It’s perhaps banal to point out that in a world organized around the flow of capital, art comes to be produced as and operate like any other financial asset. In the twenty-first century, the artwork is a commodity first, property to be bought, owned, and sold. If the dominance of commercial galleries in the social and discursive realms of contemporary art aren’t evidence enough, take the growing canon of artistic practices since at least the postwar period that make their own commodification their material, calling attention to and attempting to interfere with the automatic financialization of the artwork. How did art come to be inseparable from its circulation in the economy, and how might art’s status as property affect our encounters with it?
David Joselit’s new book Art’s Properties takes up the historical development of art becoming private property. Locating this development long before 1945, Joselit proposes an updated ontology of modern art’s property form through an account of the history of the modern museum. All three—art’s commodification, modern art, and the modern museum—are closely intertwined in Joselit’s account. As it appeared in France in the eighteenth century, the modern museum emerged in the midst of revolution, burgeoning discourses around citizenship, liberty, and intellectual property, and ongoing colonial endeavors. Out of this particular political context, Joselit argues, the artwork comes to be alienable as property, illustrated by the nationalization of French cultural patrimony and the systematic plunder of artworks and artifacts in colonial military campaigns (32).
This historically specific “constituent moment,” as Joselit calls it, opens onto the book’s larger concern: “the assertion of moral rights over certain forms of cultural property” (16). Using this broad category, Joselit links two prominent debates in art history: one around the restitution of cultural artifacts looted in colonial endeavors that remain in the collections of Western museums, and the other over questions of representation in contemporary art in Europe and North America. The core questions of Art’s Properties emerge from these two very distinct threads: “on what grounds should art be considered inalienable? By what rights does one claim possession or moral rights over a particular work, image, or subject matter?” (16).
To answer these questions, Joselit embarks on a rigorous analysis of art’s status as property. “Properties” in the book’s title is meant doubly, referring to both the private ownership of an art object and its set of material qualities and aesthetic attributes. This double meaning structures the conceptual underpinning of Joselit’s argument: art becomes alienable—i.e., its ownership transferable—as property through its claim to representation (for instance, representing a nation, community, or identity). This claim derives from its properties, the set of qualities that constitute an artwork, which are inalienable—i.e., nontransferable. Those qualities, he says, can never be exhausted or fully consumed; they can never be thoroughly commodified. Modern art, then, is defined by fundamental transformations in art’s property relations: the art object becoming primarily a commodity and authorship becoming the guarantor of an artwork’s value, in part through the claimed or perceived representation of various identities. It’s a unique thesis that extends the work Joselit began in his 2013 book After Art. Where that earlier text examined then-proliferating digital networks and how images circulate through them, Art’s Properties responds to the total financialization of life in the decade since to think about how art comes to operate as a form of private property.
The book is divided into two distinct sections, physically separated by glossy plates: the first half attends to theoretical concerns and historical narration, establishing the historical and conceptual basis of his argument; the second half becomes more concrete, grounding the argument primarily in an analysis of the controversy around Dana Schutz’s 2016 painting Open Casket and the discourse produced around it. It’s a slim book, adhering to Joselit’s characteristic concision, but, unlike the sharp, direct argumentation found in After Art, the text here is dense, at times abstract and difficult to follow. To deal with this density, Joselit inserts a strong first-person meta-narration that gives the text some structure and clarity. Often this involves repeating main ideas and softening his assertions: “if, as I have argued, art’s ontological fundament is its alterity, then…” (43), “I think it’s fair to claim…” (48), “It is my belief that…” (79). Alex Kitnick, in his review of Art’s Properties, describes Joselit’s thesis as almost seeming “designed to encourage readers to search out exceptions.”1 It’s a useful rhetorical strategy for readers who might not immediately be on board with (or understand!) his argument, but it doesn’t always convince.
Strikingly, for a book marketed as investigating “how artworks are captured as property to legitimize power,” it makes no explicit mention of capitalism. It’s not that capitalism is irrelevant to Joselit’s concerns—on the contrary, it is essential to the genesis of the museum, to art’s proprietary relations in the eighteenth century and beyond, and to the contemporary artworks discussed in the book’s second half. Kitnick names capitalism in the opening line of his review, suggesting that it is indeed part of Joselit’s analysis. And it’s not that capitalism’s historical influence is obfuscated in Joselit’s discussions; it’s apparent when, for instance, he identifies the shift of art’s commercial structure from patronage to an art market (40), when he discusses the nature of property relations in the West, noting that “a proprietary person is the only kind of subject legible under the law in liberal democracies” (52), or when he makes passing mentions of the bourgeois subject or neoliberalism. But Joselit narrates these historical developments as if they occurred independently of larger economic developments and without addressing the social and political transformations that gave way to, for instance, the bourgeois subject or liberal democracy in the West. Capitalism is taken for granted here and its literal absence leaves conspicuous holes in the text, the most glaring of them the resulting Eurocentrism that underlies the book’s narrative. The questions around restitution relative to art’s property relations also go unanswered, never surfacing in the second half.
Rather than an oversight, however, capitalism’s absence seems like an intentional omission that makes clear that Joselit’s concern is with a theoretical notion of art’s properties, not with a more empirical, economic one. The limits of this scope become apparent in his treatment of contemporary artworks in the second half, where he eschews discussions of the commercial dimension of their property relations. In his analysis of the discourse produced around Schutz’s painting, for instance, Joselit focuses on how the content of the painting, the source image of Emmett Till (which is unexpectedly reproduced in the book’s plates opposite the painting), and the artist’s identity were debated in terms of property—who has the right to what history and imagery on what basis. This focus evades one of the central requests in the letter authored by Hannah Black, that the painting not enter any market and that the artist not profit off the painting through its sale. Of course, the moment the painting was exhibited it entered a market, but Schutz stated publicly that she never intended to sell the painting. Still, the painting exists as a commodity—it will presumably remain the artist’s property and is undoubtedly insured for some value—and the attention Schutz received during the 2017 Whitney Biennial undoubtedly had an effect on her overall market price. Yet, the painting as property in this sense—as an alienable object—and how this might complicate its other property claims go unexamined.
After lengthy attention to the statements and responses produced around Open Casket, Joselit proposes that
The enduring significance of the Schutz controversy is thus the clarity with which it manifests a constitutive impasse of modern and contemporary art at a moment of racial reckoning. For the proprietary model of art, which has characterized modernity since at least the late eighteenth century, is inadequate to address the white supremacy inherent in possessive individualism. (95–6)
As in After Art, Joselit maintains the progressive power of art in Art’s Properties, here implying that a painting could address white supremacy if only it could do away with the “burden of representation.” His solution, then, to the “proprietary regime of art” is “to exit the proprietary regime of possessive individualism” (96), achieved by creating the conditions for witnessing rather than consuming. This, he argues, can address injustice.
The moral imperative in Joselit’s argument follows his optimistic contention throughout the book that art’s power is its infinite capacity to generate experience over time, which can only be elicited, he concludes, through a “dispossessed gaze.” But is such a gaze at all possible when our encounters with art are almost always mediated through its status as private property? And wouldn’t this conclusion require a critique of capitalism? Isn’t it capitalism that cultivates and promotes the “proprietary regime of possessive individualism” and its subject—the consumer, the proprietor, the possessive gazer—as the white bourgeois subject par excellence? It seems neglectful to argue that art has the capacity to address injustice without considering the ways in which artworks as commodities, i.e., property, can act as agents of injustice, enmeshed in transactions and conditions of racial capitalism premised on various forms of dispossession and expropriation. It is precisely these difficult, conflicting entanglements that are contained and laid bare in Cameron Rowland’s work, with which Joselit concludes the book. For Joselit, however, Rowland’s objects remain only witnesses to the conditions of their production and history, narrating both to the dispossessed gaze.
By the end of Art’s Properties, there’s a sense that, in this account, art’s alienability—its circulation primarily as a commodity—has no effect on how we engage with or encounter the artwork. It’s hard to agree when art’s production, exhibition, and circulation are largely dictated by the capital that flows into and around it. Nevertheless, a fundamental question remains about what, exactly, this relationship is between the effect an artwork can have on a viewer or on political discourse and its circulation as alienable property. The book begins to move toward that question, but it seems to suggest that we are resigned to the artwork as commodity. It is admittedly difficult to imagine an art world in which property relations do not dominate—an art world that could exist independently of capitalism—but what might art’s role be if it could transcend its capture as property? What would art be if it weren’t property? Perhaps then it could engage meaningfully in politics or social relations, and we could reasonably hold it accountable to those aspirations. And, perhaps, its aesthetic mediation would resonate anew. Arts Properties’ lasting contribution is pointing toward these questions and, ideally, compelling us to take them seriously.