A Dirty Word: Artworld Prestige
Timothy Van Laar and Leonard Diepeveen's Artworld Prestige: Arguing Cultural Value, 2013.

Timothy Van Laar and Leonard Diepeveen’s Artworld Prestige: Arguing Cultural Value, 2013.




Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958-66. The Whitney Museum.

Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958-66. The Whitney Museum of American Art.





Prestige is a dirty word.

The almost total failure of contemporary art criticism to talk about prestige, or even admit it exists, is an oversight with profound implications. Art history simply cannot be understood without knowing how prestige actually works, and Timothy Van Laar and Leonard Diepeveen’s latest book Artworld Prestige: Arguing Cultural Value brings some of these particularly important ideas to the fore, many of them admittedly a little too honest, even.

Prestige is a dirty word because every first year curator, MFA student, or gallerist learns to use other ‘terms of art’ to privilege certain works. Far better for an artist or work to be considered “serious” or “important” or historically “significant” than merely just prestigious.

For in the artworld, the mention of prestige’s mere existence is a danger and a threat to power. This is precisely because prestige is a term of nuance. It is perhaps just a bit too honest, because it teases out the subtle distinctions between something meaningful? and perhaps something just successful, a distinction many self-interested parties may just like to avoid.

Prestige allows for the dark possibility that success might not necessarily rely on benevolent cultural barometers like historical significance, but rather, on more shallow principles, like perhaps market success, or just powerful connections. Could an Andy Warhol or a Jeff Koons, or a Damian Hirst be somehow prestigious, but meaningless? Prestigious, but culturally insignificant? Absolute heresy.

Damian Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007. Human skull with 8,601 diamonds.

Damian Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007. Human skull with 8,601 diamonds.


No artist wants to be considered “prestigious.” For it allows for two dangerous possibilities:  1) that important artists might somehow get ignored by the market, or 2) that the prestigious artist of today may not be considered so years later (heaven forbid). Consider for example the frequent unfashionability of some of history’s greatest artists, from Louis Comfort Tiffany, to Vincent Van Gogh, to William Blake, even to Turner or Rembrandt, all whose work at different times was ignored, misunderstood or even discarded. For a more recent example, go look at Jay DeFeo’s masterpiece The Rose, now properly installed at The Whitney, and reflect on how it had been hidden behind a false wall to rot away at the S.F. Art Institute for 20 years, finally restored only some 50 years later. Consider also how it was The Whitney in New York that finally purchased it, not the much closer SFMoMA.

What makes a work of art prestigious?

As Timothy Van Laar and Leonard Diepeveen’s book Artworld Prestige brilliantly argues, prestige is a power word par excellence, a true barometer of the artworld. For, in the echelons of power and institutional renown, works are always significant & serious. They just happen – by accident! – to also be prestigious. The game can not allow a two-way street. An important work becomes prestigious. All the time, in fact! But never the other way round. One way only, please.

Van Laar and Diepeveen’s book is incredibly important in my eyes because it discusses this all too uncomfortable subject. It asks important questions:

How and why does the artworld privilege and valorize one work of art over another? One medium over another? What are the principles behind this superstructure of renown? What drives discourse in contemporary art? In the end, how do cultural arguments really work?

Frank Gallo's Raquel Welch, Time Magazine, 1969.

Frank Gallo’s Raquel Welch, Time Magazine, 1969.

Exhibit A:

Examine the case of artist Frank Gallo, considered in the 60′s to be the future of American art. He wins a Guggenheim. He is collected by all the important institutions: MoMA, The Met, LACMA, Hirschorn. He is in the Smithsonian’s worldwide exhibition “Alliance on Art,” he is in the Venice Biennale. In 1969, his Raquel Welch figure is on the cover of Time Magazine.

Does anyone remember him? Today, he seems lost to history. Gallo’s art didn’t change, but something else did. He lost prestige. The last major review of his work is in The New York Times from 1972, where already the postmodern critiques of his work are bubbling to the surface. Figuration is out. Minimalism eclipses Pop Art. Formalism is now inadequate. Feminist critique soon abounds, and Gallo’s “girls” seem hopelessly sexist, offensive, juvenile. The artworld no longer confers value on him. Gallo and his work has lost all prestige. It no longer matters that Hugh Hefner collected him. His work no longer “fits” the trajectory of what contemporary art is about. Fifty years later, the authors go looking for his “The Swimmer” in the cavernous storage rooms of the Whitney Museum, purchased back in 1965. It hasn’t been moved or seen since 1984, the last time it went into storage. Gallo is no longer a “serious” artist.


Is this what contemporary art is ‘supposed’ to look like? Zina Saro-Wiwa. Mourning Class: Nollywood, 2010. Video installation on monitors at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

Authors Van Laar and Diepeveen argue that value in the artworld is not dictated by merit, worth, nor meaning, but rather by the presence of a prestigious narrative: a complex system of history, stories and ideas conferred upon a particular artist or work, placed within the appropriate trajectory of art history. One of these narratives is the medium itself.

For example, in today’s marketplace, some things are clearly “more art” than others – and it has nothing to do with what is in the work itself. Somehow, it is much easier to accept a series of video monitors sitting on the floor as a ‘serious’ work of contemporary art than a set of watercolors hanging on the wall. Here is an example of such a hierarchy of mediums from the book:

Painting > Ceramics

Abstract Painting > Figure Painting

Conceptual Art > Abstract Painting

Any Video > Any Painting

Abstract painting is considered more ‘serious’ than figure painting, just as video is considered a less ‘naive’ medium than painting is. And many nowadays feel that painting is a “dead end” as a medium, washed up, exhausted? no longer capable of being made authentically or unironically. But of course, painting is not really dead.

What these arbiters of cultural taste really mean is that painting has lost prestige: it has lost its singular standing as the “paradigmatic” medium of art. It is no longer as ‘serious’ as video, no longer as ‘serious’ as installation art. This is because of the postmodern narrative we have accepted, with a clear linear trajectory where ‘newer’ and more ‘serious’ mediums supplant the old. (The Postmodern idea starting in the 1970′s that ‘Grand Narratives‘ had all died off was always dubious and dishonest from its very inception, PoMO clearly had its favorites, it just didn’t want to admit them. Now some 40 years later, its prejudices are so much more obvious.)

Of course, I don’t necessarily agree with these value judgements, nor should you either, humble art viewer. Much like with a real person, I have enough intelligence to judge an individual on his own merits, not where he or she came from. But it is undeniable that the authors have hit home on a big point here: that if we are really honest about it, there is almost a sort of childish, prejudiced, quasi-racist vibe to the way the artworld thinks about mediums today. And a ceramic work will always be an inferior one in this hierarchy, no matter how “good” it actually is.

Dan Peterman, Accessories to an Event, 1998. Reprocessed plastic. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Dan Peterman, Accessories to an Event, 1998. Reprocessed plastic. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Thus, in Van Laar’s eyes, whoever controls the definition of seriousness – controls the definition of art, and in the end – prestige. Serious artworks and serious artists generates prestige. And everyone in the artworld wants to be seen as serious.

Today Art is no longer defined by what it is, or what it looks like, but by the discourse behind it. The art market has always been about rarefied objects. But today, the artworks themselves are no longer rare. Many are not made by the artist. They are often Readymades, constructed of everyday, commonplace materials. They have huge editions, and there are many copies. So what makes them rare?

Rule & Levine's brilliant takedown of artspeak: International Art English

Rule & Levine’s brilliant takedown of artspeak gobbledygook: International Art English

Sophia Wallace’s CLITERACY: 100 Natural Laws at Baang + Burne's booth at Scope Art Fair, 2013.

Dialogue, Dialogue, More Dialogue: Sophia Wallace’s CLITERACY: 100 Natural Laws at Baang + Burne’s booth at Scope Art Fair, 2013.

Answer: the arguments around them. The discourse itself is now rarefied. People have to do or know certain things to understand the discourse, to “get” the discourse. They need degrees. They need to do homework. Often the art viewer must have the work explained to them. And thus we need these professionals – behind the work – more now than ever before.

Today, the professional narrative defines the work of art. Art has become not about new objects, but new narratives – that must be theorized, professionalized, systematized. Participating in a rarefied professional discourse is what defines the work of art, whether it is made up of Brillo boxes or refuse. A painting can still be serious, yes, but it must do a little more heavy lifting now to explain itself, to justify why it was made. Better to be “about” painting than just “be” a painting. In this example, Wade Guyton’s work succeeds brilliantly.

The more “difficult” the professional discourse? the better. (See the wonderful text on International Art English for the ultimate description). As Van Laar’s book argues, Dan Peterman’s objects of recycled plastics are not made of rare materials, nor are they made with rare skill, but rather, the rarity and prestige of his work is in the discourse that accompanies it and deems it ‘important’ art. A Murakami in a Walmart is nothing but a commodity, but a Murakami with an institutional critique? is something else. Personally, I find these frank examples from the book troubling, for they seem to suggest that these kinds of works are not ‘works’ – without their discourse. They seem to ‘need’ this discourse like an astronaut needs his oxygen.

However, for me, the real white elephant in the room that comes to mind is corruption. For the reality of prestige must in the final analysis account for at least some level of corruption in the artworld, because it teases out the differences between worth and value, merit and success, meaning and fame. Granted, maybe Mr. Gallo was a bit overrated in the 1960′s, but what does that portend for today’s superstar artists in 50 years time?

Has dialogue become the new Kingmaker? The ‘knighting’ device that marks some refuse as ‘art’ and other refuse just refuse? Today’s Readymades and High Kitsch, indistinguishable from their more common counterparts, seem so omnipresent now it would seem that dialogue is their prerequisite.

And dialogue is very corruptible in my book. And especially more so when a privileged art-industrial complex sits above the fray with a clear conflict of interest, ready to stand behind works that need their dialogue.

Today’s contemporary art resonates with ideas. And all the more better for it, I say. The public now has the ability to expose itself to a whole host of fascinating theoretical discussions on the nature of art, and its effect on our world.

But if Van Laar and Diepeveen are right, and prestige now lies no longer in the work itself, but only in its professional discourse, we must re-learn how to be skeptical and vigilant in today’s boilerplate marketplace. Especially when in front of institutionally powerful work, backed up by all that impressive, serious discourse. All being made by savvy professionals who know that their existence is only as necessary as the mediation they provide to “translate” that obscure discourse for the ordinary masses. Is discourse the new path of salvation?

The Grand Inquisitor

Eric Halfvarson as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo, the original inspiration for Dostoyevsky.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor is the high priest who “protects” humanity in blissful ignorance from the awful truths of the Church. But in today’s world, perhaps the real Grand Inquisitors who protect that secret knowledge from the masses are the curators, or the gallerists, or the public art installators.

For discourse, by its nature, is mutable. Inherently contentious, transient, amorphous. It has little substance: it can change literally at the drop of a time. It is as vulnerable to manipulation, deception and illusion as any political dialogue is. When it is used to solely serve power, as in the case of propaganda, it can be insidious and dangerous.


And it is perhaps even more insidious when it is has its cake and eats it too: when an institution can claim to be championing “institutional critique” from below, by cloaking money, power and real estate from above in supposed left-wing or “critical” dialogue. I am reminded here of a particularly fascinating critique of American conservative thought, who some theorists have argued is in fact a Rightwing idea wrapped in an ingenious Leftwing narrative, that an essentially Aristocratic agenda can never be openly so, that it must necessarily pretend to be one of the common man. That is how you get grass roots organizers fighting for corporate tax breaks. Or consider some of the followers of Leo Strauss’s political philosophy, which could be argued is literally a philosophy of deception. The Iraq War proves this notion beautifully, as the justification for the war over the years seamlessly morphs from one reason to another, to another, to another . . .  Any will really do, as long as folks buy it.


For, as much as I enjoy the discourse, and as much as I myself participate in this discourse, I still find it somewhat troubling. The notion that a work of art could sort of be “substance-free” – and defined solely by the quality of the professional commentariat behind it or not – is incredibly cynical to me. Some part of me I guess still wants to believe, perhaps naively, that there is some intrinsic quality to the work itself, one that needs no discourse, needs no explanation, needs no PhD. Can the work ever transcend the discourse?


Seward Johnson’s Forever Marilyn statue, Chicago. What is its discourse? High Kitsch would seem to have it mastered its own art of self-defense.

Too-Big-To-Fail-Artwork, Fifty feet high, costing 1 million dollars, installed in an institutional setting, with the proper professional narrative behind it, seems unquestionable today. They are the derivatives of our artworld, and much like Wall Street’s version, as long as we don’t look too carefully inside, they may make us Insiders all a lot of money. As the classic Wall Street trader joke goes, keep trading those tins of sardines, over and over, just whatever you do! Don’t ever actually open them. Whatever you do, don’t eat the contents, because everyone knows the fish rotted out long ago. The sardines are for trading, not for eating.

 trading sardines

I think we must start to ask some dirty questions, and to start using some dirty words. For starters: Is the prestige deserved? And second, why do we assume so? Who wants us to assume so?

If we want artwork in the future to be something more than just a tradeable commodity, we may just have to start opening some of those cans of worms.   •