Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Michael Maizels reviews Curating Capitalism

Pierre Guillet de Monthoux. Curating Capitalism: How Art Impacts Business, Management, and Economy. London: Sternberg Press, 2023. 352 pp.

Review by Michael Maizels

Pierre Guillet de Monthoux’s latest volume is offered as a kind of hybrid translation volume; it attempts to distill moments of advanced aesthetic theory most germane to the managerial class while encouraging arts and cultural workers to view themselves as researchers of value to both the market and to society. The book is of significant interest, but likely in a way that its author did not intend.

First, Curating Capitalism sets before itself a purported problem. With the deepening imbrication of the cultural sector into the machinery of capitalism on the one hand, and the increasingly obvious exhaustion of Adornian resistance on the other, Monthoux’s book aims to chart a different course. He aims to arrive at a new theory that dissolves as a false dichotomy the division between aesthetic experimentation and cultural-industrial production. With the Kantian overtones ringing behind his opening “Prolegomena,” Monthoux describes the book’s primary aim as one that seeks to examine the question of how “art and artists impact economies from the inside” (p. 10)? This is a fine question, but one the book seems to frequently reverse through its subsequent pages. Instead of unpacking the impact made by artists on markets, the reader is often bait-and-switched with accounts of how market makers impact the artists within their spheres of influence. 

The detailed accounts provided by Monthoux to this effect are of value to anyone seeking to understand the power dynamics of Veblen worlds (in economics, “Veblen goods” are status-establishing commodities with the paradoxical property of higher prices leading to higher demand). Between over-the-shoulder details of champagne brunches and power seminars spread between Stockholm, Berlin, and Venice, Monthoux recounts how the collision of interests between the curatorial literati and ultra-high net worth collectors actually shakes out. The back and forth between aestheticians and fundraising consultants is relived in granular, nearly gossipy back and forth. On page 93, Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum has begun to collaborate with Brunswick director Maria Finders: “In July 2008, Finders rushes into Birnbaum’s rector’s office, drops off a tote bag full of coffee table art books and exhibition catalogues from her last trip to Turkey, and flips open her laptop.” Several pages later, we pick up where

Finders immediately begins the cross-examination as things get serious.

BIRNBAUM: Artek pays 100,000.

FINDERS: For what?

BIRNBAUM: For all the materials. They will build it and ship all the materials to Venice.

VOLZ: Why?

BIRNBAUM: Artek wants to show that they are experimental and do things with artists.

FINDERS: Well, this has to be very clear. [p. 96]

The upshot of many such exchanges is synthesized pages later. Observing that “the basic formula for the Biennale is: “no extra money from supportive collector and artist stakeholders equals no Biennale,” Monthoux credits consultant Finders with “smoothly piloting the works of the Venice Biennale into the needed concrete support from collectors” (pp. 103, 105). Noting that such efforts sidestepped any overt corporate placement, Monthoux insists that the recipe for success is a parity of wink and nod amongst familiar insiders. “You need the private numbers,” he reminds his readers, “of people who want and are welcome to play in the art world . . . those who are quick to laugh and smile because smart grins or scornful laughter will not result in fun times or serious business” (p. 104). This denouement of access to art and money begetting itself may seem to be letting itself off too easily, but it is nevertheless highly revelatory. Access is to the art world as fame is to Hollywood—the ineffable stuff that attaches itself to successful agents as both the means to and the result of their efforts.

Extrapolating outwards from there, we read in Monthoux’s volume an attempt to establish a new kind of theoretical genealogy that links the power figures of today—uber curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, pharma heiress Maja Hoffman, his own network of business-inflected curators—back to art in the expanded commercial sphere—pioneers like curator Harald Szeeman. Szeeman’s When Attitude Becomes Form (1969) was indeed a monumental and historically significant show. Nearly five dozen artists from numerous countries overtook the Kunsthalle Bern with an explosion of post-minimal and anti-form work that was quietly underwritten by Philip Morris and the giant public relations firm Rudder and Finn. While the show set a precedent to be followed by sophisticated Biennales and lowbrow Fairs for decades, the actual exhibition is frequently held up as a kind of bad object, an unsightly twin to the nearly contemporaneous Anti Illusion exhibition at the Whitney. Szeeman’s show is arguably just like Tucker’s, but with its shirt unbuttoned a bit too low and wearing far too much cologne. Monthoux is motivated to recuperate his intellectual ancestry but grasps at straws looking for the justification.

Indeed, a theoretical armature is sorely lacking here. There is little interrogation of who has the cherished commodity of access to the well-heeled circuit, or attention given to what might happen to this world as the broad impulse to democratization pushes towards fragmentation and leveling. Moreover, for a volume entitled Curating Capitalism, there is little probing at the historicity of either term. Readers would have benefited from an analysis of the evolution from caretaking to taste-making (and algorithmic arrangement) in the former case, as well as shifts in capital structures, wealth concentrations and or macroeconomies in the latter. Both concepts have been rewritten in their entirety in the six decades that the book addresses, but the reader is little the wiser.

All told, Monthoux’s book provides an incisive look through the keyhole at how the ultra-wealthy and the deeply connected figure each other and their imprint on art and society. But once the thrill of its highbrow reality show realism wears off, it’s mostly just a bore.