Émile Zola’s 1886 novel L’Oeuvre follows the doomed career of the painter Claude Lantier, the most talented of a band of rebellious young artists in 1860s Paris. A rough composite of Manet and Cézanne, Lantier exhibits his manifesto-like painting Plein Air, modeled on Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, at the 1863 Salon des Refusés, where it is roundly mocked:
Some young fellows went into contortions, as if somebody had been tickling them. One lady had flung herself on a seat, stifling and trying to regain breath with her handkerchief over her mouth. Rumors of this picture, which was so very, very funny, must have been spreading, for there was a rush from the four corners of the Salon, bands of people arrived, jostling each other, and all in eagerness to share the fun.
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Determined to make the salon-going public recognize his genius, Lantier spends the rest of his life trying and failing to complete what he believes will be his masterpiece, watching from the sidelines as his former friends and rivals win fame and fortune for watered-down versions of his radical pictorial innovations. In the end, broken and destitute, he hangs himself in his studio next to the painting, which isn’t a masterpiece at all but an incoherent mess. Zola had once championed the Impressionists, but this novel seemed to suggest they had failed to live up to their potential. It was scathing enough to end his friendship with Cézanne. After the book’s publication, they never spoke again.
Fictional portrayals of the art world today are rarely more flattering, but new stock tropes have replaced salon-going philistines foolishly jeering at the avant-garde and pompous painters assured of their superiority. The contemporary art world is, more often than not, represented as a ridiculous shell game in which empty provocation is propped up by canny marketing and rampant financial speculation. Collectors are rich idiots looking to be flattered, gallerists are shrewd capitalists who cloak luxury retail operations in the pretense of a higher calling, curators are overeducated airheads in Prada who have memorized the Frankfurt School Cliff’s Notes, successful artists are talentless fakers who look the part, or naive and corruptible dupes. Critics, of course, are bloviating hacks, not to mention, the dumbest ones of all, since they don’t even stand to profit from their participation in this charade. Even novels that depict meaningful encounters with contemporary artworks tend to regard the art world itself skeptically, as if the work succeeds in spite of the best efforts of professionals who smother it with slick pretentiousness: in both Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014), parts of which are set at a residency in Marfa, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s picaresque The Illogic of Kassel (2014), a fictionalized account of the author’s participation as a “writer in residence” at Documenta 13, the protagonists liken themselves to visitors to an alien planet inhabited by strange, unintelligible creatures.
All the familiar grotesques appear in Siri Hustvedt’s 2014 novel, The Blazing World, presented as an anthology reconstructing the murky details of Harriet Burden’s project “Maskings” (1998–2003), a hoax for which the sixty-something Burden, bristling at decades of art world neglect, enlisted three young male artists to exhibit her works as their own. Through annotated excerpts from Burden’s diaries, archival press clippings, and interviews with family, friends, and participants in her scheme, witting and unwitting, we learn that Burden had a minor career as an artist in the 1970s and ’80s, but is better known as the lumbering and unpleasant wife of the esteemed art dealer Felix Lord. Her work, to the extent that anyone notices it, is dismissed as “high-flown, sentimental, and embarrassing.” When Felix dies, the art world—“that incestuous, moneyed, whirring globule composed of persons who buy and sell aesthetic objets”—has no use for her at all, and she retreats with his money to the distant wilds of Brooklyn to plot her revenge. Attached to more appealing authorial personas—a photogenic recent SVA grad named Anton Tish, the gay Black performance artist Phineas Q. Eldridge, and the mononymic Rune, a blue-chip bad boy who thinks it all sounds like a lark—Burden’s work, she believes, will finally get the recognition it deserves, at which point she will appear from behind the curtain, not only presenting the art world with devastating evidence of its own sexist bias, but proving that she has been smarter and better than the “twits, dunderheads, and fools” all along.
Naturally, things do not go according to plan. Though Anton’s and Rune’s shows are rapturously received—Phineas’s is, tellingly, a more modest success, garnering a few short, positive reviews, but none of the fanfare lavished on his straight white counterparts—Burden’s attempts to take credit are met with derision and disbelief. Anton disappears and Rune denies everything, claiming that “Harriet Lord” is merely a delusional patron. (Phineas is the only one of the “masks” to openly confirm Burden’s account, but also the one whose word matters least.) The various critics, collectors, and gallerists who have embraced the work, each more slippery and odious than the next, find it far easier to believe that she is a mad, jealous harpy than an unheralded artistic genius. “I am as tickled by a good hoax as the next person,” says the critic Oswald Case, “but a fiftyish woman who’s been hanging around the art world all her life can’t really be called a prodigy can she?” In the end, Rune gets the last word, dying spectacularly in a Houdini-esque performance gone wrong, with Burden’s installation Beneath hailed as the crowning achievement of his already distinguished career. No such glowing tributes are forthcoming when Burden herself dies from cancer not long after; only years later does her work enter the cycle of posthumous rediscovery that has elevated so many women artists of her generation.
While Hustvedt’s Harriet Burden is the raging embodiment of thwarted ambition, Jed Martin, the dispassionate artist protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory (originally published in French in 2010), effortlessly rises to the top. The two novels’ supporting players, however, are quite similar. The Map and the Territory, for which Houellebecq won the Prix Goncourt, opens as Martin wrestles with an allegorical portrait titled Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. It isn’t conceived as a critique so much as an even-handed assessment of the field: “On the ArtPrice ranking of the richest artists, Koons was number 2,” recently overtaken by Hirst, Martin notes. He himself is at the bottom of the list, but not for long: later that year, he sells out a show of paintings similarly depicting tête-à-têtes among titans of various industries, netting him a staggering 15 million euros ($19.9 million), even after his gallerist’s 50 percent cut; in a metafictional twist, the catalogue essay is written by none other than the famous writer Michel Houellebecq, who, in the book’s final section, is gruesomely murdered by an art thief seeking the portrait he received as compensation, now valued in the low eight figures. Though the novel is set roughly in the aughts, it purports to be written from the vantage of the mid-twenty-first century, when Martin is a decidedly canonical artist, and his ascent is narrated with a biographer’s hindsight, peppered with references to art historical monographs by specialists like Wong Fu Xin. (In the future, cultural hegemony belongs to China.)
Martin’s initial artistic breakthrough comes when he has a profound aesthetic encounter with a roadmap en route to his grandmother’s funeral in the French countryside. Houellebecq narrates the incident in perfect deadpan: “Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning, as this 1/150,000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and the Haute-Vienne.” He begins producing exquisite, large-scale photographs of Michelin maps, to the great delight of the Michelin Group, whose publicist, a Slavic goddess named Olga, recognizes that the universe has dropped a gift into her lap. A solo exhibition is organized at the company’s headquarters, to ecstatic reviews; one especially orotund example, ascribed to the real-world Le Monde art critic Patrick Kéchichian, describes Martin as “adopt[ing] the point of view of a God coparticipating, alongside man, in the (re)construction of the world,” comparing the artist’s “rational theology” to that of Thomas Aquinas. One day, the Michelin series is simply done, and Martin moves on, practically on a whim, to the paintings that cement his reputation as a twenty-first-century master: portraits representing a cross-section of contemporary professions, from horse butcher to tech CEO. The critic Kéchichian believes the series represents “God descended among men . . . to pay homage, with his full presence, to the sacerdotal dignity of human labor”; the art historians of the future call it “a relational and dialectical image of the functioning of the economy of the whole”; the artist says it’s simply “an account of the world.”
The Blazing World and The Map and the Territory were both received in literary spheres as penetrating commentaries on the art world’s mystifying inner workings. Yet like most art world satires, they are remarkably unrevealing, particularly to those of us who slum it down here in the world of appearances. If the contemporary art world’s excesses easily lend themselves to absurdist caricature, they also tend to immunize it against satire’s most eviscerating effects: it’s all but impossible to pierce the veil to reveal some sordid, unspoken truth, because the art world’s messy contradictions are already right on the surface, even flaunted, as a seemingly oxymoronic category like “canonical works of institutional critique” makes clear. The art world sexism Hustvedt diagnoses is painfully real, but the force of her critique is blunted by the sheer clownishness of her villains, sniveling one-dimensional monsters who seem viscerally repulsed by the very prospect of a female artist, while bowing down to any white man with a BFA.
Indeed, the bite of Houellebecq’s novel lies less in its predictable depictions of culture class inanity than in the sharp contrast between Martin’s blank passivity and the manic zeal with which his work is received, by the art press and deep-pocketed collectors alike. Throughout the novel, his indifference is taken as a sign of artistic integrity, his silence when he can’t think of anything to say as high-minded commitment: “Jed adopted, without knowing it, the groovy attitude that had made Andy Warhol successful in his time, while adding to it a nuance of seriousness—immediately interpreted as a concerned seriousness, a citizen’s seriousness.” The overriding impression is that the affectless Jed and his work, which aspires to nothing more than transcription, are ideal art world avatars precisely because of their absolute neutrality, assimilable into whatever narrative best suits a given context. This, at least, rings true.
The popular suspicion that contemporary art is one long con is nothing new: think, for instance, of the studio audience howling at John Cage’s televised performance of “Water Walk” on the 1960s game show “I’ve Got a Secret” (his “secret” is that the composition calls for instruments including a bathtub, a vase of roses, a bottle of wine, and a rubber duck) or the cult classic “Batman” episode “Pop Goes the Joker” (1967), in which the Joker enters an art competition and beats out internationally renowned painters like “Jackson Potluck,” who rolls around in a bathtub of paint, and “Leonardo da Vinski,” whose pet monkey hurls tomatoes at an easel, by submitting a blank canvas that the haughty judges interpret as a comment on “the emptiness of modern life.” But Houellebecq and Hustvedt’s novels leave the art alone, reserving their scorn for the social and institutional forces around it. The Map and the Territory is ultimately agnostic about Martin’s work, despite Houellebecq’s disdain for the coterie of collectors, publicists, critics, and gallerists who orchestrate—and profit from—its meteoric rise, while Hustvedt’s Burden is clearly meant to be read as difficult but brilliant, even if the fictional oeuvre the author invents for her doesn’t quite bear that out. The problem isn’t contemporary art, these novels suggest, but the sordid environment in which it circulates, a vacuum of money, celebrity, and self-righteous pretension.
But no one is scandalized by the revelation that, say, Hollywood and the fashion industry are full of multimillionaires with bloated egos who subordinate creativity to commerce, or that they’re driven by the pursuit of cheap novelty and hype. It is precisely because art is imagined to belong on some higher plane, to exist at an ideal remove from other kinds of things that are bought and sold, that the art world’s follies have come to stand in for contemporary society at its most bankrupt and debased.
This association is by now so entrenched that the conventional satirical tropes have migrated into novels that aren’t really about the art world at all: the negative image of the art world is invoked not to skewer its hypocrisy, venality, or elitism, but to establish an atmosphere of disturbing vacuousness, setting characters loose in a low-stakes realm of pure surface that throws their psychic crises into sharp relief. In Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s The Exhibition of Persephone Q (2020), for instance, an encounter with the art world prompts the narrator, Percy—recently married, newly pregnant, ambivalent about both, as with most things in her life—to reckon with the extent of her own alienation. Having established Percy as “the sort of person who accepted rather than shaped her circumstances,” Stevens sets the plot in motion with the arrival of an unmarked package at her doorstep: the catalogue for an exhibition by a long-gone ex-fiancé, now a celebrated artist, revolving around a photograph of a nude woman facing away from the camera. Mulling over the exhibition text, with its authoritative assertions about what the woman thinks, feels, and represents, Percy suddenly realizes that the picture is of her, a revelation inspired only by the nagging familiarity of the objects in the room. Worse, no one believes her: “Sorry, but I don’t usually take pictures of Americans,” the artist obnoxiously offers by way of a denial; when she visits the gallery, an employee coolly declares that “it just isn’t the sort of thing the artist would do.” Percy’s estranged sense of self is surreally doubled by the art establishment’s insistence that she is necessarily wrong because the work’s narrative won’t allow it, the artwork’s identity presumed to be more internally coherent than her own.
The unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) is “tall and thin and blond and pretty and young.” She repeats this refrain throughout the novel, as if these are the truly salient facts about her life, from which all other details flow. Her parents—distant father, alcoholic mother—died during her junior year at Columbia, leaving her a sizable inheritance that enabled her to purchase an Upper East Side apartment in cash shortly after graduation and now supplements her $22,000 salary as a Chelsea gallery assistant.
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The narrator’s main function at the fictional Ducat gallery is to be “hip decor,” which makes her “amazing wardrobe” her most valuable professional asset, Ivy League art history degree notwithstanding. “I was the bitch who sat behind a desk and ignored you when you walked into the gallery, a pouty knockout wearing indecipherably cool avant-garde outfits. I was told to play dumb if anyone asked a question.” Not that she minds: “I had no big plan to become a curator, no great scheme to work my way up a ladder. I was just trying to pass the time.” Her job is so fundamentally pointless and inessential that it takes nearly a full year for her icy boss Natasha to notice that she spends half the workday napping in a supply closet, which isn’t even a fireable offense. She is finally dismissed after fucking up a shipment to Art Basel; her only regret is that she’d “wasted so much time on unnecessary labor when I could have been sleeping and feeling nothing.”
Ducat is a never-ending parade of faux subversion, “canned counterculture crap, ‘punk, but with money,’ nothing to inspire more than a trip around the corner to buy an unflattering outfit from Comme des Garcons.” The newest star of the stable is Ping Xi, a twenty-three-year-old provocateur with fake acne tattooed on his chin, whose gallery debut features Pollockesque splatter paintings made by masturbating onto canvas with powdered pigment in the tip of his penis, given titles like Decapitated Palestinian Child and Bombs Away, Nairobi. A follow-up comprises an installation of taxidermic purebred dogs with red lasers shooting from their eyes, rumored to have been acquired by the artist as puppies and raised until they reached the perfect size. No matter how repulsive the narrator finds Ducat’s milieu, Moshfegh suggests that it is the only natural place for a figure so preternaturally jaded, interminably bored, hopelessly shallow. Bracingly caustic, the novel stresses the contrast between the narrator’s oft-mentioned physical beauty and the curdling personality it masks, sharply doubled in a gallery where artistic gestures, ranging from merely dumb to shockingly cruel, are elegantly framed for elite consumption.
Young, rich, blond, thin, pretty: the world is hers, and yet all she wants to do is sleep. The novel charts her escalating attempts to anesthetize herself with Whoopi Goldberg movies on VHS and fistfuls of assorted pharmaceuticals: Risperdal, Xanax, Lithium, Ambien, Trazodone, as well as novelistic inventions like Infermiterol, which causes her to black out for days at a time, waking up surrounded by food and lingerie she can’t remember ordering and stamps on her hand from clubs she can’t remember going to. Though her indiscriminate pill-popping betrays a casual disregard for her own physical well-being, the narrator isn’t exactly suicidal; if she initially self-medicates to drown out her own misanthropic thoughts, her haphazard regimen progressively evolves into something more grandiose, a quasi-artistic project of complete spiritual transformation. Entering a symbiotic partnership with Ping Xi, she plans to spend the final months of the titular year of rest and relaxation in full hibernation, waking for only a few hours a week to eat, hydrate, and bathe. In exchange for bringing her necessities, he has free rein to make use of her in his own work, so long as he disappears before she returns to consciousness. At the end, she would emerge “renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”
Like the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Mathilde de Saint-Evans, the wispy protagonist of Stephanie LaCava’s self-serious The Superrationals (2020), is another beautiful twentysomething orphan with an art history degree from Columbia. She works in a loosely defined client relations position in the contemporary department of an unnamed upscale auction house, a role that mostly entails being blankly alluring around would-be consignors. The novel unfolds as a sequence of gauzy vignettes, variously told from the perspectives of Mathilde and others in her orbit, among them a Greek chorus of coworkers identified as simply “The Girls,” who seem to speak and think in one voice, mostly about how much they inexplicably loathe Mathilde. (“We had decided we didn’t like Mathilde even before we met her,” they snipe, by way of an introduction; she’s “weird,” “looks like an alien,” “so fucking cool and Bohemian.”) Interspersed throughout are excerpts from a hackneyed essay in progress by Mathilde, yoking together Mike Kelley, Cy Twombly, Marcel Broodthaer’s [sic], and Carolee Schneemann under the ponderous title “Transmuting Desire: Memory, Mannequins, and the Contemporary Reliquary, An Exploration of the Unsaid, Unseen, Uncanny Space, the In Between.” (In an interview with Texte zur Kunst, LaCava stressed that she meant for Mathilde’s text to be bad, and it is, but whatever critical intentions she had in mind here are muddied by a close resemblance to the prose in the rest of the book.)
Following the art world’s peripatetic flows, Mathilde flits between locations—New York, Paris, Berlin, London—“herding objects” from one place to the next; she is perpetually arriving, leaving, arriving somewhere else. The cities bleed together, so little does the routine change from place to place: airport, hotel, collector’s home, artist’s studio, auction house office, of which there are naturally satellites spread throughout the globe. With its barely sketched settings and stock types, The Superrationals casts the world its characters inhabit as flimsy and unreal, so detached from anything on the ground that they all but defy the laws of time and space.
Mathilde does not so much choose the art world as she is gravitationally pulled by it, as a pretty, pedigreed young woman who knows she’s supposed to aspire to something, but can’t decide what. Hovering in the background is her mythical late mother, a storied fiction editor who died young—not much older than Mathilde is now—but had a genuine calling, whereas Mathilde can only flail around, unsure of what to do or whom to be. Less a person than a spectral image that materializes out of thin air whenever, wherever she’s called, Mathilde is so constitutionally passive that, at the novel’s close, her boss intercepts her on her way to a dinner and she follows him up to his hotel room, even though she knows what’s coming, mustering little more than a head shake as he assaults her. Rather than quitting, she intentionally bungles a shipping form, an act of rebellion so subtle that The Girls, smugly cleaning out her desk after she’s fired, cluck that they’d known she was an idiot all along.
Pretty, overeducated orphans who serve as high-end window dressing, finally set loose by an errant shipment from jobs they disdain: despite their striking differences in tone, ambition, and, in the end, quality, the similarities between Moshfegh and LaCava’s novels are telling. Less concerned with depicting the contemporary art world than invoking it as a theater of anomie, they sketch out its most basic, vapid contours and let the reader’s own worst assumptions fill in the blanks. Equally telling is that the resolution of the protagonists’ psychodramas is signaled by leaving the art world behind: in the final pages of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, after the narrator rises from her pharmaceutical haze for the last time “like a newborn animal” ready to meet the world, she skips Ping Xi’s exhibition of her portraits at Ducat and heads instead to the Met, where she stares at the old masters with earnest wonder.
These novels trade in clichés, and clichés are often true: Hell probably does look a lot like the VIP lounge at Art Basel Miami Beach. But in their gleefully cynical portrayals of the art world as an insular playpen for billionaires, mean girls, and fools, they miss the crux of what makes these tendencies so troubling in the first place. In her 2019 novel Oval, art critic Elvia Wilk evokes the art world’s present-day dilemmas by imagining its grim near future. The novel is set in Berlin, ca. soon, where the weather is always weird and the sinister corporation Finster grabs up entire city blocks through dubious greenwashing proposals. Here, galleries have become “venues for product launches and release parties and initial coin offerings” instead of exhibitions, and artists vie for contracts as corporate artists-in-residence. The narrator Anja’s partner, Louis, an American with an MFA, is one such “consultant,” at a vague NGO called Basquiatt (like everything else, eventually purchased by Finster), where his role is to “[show] the institution how to think better, how to critique its institutionality.” In the old days of the art world, Anja explains:
Things got sold, but it was understood that the buyers were buying into the artists’ whole brand via the object. The object stood in for something: a share of the artist’s sum total life’s worth. The object was a token for speculation on that life’s worth. Over time the objects had begun to seem more and more incidental to that speculation. Sponsors realized that using artists as object-makers was a waste of resources. The artists’ true value was their proximity to the vanguard, that is, the future, that is the next niche for market expansion.
The ease with which contemporary art’s conceptual armature is appropriated by corporations is familiar from our own present; Oval’s art world simply cuts out the middleman. In redefining art as ambient creativity, artists have ostensibly been freed from the limiting imperative to produce unique, precious objects that circulate in a circumscribed elite sphere, but the alternative Wilk envisions is hardly more promising: the old avant-garde dream of merging art and life has been achieved, yet the result is corporate servitude instead of liberation, with art finally subsumed into branding.
At the start of the novel, Louis has just returned from his mother’s funeral in the States, and disappears for days at a time to work on a mysterious project in his Basquiatt studio: a designer club drug that encourages generosity, flooding the user’s brain with serotonin when they give things away. The goal of this chemical Gesamtkunstwerk is to permanently transform the city’s social relations without having to bother with the messiness of political education or consciousness raising: Louis believes that the drug, called Oval, will be like “one of those mindfulness apps, but actually effective,” brain-training self-absorbed Berlin creatives to associate “being nice and feeling good.”
Attempting to artificially manufacture an enlightened public by dosing partygoers with a pharmaceutical developed by an artist embedded in an NGO embedded in a multinational corporation has predictably disastrous results: social fractures can’t be so easily resolved. The avowedly apolitical Anja is the only character to recognize that this plan is both unhinged and doomed to fail—a sign of how fully the ideology of disruption has penetrated her and Louis’s social and professional circles. Louis’s neoliberal Productivism is an illustration of what emerges when artists and institutions identify too closely with the logic and interests of a technocratic elite: the belief that the path to a better world is lined with individual creativity and private capital.
Relics of our art world remain in Oval: the jockeying for status, the insider hierarchies, the suddenly shifting winds of taste, the elaborate promotional scaffolding surrounding each new project. “If there was a formal device signaling continuity between the old and new systems,” says Anja, “it was the press release. . . . You still needed an explanation for what was going on.” But Wilk doesn’t take these tics and rituals for granted as signs of spiritual emptiness; she adapts them for Oval’s universe, rendering them subtly surreal. At one point, Anja attends a farewell party for a consultant whose career has stalled: “She’d been ‘emerging’ forever, up into her forties, but instead of making the transition to ‘mid-career’ that should have happened by this time, she’d veered off course. She hadn’t been rehired by her company and she hadn’t been hired anywhere else.” Later, she describes the sudden stratification of the crowd that occurs in the final minutes of an opening, when it becomes evident who has and hasn’t secured an invitation to the dinner after: “The invitees politely and/or condescendingly disengage from their sorry companions, casually mentioning ‘a dinner,’ which everyone knows to be the Dinner, making promises to meet up later, kissing, kissing, then slipping off. The event is left without its lifeblood; the people who own the venue may even be gone; only the interns are left tending to the evaporating crowd.” In Oval’s future, the artwork is expendable, but the press release is still compulsory; this may be the most damning detail of all.
This article appears in the July/August 2021 issue, pp. 54–61.