by Titia Hulst. University of California Press, September 2017. 416 p. ISBN 9780520290631 (pbk), $34.95.
Reviewed March 2018
This fall, according to reporter Paul Schwartzman (Washington Post, January 25, 2018), White House officials contacted the Guggenheim to request a loan of Van Gogh’s Landscape with Snow for the presidential living quarters. They were turned town. Offered instead: the artwork adorning this book’s cover, a gold-plated toilet by art world prankster Maurizio Cattelan, recently de-installed from a year of display (and use) in a Guggenheim visitor restroom.
A History of the Western Art Market was published the very same month of this exchange. While it’s unlikely that editor or publisher knew of the coincidence before the image was chosen, the choice is telling, regardless; the piece is cynical and hopeful at once, glamorous yet banal, “laden with possible meanings,” as Guggenheim chief curator Nancy Spector wrote (Guggenheim Blogs, August 17, 2017). This book is also loaded. It functions as a well-organized barrel of evidence and perspective, all pointed toward the idea that art and commerce are inseparable.
Comprising over one hundred excerpted texts by as many authors, this is a true sourcebook. It is both lean—in the sense that each excerpt is only allowed as much space as absolutely necessary, some less than a page—and rich, offering a mixture of primary sources, analytical works, philosophy and theory. Titia Hulst has taken care to preserve legibility within these excerpts, and the editor’s commentary at the head of each chapter is minimal, functional, and important.
Hulst’s introduction is the longest stretch of editorial prose. Succinctly describing basic market theories and the history of capitalism, Hulst invokes historian Fernand Braudel’s concept of world-economies, framing art markets as a product of growing trade and social mobility that shifted from city to city over time. This framework provides much of the structure of this book, which traces a historical narrative through major Western centers of trade, starting with Italian city-states after the fall of Constantinople, winding through European nations and cities, landing in twentieth-century New York and venturing somewhat into current times. Bookending this chronology are chapters more generally exploring value, globalism, artistic production, and the collecting impulse.
In softcover, this title is a sturdy 416 pages with zero illustrations, a bibliography and index. With generous margins and nicely-toothed paper stock, it is meant for hands-on use. Highly recommended for museum and academic libraries that support the study of fine and decorative arts; it will also complement certain public and special library collections.