Author Archives: Caroline Gamson

Constructing the Valuation of “Art” as Economic & Social/Cultural

Constructing the Valuation of “Art” as Economic & Social/Cultural

Carly Gamson


As a financial asset, art frustrates and counters the contemporary desire to simplify all economical transactions to spreadsheets, quantifiable formulas, and graphical analyses. This level of investment in a single asset class cannot be attributed to irrational and unpredictable behaviors on the part of a few; through this paper, I aim to construct a rational and predictable explanation for the valuation of art by questioning both (1) How and why an artist gains art-world significance and becomes recognized as valuable; and (2) How and why large discrepancies exist in the valuation of artworks produced by a single artist. Drawing from the theory of Pierre Bourdieu, I understand art as a unique asset in that it cannot be adequately explained or rationalized as just one type of capital, and instead must be understood as simultaneously operating as a form of economic, social, and cultural capital (Bourdieu). The aim of my analysis is to construct a model of valuation that brings together the economics of art valuation with the social, cultural, and emotional aspects of art valuation.


In 2014, the international art market broke its previous pre-recession yearly revenue record from 2007 of $51 billion, bringing in nearly $54 billion over the course of the year. It is of course indisputable that we ascribe value and capital to art; we can look back to the cave art of our ancestors 40,000 years ago to confirm the importance of art as a function necessary to the very survival of mankind (Robertson, 13). However, in a time where the art market is a multibillion-dollar industry, and where a single painting can bring in over $100 million at auction, it is worth critically questioning how, and why, we ascribe value and capital to art, to specific artists, and further to specific works of art within an artist’s larger oeuvre. As a financial asset, art frustrates and counters the contemporary desire to simplify all economical transactions to spreadsheets, quantifiable formulas, and graphical analyses. This level of investment in a single asset class cannot be attributed to irrational and unpredictable behaviors on the part of a few; through this paper, I aim to construct a rational and predictable explanation for the valuation of art by questioning both (1) How and why an artist gains art-world significance and becomes recognized as valuable; and (2) How and why large discrepancies exist in the valuation of artworks produced by a single artist. Drawing from the theory of Pierre Bourdieu, I understand art as a unique asset in that it cannot be adequately explained or rationalized as just one type of capital, and instead must be understood as simultaneously operating as a form of economic, social, and cultural capital (Bourdieu). The aim of my analysis is to construct a model of valuation that brings together the economics of art valuation with the social, cultural, and emotional aspects of art valuation. Using the explosive but short-lived career of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) as a case study and understanding art as not only financially valuable (as economic capital), but also emotionally and societally valuable (social and cultural capital), I examine the value of Basquiat as an artist and the value of specific artworks within his larger body of work (Bourdieu).

PART 1: The International Contemporary Art Market: Economic, Social, and Cultural Capital

The international contemporary art market is ultimately an imperfect market, defying the assumptions that define market efficiency in economics; as scholar Iain Robertson explains: the art market “is an imperfect and asymmetrical place in which prices fail to reflect all published and unpublished data. The assumptions that the irrational trades of art-market players are cancelled out by rational arbitrageurs, that prices instantaneously adjust to available information and that indices capture all economic activity do not apply” (Robertson, 232). With a commodity such as oil or lumber, we can assume with predicable certainty demand: the public will continue to demand at a constant pace unless massive economic and political shifts occur which would be foreseen beforehand. In the case of art, demand is not nearly as predictable or consistent because there is such a small body of potential buyers and because there are so many barriers to access, which constrict the social and cultural value attributed to art by the majority of the public. Barriers to access are consciously enforced: top galleries are extremely selective about who they will sell certain artworks to and when they will do so, meaning that an individual cannot simply purchase an artwork because they have the money to do so. Barriers to access are also culturally and conceptually maintained: auction houses make access to past information and prices difficult to attain, many sales are private and thus go unrecorded, and a great deal of knowledge is required in order to justify value (Robertson). In trying to rationalize and predict the art market, it ultimately becomes a question of demand: so long as there is demand at certain price points, the market will continue to exist.

Understanding demand is not possible from a solely economic approach because ultimately, art collectors are not the same as non-industry art investors and these differences must be accounted for in their financial valuation of the asset. The difference in the amount that an art collector is willing to pay than a non-industry art investor is the difference in risk and reward that the art collector is willing to take on above the non-industry art investor. An art collector has a different risk tolerance because the art collector has different measurements of reward: not only financial reward, but also personal emotional reward and cultural/social capital reward, neither of which can be quantified through a financial valuation or numeric equation. The goal of any investment is to limit risk and maximize return, and in the case of art the purchaser must establish a comfortable balance between risk and reward, which will look very different from that of a non-industry investor (Robertson, 223). Risks to consider include: variability in taste and preference, macroeconomic market fluctuations, inflation, the heterogeneity of the asset, the limited pool of buyers and low demand, illiquidity, the cyclicality of the market, the lack of market transparency, and the imperfections that are built into the market (including: some sales are private, information is not easily accessible and historical information is not public, and unsold artworks are not recorded) (Robertson, 223). Prices are also a product of external considerations, including macroeconomic movements and larger financial market and international and national political contexts (Robertson).

Looking at art from the financial perspective through which we traditionally value assets and investments, the reward does not outweigh the risks. Thus, we must integrate into our model of valuation the social and cultural capital of art at the societal and at the individual level. Since price of an asset is traditionally a function of supply and demand and since demand is dictated by value, we must ask who and what dictates value. In the international contemporary art market, value is largely a function of taste and approval, which is controlled by a limited body of institutions and by the opinion of a few key individuals. Within the art-world, certain galleries, museums, international festivals and fairs, auction houses, critics and writers, and collectors can give institutional validation, and the weight of their opinions corresponds with the institution’s hierarchical positioning. We must still ask how the art-world creates value for certain artists and artworks, and interrogate whether we can predict and rationalize these decisions.

PART 2: The Basquiat Case Study: Giving “Color” to the Blackbox of Value

In the span of a decade from 1978 to 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat went from being an anonymous street artist operating under the pseudonym SAMO illegally vandalizing the walls of Lower East Side building and the subway trains of New York City, to an internationally acclaimed art-world celebrity whose paintings set record prices at auction and were exhibited in top museums and galleries around the world. Basquiat’s rapid ascent, while exciting and impressive, is not at all irrational or unpredictable, but rather reflects the relationship between economic capital and cultural/social capital when valuing an artist or artwork. Figure 1 is a concept map that visualizes the various nodes that comprise the art-world network system. Drawing from Professor Irvine’s The Artworld as a Network System and the Institutional Theory of Art, I have identified here six broad categories: (1) Publications, Literature, & Theory; (2) The General Public; (3) Art Economics & Finances; (4) Properties of Artwork; (5) Artist; and (6) Art-World Institutions: Museum, Auction House, Gallery, and International Art Fairs & Biennials. Each of these nodes can be further unpacked, and each subsequent node represents smaller inputs that contribute to the art-world network and to the value of an artwork. Not only have I visually integrated the economic value of art with the social/cultural value, but I have also illustrated the importance of scale and the necessity of understanding value from the scale of the individual artist and artwork to the scale of the international art market, both historically and today.

In the Spring of 1984 at a Christie’s auction of contemporary paintings, Basquiat’s painting Untitled (Skull) fetched a then-record price $19,000, a price impressive for any artist at the time, nonetheless a twenty-three year old artist of color who had only been discovered a few years prior. Painted in 1982, Untitled (Skull) had originally been purchased for $4,000 in 1983 from a small group exhibition called Fast at Alexander Milliken Gallery in New York City. Later this May, Sotheby’s will auction this same painting with the expectation that Untitled (Skull) will set a new record for the artist and hammer at over $60 million (Maneker). Basquiat’s current record price at auction was set by Christie’s in May of 2016, when Basquiat’s Untitled of 1982 fetched $57,285,000 (Embuscado). During this coming auction cycle, Sotheby’s will also sell three additional Basquiat artworks in the day sale: Lot 119, Untitled (‘Bird’) of 1982, has a price estimate of $500,000 to $700,000; lot 185, Untitled of 1982, has a price estimate of $600,000 to $800,000; and lot 192, Untitled (Oreo) of 1988, has a price estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. How do we rationalize purchasing a painting at $57 million? How do we predict the future value of a painting at an estimate that exceeds $60 million? How do we account for such a large discrepancy in the price of one Basquiat artwork over another?

How do we understand Basquiat’s value as an artist? Key to understanding Basquiat’s success is a familiarity with him as an individual, with his artwork, and with the New York City emerging art-world scene of the 1980s. Basquiat was extremely ambitious and motivated, famously asserting to Al Diaz, his close friend and co-conspirator of SAMO: “Al, I know that I’m going to be a famous artist, and I think that I’m going to die young” (Jean-Michel Basquiat: Painter to the Core). Basquiat’s raw, artistic energy and charismatic personality fit in perfectly with the Lower East Side club and alternative arts scene of the time; many of the artists and individuals that Basquiat met through this club and alternative arts culture also became well known, such as Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. It was through this network that Basquiat was able to integrate himself into the larger New York City arts scene, which during the 1980s was especially permeable as alternative culture was being embraced by the more tight cuffed art-world. Basquiat’s ability to accrue recognition and credibility allowed him to cross over into the institutionalized art world and gain economic and political legitimacy and value. In Figure 2, I have constructed a comprehensive timeline of this crucial decade in Basquiat’s life and career as an artist from 1978 to 1988. This timeline specifically draws attention to different factors that contributed to his value as an artist and to the value of his artwork, both historically and today: (1) Influential actors (artists, gallerists, friends, collaborators, girlfriends); (2) Other artists featured in group shows alongside Basquiat; (3) Locations: travel destinations, galleries, clubs, and shows; (4) Artworks; (5) Motifs, symbols, signs, and themes Basquiat employs; and (5) Media and criticism. Unsurprisingly, many of the artworks that are mentioned in the timeline as crucial during his own lifetime are also those that have fetched the highest prices at auction (Figure 3) and also those that are currently in top museums (and thus have accrued immeasurable social and cultural capital), illustrating the relationship between social/cultural capital and economic capital.

How do we understand the value discrepancy of one artwork over another? My findings here are based on research and grounded in the auction results for Basquiat as found on Artnet. Because the auction house is the art-world institution that most transparently establishes the value of an artwork and an artist, this provides a helpful framework by which to understand the value attributed to Basquiat (Robertson, 241-242). Figures 3 and 4 below, which state the highest paid prices for Basquiat at auction alongside the lowest paid prices accordingly, offer statistical data to support my findings (Artnet). Artworks are identified and valued by their internal characteristics: condition, provenance and exhibition history, subject matter, rarity, demand, scale/size of composition, materials/medium, and critical reception/literature. While some artists might have extensive careers in which they primarily work in the same mediums and materials, the same subject matter, on the same scale, etc., Basquiat is a helpful case study because the short-span of time in which he worked limits the body of works that can be examined, and because of the incredible variability in the content, composition, medium, and scale in which he worked.

Discrepancy in the valuation of Basquiat’s artwork is most visibly a product of the medium/materials employed, the scale and composition of the artwork, the context within which the artwork was produced, the provenance and exhibition history, and the critical reception/literature of the artworks. Figure 2 – the color-coded valuation timeline – begins to de-blackbox the role that different factors play in the valuation of an artwork by Basquiat by taking apart the specific factors that contribute to value and addressing them accordingly. Specifically, those artworks that have unique circumstances of production, unique exhibition histories and provenances, or unique narratives attached to them are likely to accrue more art-world value. In the case of Basquiat, a larger scale generally correlates with a higher value. Greater variety and complexity in medium and materials also generally correlates with higher value. For example, works executed with materials such as acrylic, oilstick, metallic paint, and spray enamel on mediums such as canvas or wood panel are valued much higher than works executed with pen, graphite, pencil, or colored pencil on paper or in poster form (Artnet).

Another important factor in valuing any painting that is not clear from a timeline construction, but that is perhaps most easily visible when actually interacting with the artworks is the subject matter and composition. Basquiat employed recurring motifs that permeate his artworks throughout his career, and these signs, symbols, colors, words, and gestures suggest interpretive references and offer biographic indications of time, place, and emotion. This sign-system not only facilitates the viewer’s process of meaning-making when interfacing with an artwork, but also contributes to the valuation of the artwork and correlates to the capital ascribed to the painting. Generally speaking, those paintings that are executed on a larger scale and include a greater and more complex sign-system are perceived as more valuable (Figures 3 and 4, Artnet). This semiotic approach not only uncovers “signs and symbols as systems of expression, meaning, reasoning, and cultural memory”, but also reveals the shortcoming of language as a modeling system for all human communication and activity (Irvine, The Grammar of Meaning Systems). Basquiat’s non-linguistic and unregulated system allows him a degree of complexity, universality, and individuality not afforded by language, which must conform to both our limited ability to express – as we are governed by semantics, grammar, discourse, the human language; we are bound to a sequential, linear representation of thought – and to our limited ability to communicate – as we are limited to communication with those who speak the same language and abide by the same culturally constructed terminologies and structures of communication).


Revisiting our driving questions How do we rationalize purchasing a painting at $57 million? How do we predict the future value of a painting at an estimate that exceeds $60 million? How do we account for such a large discrepancy in the price of one Basquiat artwork over another? we can begin to offer explanatory evidence and construct a rational argument. Ultimately, looking from solely a financial perspective, art cannot be rationalized as a rational or sound investment decision. Once again, the distinguishing factor here is the social and cultural capital and the emotional significance that art holds, which cannot be immediately detected by the marketplace or quantified in a financial analysis of supply/demand or risk/return, but that rationalize the prices at which art is bought and sold. When deciding to buy a work of art, the consideration is: the opportunity cost (cost of lost chances to invest money elsewhere), and the “psychic” returns (the enjoyment and emotional benefits that the artwork has) (Robertson, 235). When constructing a rational and predictable model for art valuation, we must integrate economic capital and social/cultural capital at the societal and individual level, as I have done visually in Figures 1 and 2, and as I have done with the Basquiat case study in this analysis.


FIGURE 1: The Art-World Network System: Integrating Economic Capital with Social/Cultural Capital at Different Scales


FIGURE 2: Deblackboxing Basquiat by Re-Coloring his Decade of Fame


(snapshot provided, please click the link for the full timeline)

FIGURE 3: Basquiat Price Results at Auction: Price Descending

FIGURE 4: Basquiat Price Results at Auction: Price Ascending


Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” In Soziale Ungleichheiten (Soziale Welt, Sonderheft 2), edited by Reinhard Kreckel, translated by Richard Nice. 183–98. Goettingen: Otto Schartz & Co. Web. 1983.

Embuscado, Rain. “Here Are Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Most Expensive Works at Auction.” Artnet News. 16 May 2016. Web.

Irvine, Martin, Dr. “The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics.” CCTP 802 Art and Media Interfaced. Georgetown University: Communication Culture & Technology Program, Web. 6 May 2017.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat: Painter to the Core.” Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Guide. Christie’s Auction House, 03 May 2017. Web.

Maneker, Marion. “Sotheby’s Ups the Ante with $60m Basquiat Head.” ArtMarket Monitor. 19 Apr. 2017. Web.

Robertson, Iain. Understanding art markets: inside the world of art and business. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016. Print.

Van Maanen, Hans. How to Study Art Worlds: On the Societal Functioning of Aesthetic Values. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

FIGURE 1: The Art-World Network System: Integrating Economic Capital with Social/Cultural Capital at Different Scales

Irvine, Martin, Dr. “The Artworld as a Network System and the Institutional Theory of Art Martin Irvine.” CCTP 802 Art and Media Interfaced. Georgetown University: Communication Culture & Technology Program, n.d. Web. 6 May 2017.

FIGURE 2: Deblackboxing Basquiat by Re-Coloring his Decade of Fame

“Artist Timeline.” Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, n.d. Web. 5 May 2017.

FIGURE 3: Basquiat Price Results at Auction: Price Descending

Auction results for Jean-Michel Basquiat: Price Descending. Artnet. 8 May 2017.

FIGURE 4: Basquiat Price Results at Auction: Price Ascending

Auction results for Jean-Michel Basquiat: Price Ascending. Artnet. 8 May 2017.

Mapping Value in “Art”

“On the basis of a critical overview of the art world, as well as field, network, and system theories, this study attempts to bring together the thinking on the organizational side of the world of arts and an understanding of the functions art fulfills in a culture; to put it more precisely: to find out how the organization of the art worlds serves the functioning of arts in society.” — Martin van Maanen

The question How do we value art? is one that has preoccupied critics, theorists, artists, and economists for hundreds of year. Nevertheless it remains an important question to consider, as the production of art is a hallmark of humanity, as people continue to ascribe mass amount of cultural, social, and economic value to art, and as art continues to be produced and art markets continue to evolve with their environments. For my final assignment, I am going to investigate ‘art value’ and question how we ascribe economic, cultural, and symbolic value to artworks. I will use Pierre Bourdieu’s breakdown of capital as economic, cultural, and/or social as a theoretical framework, and conceptualize the artworld as drawing from each of these conceptions of capital (Fig. 3.1). I examine the artworld as a complex social-economic network, within which numerous institutional actors interact with one another. To structure my analysis, narrow my focus, and emphasize that a consideration of the value of art depends largely on the time period in which the artwork is produced and exchanged, I take as case study the artworks and careers of a few artists, specifically artists who have been selected to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale over a span of 50 years: Helen Frankenthaler (1966); Robert Ryman (1976); Ed Ruscha (2005); and Mark Bradford (2017). I specifically chose these artists because: (1) their inclusion in the Venice Biennale signifies a certain measure of social and cultural capital value; (2) I want to capture a breadth of artistic careers in order to thoroughly examine how the market has evolved over the past few decades and how the market for an established, deceased artist varies greatly in some ways from that of an emerging, working artist; and (3) I want to question the political, social, and economic impacts that different markers of identity – gender, race, nationality, age, sexual orientation, etc. – have on an artist in the international art market.


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Artworld –> Institutional framework –> Artist –> Artwork

Larger institutional nodes: Artist; art school; museum/curator; auction house; gallery/dealer; patron/collector; media/critical reception; the general public, who continue to desire to consume art and culture, despite exclusivity and perceived overvaluation

Smaller institutional nodes: art schools, colleges, and professional studio art teachers; artists; art historians and academic art theorists; art critics, art writers; the “art public” (museum and gallery visitors at various levels of interest, cultural tourists or cultural “consumers”); art dealers and commercial galleries; art collectors (those who buy art for personal collections); museum directors, curators, and many other museum professionals; art patrons, donors, public art funders (includes paying museum members); auction houses and professional positions in the art auction markets; non-profit and alternative art spaces, managers and staff; art periodical publishers, magazine editors and professional production staff; book publishing industry for art books, monographs, museum exhibitions; professional associations for artists, educators, and dealers; public and private art collection managers; international art fair organizers, corporations, supporters, funders; organizations and professional positions that manage international art exhibitions (biennials, art fairs, etc.); private arts support foundations, both direct grants to artists and funding of art organizations (museums, non-profit spaces, university galleries, etc.) (connected to general economy through invested endowments and private contributions); all staff levels in art funding organizations: public (local, state, and federal government) and private (foundations, corporate art funding); auction houses and art business professionals in the auction companies; art consultants and advisors (for collections and sales to designers, etc.); art investment advisors (wealth management, asset management); art insurance companies;
art market data companies and publishers; art advertising and art marketing specialists; art material suppliers and material fabricators; conservators, art material specialists; museum and collections security systems, climate control, and archiving

The artwork itself: Artist/Creator; Medium/materials; Condition; Provenance (Previous ownership, auction performance); Exhibition history (Museum, Gallery); Subject matter/Context; Rarity; Demand; Size; Taste


Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Originally published, 1983; English, “The Forms of Capital,” in John G. Richardson, editor, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 242-258.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Production of Belief: Contribution to an Economy of Symbolic Goods.” In The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, 74–111. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1992. Excerpt.

Irvine, Martin. Introduction to the Artworld Network System and the Institutional Theory of Art

Van Maanen, Hans. How to Study Art Worlds: On the Societal Functioning of Aesthetic Values. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010. Print.

Salz, Jerry. “Biennial Culture.” Artnet.

“How to Value Art.” Artnet.

Robertson, Iain. Understanding art markets: inside the world of art and business. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016. Print.

The evolution of photography: a matter of give and take

It is well understood and accepted that the medium and materiality of any artwork plays a vital role in our interpretation and understanding of the visual. Our experience of an oil on canvas, a charcoal drawing, a lithograph print, and a photograph all vary greatly. However, what characterizes and differentiates these different mediums are not only the materiality of the final product, but also the process through which these works were produced. Different mediums make available different opportunities for production and make unavailable other opportunities. For example, a oil-on-canvas painting had to be reserved for artist studios until the late 19th century when a change in the medium – the invention of the mass produced tube of oil-paint – allowed artists to go outdoors and execute their oil-on-canvas paintings more quickly and with more mobility. The process of lithography places a limit on the variation of color and texture that the materiality and medium of production allows. The short history of photography is one that has evolved rapidly, and with each successive advancement, the medium and materiality of the process and the product change, and with these changes artistic qualities are both lost and gained. Early Daguerreotype photos produced one-of-a-kind images that were incredibly labor intensive, but highly detailed and precise. The process of production determined the scale at which the image could be produced (Daguerreotypes were very small), determined to some extent what could be captured (the process took time and the equipment necessary was not easily transportable), and determined the very way in which the subject matter would be captured (with intense detail, monochromatic color, and with careful attention to light, matter, and shadow).


If we look forward a few decades in the history of photography, the process, medium, and materiality of photography changes drastically. At each incremental step, the process of production – both the artistic labor of the artist and the scientific labor of the chemistry – becomes increasingly obscured and abbreviated. The widely available Kodak camera — beginning with the Brownie — transformed the way that the artist and the viewer engaged with photography. In a brief period of time, the camera became much easier to transport and much less expensive to buy and produce, the final product became based on negatives and not one-of-a-kind photographs, and it became easy to capture tons of images anywhere and anytime (and so the attention paid to each individual image was lost). The viewer’s relationship with photographs changed significantly: the intensely personal precision and individuality of each image was lost, the intimate scale of each image and the value placed on each photograph was lost, and the scope of what could be captured on camera expanded drastically. Because the cost of the camera and the cost and labor of each individual image decreased, the possibilities for what could be captured and when expanded dramatically. The artist’s relationship with photographs also changed: the artist was no longer as intimately tied to the artistic and scientific process and to the materiality and medium of the photograph. The artist no longer had to place as much emphasis on each individual image, and the artist was now free to capture images with greater ease. The mere scope of who and what could be photographed, and where and how they could be captured expanded unimaginably.

brownie2 brownie

Jumping ahead in history and looking at the way that we experience photography today, the pervasive availability of cameras, photographs, and digital platforms through which photographs are shared and reproduced have radically redefined the artists and the viewers relationship with and performance of photography. The artistic element of photography and the materiality of the art and science behind the final product has been largely obscured, and these changes in the process have important implications for how artists perform and create photographs. Whereas photography was once a laborious and highly involved artistic medium, in today’s world we can question whether a photographer is necessarily even an artist. The availability of photographs in technological online platforms has further obscured our relationship with the process of production. Now we can capture a photograph and view the image without ever understanding or engaging with the materiality of the medium. Our culture has no doubt gained a great deal, but might we also question what has ultimately been lost?


Grasping for the entire iceberg

Without a comprehensive theory of media and mediation, we risk a misunderstanding of art — that is, we risk believing that the tip of the iceberg is the entire structure, whereas in reality it only represents a tiny percentage of the content and context that constructs an artwork. The readings for this week, coupled with the readings for last week, construct an argument that warns us against such a cursory understanding of art. The readings also explain how, in our technologically-mediated and museum-oriented world today, it is increasingly difficult to grasp the complexities of art and to keep in mind the nodes of the larger network that are abstracted, obscured, or made entirely invisible to us today. 

Benjamin makes clear that this process of abstraction and destruction of the nodes that constitute the network of the artwork are not intentionally obscured. Rather, the process of reproduction – and specifically of technological reproduction – commits an act of erasure and violence that is generally overlooked. Benjamin argues that “the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. By replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to reach the recipient in his or her own situation, it actualizes that which is reproduced.” Part of what makes Benjamin’s argument so compelling and so crucial is that he sees this destruction as extending beyond the individual artwork. Our very mode of perception evolves over time with changes in the way that we interface with information: “the way in which human perception is organized — the medium in which it occurs — is conditioned not only by nature but by history”. 

Professor Irvine’s (Meta)Mediation, Representation, and Mediating Institutions was a really helpful way of contextualizing and better understanding Benjamin’s main arguments. Professor Irvine’s essay further emphasized the importance of understanding what is at stake when we interface solely with a technological reproduction of an artwork. Once again, the violence of this act occurs not only on the individual scale (the individual person’s interaction with the artwork, and perhaps the inability to grasp the tactile, material, supernatural qualities of the artwork, the size of the canvas, the physical interaction of the paint with the eye) but also, and perhaps more importantly, on the international and historical scale. The historiography, the provenance, and the cultural, political, and social networks that the artwork has engaged with up until the point of reproduction are lost; what is at stake is far greater than our individual interpretation of the artwork. However, if a database like Google can aggregate all of this information, can it not also help us to connect these points? 

Professor Irvine’s discussion of the role of museums as related to this iceberg metaphor of misunderstanding the depth and complexities and historical possibilities of art was also really important to my understanding of the readings for today. The museum, I came to realize, cannot simply be passed off as a passive aggregator of information; the museum institution is actively constructed and created. and it is deliberately formed and assembled with certain goals and ideas in mind. Just as our perception evolves with how we interact with art (Benjamin), our perception is also shaped by what we are able o interact with. Our understandings of what is important is historically informed, but this historiography is not comprehensive and is not ubiquitous; rather it is the product of a really specific perspective and orientation of viewing the world. Further, one that is outdated and would be explicitly accepted in today’s world, but we miss that it has determined what is housed in the museum.


Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.  Introduction to main concepts with excerpts from Malraux’s text.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939). (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.

Gerhard Richter, Eisberg, oil on canvas, 101 cm x 151 cm, 1982.

Unpacking the superhighway networks of meaning in the SAAM

Collier Carson & Carley Gramson

What makes a prestigious museum such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum so exciting is the ability to see the greatest artistic and cultural productions of an artist, a genre, and an era. These “prototype” artworks – works that are an exemplary of their type and that serve as a defining work for an artist or era – can create rich and complex conversations with the surrounding artworks as they represent the most defining moments in an artist’s’ career.

Nam Jun Paik’s video installations that we saw at the SAAM encapsulate the intention of the CCTP program. The two large scale works that we saw show us that art can be multimedia, chaotic, and still be valuable and appreciated as a work of high art. In Electronic Highway, Paik’s use light, video, and audio engage the senses in a way that is both overwhelming and anxiety provoking as well as beautiful, dramatic, and thoughtful. Paik expertly captures the tensions and juxtaposing emotions that are apart of our highly technologized and media driven world today. Paik’s work suggests that the infrastructure of superhighways that cover our country in a vast web of communications and connections do not only connect us through concrete, but also through art and media. “The superhighways offered everyone freedom” (Smithsonian).


Rauschenberg’s Reservoir, like Paik’s Superhighway, is an artwork that redefines our understanding of what constitutes art and what mediums and materials are acceptable and can be incorporated so as to communicate a particular idea. Also like Superhighway, Reservoir is a prototype, in this case for art which can be made out of everyday items. The artworks that surround Reservoir engage in a similar dialogue: for example, in the corner just to the right of Rauschenberg’s Reservoir there is an installation of a woman surrounded by found objects and everyday objects. Unlike the Rauschenberg, this piece is more literal, each object represented is acting as it would if the object were found in the world. Meanwhile, across the room there is another installation piece that is a large draped colorful canvas. This object in this piece (the canvas) is casually suspended from the ceiling, not arranged in a way that a canvas would usually be used for. Rauschenberg’s experimental approach to the production of art and his reevaluation of what his identity as an artist entailed is visible in Reservoir. Rauschenberg dismissed the notion that the brushstroke stands as a representation of the artist’s presence within the artwork. Rauschenberg rejected the approach to art of the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, Hans Hofmann, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still; artists whose own prototypical works are included in the exhibition across the hall from Rauschenberg’s Reservoir.


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This rejection of the paintery brushstroke as the authentic mark of the artist on the canvas was explored in a radically different manner in the case of Gene Davis and the other minimalist artists beginning in the 1960s. Agnes Martin is perhaps a prototypical artist to represent this shift: she was also considered a ‘minimalist’ painter, yet unlike some other artists who utilized geometric shapes at the time, Martin embraced the small flaws within her works as explorations of the personal and spiritual. Gene Davis felt that he could engage the viewer and communicate his ideas to the viewer and to the time more generally using simple but incredibly intense color and form. Davis later wrote: “During the sixties I wanted an intensity of color that almost hurt… Maybe the times called for it. It seemed to feel right… to have color that leaped right off the wall.” Davis was interested in exploring the seemingly impossible Hard line aesthetic with a “paint by eye” motto. Technically all of the stripes are uniform in shape– hard lines separating them. However, Davis’ use of color causes slight chaos; I found my eyes were having issues focusing on a given point.

How does the role of the viewer change in this shift from a work like Paik’s Superhighway to Rauschenberg’s Reservoir to Mitchell’s Landscape 2 to Davis’s minimalist stripes? What contexts do we need to know for understanding the meaning and significance of these various techniques? Unless you are researching the piece, there is probably no way you could be aware of the contexts associated with said piece. I know we have discussed this before– when creating a work of art, the artist can put their personal meaning into it, but once the art is displayed the ball is in the viewers court at this point. It is up to the viewer of the art to imply their own meaning upon the work. Davis’s work leads us to question: What are the effects of scale, color, and juxtapositions in his artworks? Barthes refers to the simplest ingredients of an ‘image’, “the reader would perceive only lines, forms, and colors” (p.157-8). I think this is interesting because Davis’ line work is a literal example of what Barthes is talking about. However, the work still leaves an impression due to its large scale (at times) and the use of these three ingredients. The bright colors that jump off of the wall contrast with the uniformity of the stripes. While looking at the paintings I felt conflicted by a sense of order and disorder.

Despite the privilege of viewing prototypical works of an art historical moment and the networks of understanding that prototypical works – more so than less acclaimed works – can afford the viewer as he/she reflects on an exhibition, we might still consider what is potentially missed. An artist’s career – even those artists who worked for a short period of time or were selective and meticulous in the production and dissemination of their works – is a complex and expansive system. In reducing an artist to a series of prototypical works that encapsulate his/her career, we run the risk of misunderstanding the artist’s intentions or oversimplifying the breadth of value and significance in the artworks. For this reason, I found Gene Davis’s retrospective a great complement to the selection from permanent collection: the retrospective offered a more diachronic method, while the exhibition a more synchronic method. Both are too simple to capture the complexities of the nodes and networks of meaning and understanding that these artworks contain embedded within the materiality of their surface, but these two methods taken together can begin to capture the greater image.


Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image.” In Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath, 32–51. New York: Hill and Wang, 1988.

Martin Irvine, “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”

In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 15-42.

David Hopkins, “Robert Rauschenberg.” in After Modern Art: 1945-2000. Oxford University Press, 2000.


Unpacking Kerry James Marshall’s “mastry” of meaning-systems



A few weeks ago I saw Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at the Met Breur. One work that I kept coming back to was 7am Sunday Morning (2003). Marshall seamlessly weaves together a wealth of cultural symbols, ideas, references, ideas, moments into one cohesive canvas, and I the readings for this week provided me with a vocabulary and a theoretical context with which to articulate Kerry James Marshall’s “mastry” at work here.

The scene being depicted can first be situated in time and place. The time (as the title of the work indicates) is 7am on a Sunday morning. Marshall also locates us in a moment in time: the walking man, the speeding car (that narrowly misses the man?), and the bird that have just taken flight. Interestingly, despite this specificity, we are not told the year that Marshall envisions this scene to have taken place. The right half of the canvas is largely consumed by what appears to possibly be refractions of light or the flash of a camera – the ambiguity of this destabilizes the iconic associations that we strive to make and forces us to understand the aesthetic as well as symbolic significance. Regardless, there is an instantaneity to these refractions, and they seem to deconstruct light and technology, much the same way that we are asked to deconstruct the larger scene. Marshall is conveying not only what the viewer can clearly see, but also conveying what is happening that we cannot see with the naked eye (the interplay of light and color, creating refractions and hexagons).

The location is Bronzeville in downtown Chicago near the intersection of Pershing and Indiana streets, in front of Rothschild Liquors and Your School of Beauty Culture. Below I have attached a GoogleEarth rendering of this same street corner.


The neighborhood of Bronzeville has a symbolic significance in the racialized history of Chicago, but these storefronts and specifically their titles (“Your School of Beauty Culture” and “Rothschild Liquor”) also carry symbolic meaning, both in Marshall’s cannon of work and also linguistically in his re-writing of an art historical and cultural narrative around black bodies. The capacity for language and words to carry multiple significances at once is expertly shown here.

The title of the artwork is a reference to Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930), and Marshall’s decision to make a direct reference to both Hopper, this specific artwork, and the 1930s cannot be overlooked. Once again, language takes on a duality of significance, as 7am on a Sunday morning can also be more superficially understood as a time of relative peace and silence: the city just waking up and too early for the hustle and bustle of the day to begin, and the religious significance of Sunday as the day of rest. One of Hopper’s most iconic painting, Early Sunday Morning is easily recognizable of Hopper’s ability to seamlessly integrate realism with symbolic representations, quietly inserting his ideas into the scenes he depicts.


Within the scene itself, Marshall has quietly inserted references to numerous other art historical moments and figures, contributing to the larger iconography that composes this visual essay. One artist that I kept mentally jumping back to was Gerhard Richter (even the way in which Marshall is playing with the technological/scientific interaction of light with our environment reminds me of Richter’s manipulations of photographs). This of course depends entirely on a preexisting cultural vocabulary, and this meaning-system is only apparent to individuals who have a specific knowledge base. I imagine that there are numerous other meaning-systems that I was not able to pick up on. Marshall also includes musical notes emanating from the windows of one of the buildings, allowing him to include reference to another form of sensory communication, and using iconography in order to convey a sound rather than a sight.

What is ultimately most exciting to me about this work is the recognition that I have only just begun to peel back the technologies of meaning that Marshall has included; the symbolism and iconography that compose the visual narrative here are incredibly complex and are always evolving. For example, in 2012 – almost 10 years after 7am Sunday Morning was completed, Marshall painted School of Beauty, School of Culture. This work challenges the marginalization of black people in the American cultural narrative of beauty, and itself is overflowing with references to theory, philosophy, art history, culture, and historical figures. Returning to 7am Sunday Morning, we must now understand the storefront “Your School of Beauty and Culture” in a different way: Marshall has added another chapter into the essay of 7am Sunday Morning. As the readings indicate, meaning chains are open ended and unlimited, constantly being reconstructed based on context, language, and capacities for expression.