State of the Arts

Victoria Ward

New year, Old stuff

The following blog was inspired by things I read over the holidays. Money is the new art, I said it once, I’ll say it again… and again.

The year begins for me with an ending; I just finished two amazing books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel (now a RSC production!!!) which tells the tale of Thomas Cromwell and his efforts to both put Anne Boleyn on the throne and subsequently remove her when it came to pass that Henry VIII would not sire a son with her. There are many reasons these books have been awarded prizes, and five star ratings, it is well researched, beautifully written and surprisingly fresh in terms of perspective but the reasons I loved the books was her oft detail of describing art works, the subtle, brilliant and hilarious portrayal of Hans Holbein and the illumination of how people once needed art in their lives to manifest our most complex traits and foibles.

Mantel sees time in a most astute vision: it moves, constructs, destroys and reconstructs us. What is constant is usually a painting on the wall, a hand made pair of angel wings that a small daughter wears before she is taken by the plague, and emblems that are made and remade bearing the hubris of man while their turn on thrones come and go. Art sticks around to remind us of recent and not so recent ideas of ourselves in our best and worst moments. Yet, as I survey the current art expos, we are still working at high speed to eliminate our art history and replace it with shiny twinkie lights, thumping video and pop up ephemeral art joints – all so that our experience of it becomes nothing more than a selfie on our phones: “I saw the thing that Jeff Koons made, it was awesome #artiscool”.

“Frieze, the London art fair, isn’t about art. It’s about rich people—really rich people—and a market created for them.” A.A. Gill

In the most recent Vanity Fair an article takes aim and makes a direct hit at the Frieze Art Fair in London, THE most exclusive, high end and luxury art fair ever dedicated to miles of ‘bullshit’ in the history of the world. The writer’s thoughts not mine. The article is an exact account of what I have been saying for years; that the art world is no longer about art but about commerce and that the deals being made IS the ART at these festivals. Curators train to be able to talk billionaires into purchasing a work that resembles a pile of laundry. And it is working – sales have never been better.

Hans Holbein's Thomas Cromwell, lawyer & Tudor mixer
Hans Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell, lawyer & Tudor fixer

Hans Holbein, as depicted by Mantel is also obsessed with money. He tells Cromwell there is one price for the back of the head and another for a face. His trade is an honourable and important one and he deserves his price. Holbein however is still with us because he took to his art as any worker takes to their field, with expertise, learning, craftsmanship and a good head for survival. No one thought his work was liminal, transversal or injected with tropes about place and identity. We use those words now because we are no longer like Holbein and our work is projected onto a market place run by speculators not patrons, investment bankers not art lovers and prices fixed by arbitration not commitment, or dedication like other professions. We dally in the ineffable and so commerce becomes like alchemy; we turn things into gold at the point of purchase.

Art and money are necessary partners; but the art is the horse not the cart. Establishing this principle is all but lost in the current art market. Money is the king, disobedience toward it seen as sour grapes. Struggle is now completely banished from the art world and the artist who runs their own career, negotiates contracts and prices the work is a chump.

I have faith as always that this won’t last, a temporary but significant blip like the reign of Anne Boleyn. If only we knew it would spawn something like Elizabeth I. Or as an anonymous artist in the Vanity Fair article said, ” Whenever there are moments like this – dull, cynical hiatuses of too many excuses and too much bullocks – art bounds ahead, pushes through with something amazing… Let me tell you, it’ll make this lot (Frieze London disciples) feel pretty foolish.”

Pic from


4 thoughts on “State of the Arts”

  1. I’m also right with you. It’s not your main point, but I must concur with your assessment of Hillary Mantel’s writing. I am a great admirer of both the books you mention. She’s also gives a pretty mean interview — heard her recently on CBC with Eleanor Wachtel. A great talker — and what precise, considered, informed, imaginative talking!

    As well, you articulate my own feelings about much of the art world in the last 20 years or so. I pride myself on an open mind, but, as the saying goes, I also try not to let my brains fall out — a lot of what has been produced lately suffers from a severe case of “fatuosity,” and
    therefore I tend to think that its sale and popularity must be a trick of the market.

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