Anonymous: It’s popular, but what’s the value?

This is a true story: An artist attends an interview for a site-specific public art commission involving aspects of community participation. Within a few days she is told she did not get the job.

Simultaneously, she meets someone who tells her: ‘I know about that commission, I met the commissioner who told me that they didn’t choose the most interesting artist, or the best skilled artist, but the artist who had a CV they couldn’t say no to!’

I don’t know if the commissioner thought that word would not get around, or couldn’t care less if it did. Why? Because, everyone else is doing it too! While not necessarily openly discussed or admitted to, choosing status over skills appears to have become the popular choice. It’s the neoliberal economy, stupid! Lament the fact if you will; ‘there is no alternative!’ Art must now, like everything else, compete for any public money it wants to receive. To compete, it needs to prove that it provides ‘value for money’, quantifiable impacts and verifiable social benefits in return. Publicly funded art does not need to be interesting or excellent, it needs to be measurable and popular. We are told that where public funding falls short, philanthropy, corporate sponsorship and the market will step in to support any art that is good and deserving. After all, free market theory follows simple rules: that which is good will automatically succeed and those who want it should be the ones to pay for it (those who can afford to, that is). The more who pay for it, and the more they want to pay for it, the better it is. Popular is valuable.

Arguably, the relationship between art and money, popularity and currency, is nothing new. Money has always wanted a return on investment and patrons have always sought increased credibility and status by exploiting the ‘symbolic value’ of art, linking it to social standing and prestige of association. However, patronage is not simply a question of demonstrating wealth and power, it also serves as a tool to justify and maintain wealth and power; including the power to define the value of art in financial terms, for financial gain [1].  While this has always been known, it has also always been counterbalanced by critical discourses about the cultural value and meaning of art. Today, however, the noise around the market is amplified, while independent critical debate is diminished [2].  More so, any robust or radical critique of neoliberalism “that might be expected from the art world” has been “narrowed to such an extent that critique and endorsement of recent economic strategies have been difficult to distinguish.” [3]  When the free market defines the value of art without challenge, art becomes a commodity, the artist becomes a brand; valuable because of his or her ability to attract credibility, status and an audience with cash, or whose numbers can be converted into cash.

Today, the impression is that the artworld in general, and at every level, does not only passively accept a market-defined notion of value, but actively participates in its enactment and reinforcement: publicly funded residencies aimed at emerging artists are handed to major art-prize winners. Opportunities advertising the potential for artists to further the visibility of their practice are awarded to those who already have highly visible museum exhibitions under their belt. From within university art departments, artists with exemplary teaching practices are edged out in favour of those with a measurable value in the form of a PhD, and those with a PhD are dismissed in favour of those with a marketable value in the form of international exhibition records. Despite arguments to the contrary, the actions of those with power to chose and select teach us that popular means value, and populism rules.

Populism may be a short-cut to increased audience numbers, market-shares and status, but “by valuing populism, a discourse is created that relegates as secondary or irrelevant those values that are in addition to, or outside, the market: singular or small acts that may have been valued in aesthetic or radical terms become useless, failures or irrelevant.” [4] Equally, in adhering to a market model that seeks to eliminate risk, favouring the already known and the already popular, everything become standardized, homogenized and, as brands; easily recognisable. Art becomes boring and predictable. Even the market is sounding a warning sign: “The sad thing is that everyone is chasing the same artists and fewer risks are taken. The best investors don’t make money following the herd and the sheep-like mentality doesn’t do the broader art market or its many talented artists any favours either.” [5]

That is when, and only when, we choose the value of art to be defined entirely by its relationship to money, the measurable and the marketable. It appears to be a popular choice, but it is a choice. We can choose whether to believe in or act in accordance with neoliberal norms, or whether to understand the powers at play. We all participate in making up the artworld, and “given that we are fundamentally part of its processes, we must recognise it is we, collectively, who have chosen a neoliberal artworld – unless we choose something else.” [6]

We might believe or claim that we are powerless. We may think that our only opportunity for participating in the artworld is to adopt market values and practice according to market norms — even when we know that selling out for short-term gains will not lead to long-term success or security. However, there is an alternative: if we recognise that we, each of us, are responsible for maintaining artworld values by what we choose to do, we will realise that we have the agency to redefine the value of art simply by doing differently. That, alone, makes us powerful, both individually and collectively.


  1. Adam Geczy, Art: Histories, Theories and Exceptions, Berg, 2008
  2. Charlotte Burns, Who’s afraid of contemporary art?, The Art Newspaper, 12/2012
  3. Jennifer Thatcher, Crunch Time, Art Monthly 332, 2009
  4. Alana Jelinek, This is not art: Activism and Other ‘Not-Art’, I.B.Taurus, 2013
  5. Kathryn Tully, Art Investors: Don’t Follow The Herd, Forbes, 27 September 2013
  6. Alana Jelinek, This is not art: Activism and Other ‘Not-Art’, I.B.Taurus, 2013

This article was originally part of Pamphlets, a publication by Artquest in 2014, where artists and art world professionals were invited to write anonymously about what’s wrong with the art world.

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