental grants on offer, but if we hold fast to what we believe art to be, we can construct new modes of integrating our work into the world on our terms.
Huemer, Christian. 2006. ‘Gustav Klimt—The prophet of Viennese Modernism: Marketing and cult at the Secession.’ In Gustav Klimt Landscapes. Ed. Stephan Koja. Prestel: Munich.