Jasper Johns’ first show at the Castelli gallery was an enormous success for the artist and started off his career in an unprecedented way. But they exact method used by Leo Castelli (one of the biggest galleries to have ever walked the streets of New York) was remarkable and incredibly simple at the same time.
Castelli asked a critic and writer, that went by the name of Leo Steinberg, to write a review of Johns’ work. The catch: Steinberg was an incredible expert on renaissance art, especially Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
But what does this have to do with contemporary art in the 60s?
A renowned critic and connoisseur of fine art, writing about a then unknown young artist that liked to paint numbers and the American flag was not something to be expected, and it made the art world incredibly interested in Johns’ work.
Of course Castelli was the mastermind behind all that was happening and without his prior connections and status, such a favourable review would’ve never had happened, but as the point of today’s blog is not why but what, all the chess that happened in the art world at that time is more or less irrelevant. What matters most is that it worked and that it still works today — albeit in a modified way.
They say every artist needs a writer; Charles Baudelaire propelled the career of Delacroix, Émile Zola fought for Cézanne and many other writers for a myriad of painters, sculptors and other artists throughout history.
Today, critics still hold a firm grasp on the art world, but something detrimental has happened to art that changed the game completely for artists like you and me — art has become commoditised.
If before art was reserved exclusively for the upper layers of society, now even the common folk enjoy it in their own homes. You can find a nice painting for 100€ the same way you can find one for 1,000,000€. The price tags on the expensive works might have gone up considerably, but the more affordable pieces now truly are affordable to almost anyone that wishes to own a piece of art in their home.
With this change came a new class of collectors, that do not care that much about any name mentioned in this blog — they all probably know who Picasso is, but that’s about it. But that is not to say that the new class does not have the same wants as the higher-ups.
Even those of us that collect out of aesthetic tendencies and do not give a damn about the monetary aspects of artistic production desire some form of presentation; be it a short description, made by someone we trust or look up to, or in the form of a quick video by our favourite influencer, that tells us how great the colours of a particular painting are or how well made the frame is.
Regardless of how people prefer to receive their content though, the point is that they want to receive it — even need to receive it sometimes, in order to pull the trigger and press the buy now button.
If before, critics and writers were the leaders of the propagation of art and incited urges in the public to collect and experience the works that they wrote about, now it’s influencers, bloggers, podcasters and YouTubers that hold this power of attention in their hands.
But almost no artists are thinking about collaborating with a fashion blogger or lifestyle YouTuber, possibly in the fear of loosing the credibility of their art? Or because they believe that such collaborations might devalue their work? I myself believe most of us just never really think about it.
Whatever it is though, it’s incredibly superfluous to have such beliefs and not to use the tools that are at our disposal — tools that the gallerists and artists of old would not have dared to dream about.
Every society has a certain group of people that possess the key to other’s attention, and those that are able to partake in the arbitrage of this attention exchange always seem to get out on top. And with a lot of the gatekeepers now out of the picture, the road to living a successful career might just be a few collaborations away.