Market Chains: Consecration and Creativity in the Market for Modern Art
Book manuscript under contract, Princeton University Press
In this contribution both to economic sociology and to the sociology of culture, I explore the remarkable growth of the art market and its influence on the economic success and creativity of artists in the heyday of French modernism. Building on the most comprehensive database ever collected on that market – including a complete record of over 16,000 artists' exhibitions in Paris galleries between 1870 and 1930, a systematic record of artists' prices at auction in that period, and a unique set of administrative and business archives describing the market's day-to-day operations – I show how a growing population of market intermediaries gradually coalesced into a status hierarchy systematically processing the careers of artists – what I refer to as a market chain. These intermediaries, I argue, were instrumental in shaping the value of modern art by consecrating the field of modernism, i.e. by upholding the belief that modern artists could be sorted into a reliable hierarchy of quality. This provided a sense of order and stability to an otherwise anomic field, premised on aesthetic revolution and on the constant overthrowing of established standards of worth.
The market's progressive organization also resulted in a redefinition of the structure of opportunities available to artists, and ultimately in a reshaping of their creative identities. By making market resources more immediately available to young painters, it made it unnecessary for them to rely on the support provided by circles of fellow artists. As a consequence, it also isolated them earlier from the creative dynamics at work in such circles. Thus, while artists of the late nineteenth century had advanced their art as members of close-knit peer groups, those of the 1910s and 1920s did so as individuals attached to the market actors managing their careers. This shift from collective to individual creativity, I argue, was partially responsible for the relative decline of Paris as a center of radical innovation in the 1920s.