Is Machiavelli Relevant to the Contemporary Art World?

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
CLM.2.04 (Clement House)
Anna Dempster, Sotheby's Institute of Art, London, United Kingdom
The Art world is an interesting context in which to study the impacts of inequality - in line with the theme of the broader conference - Inequality in the 21st Century. On the one hand there is evidence to suggest that increased income inequality is correlated with higher prices for art and has driven growth at the top end of the art market (Goetzmann, Renneboog & Spaenjers, 2010). This has also made many artworks out of reach of collectors and connoisseurs who might previously have afforded them and unattainable for institutions, such as public museums, who display them as a public good. On the other hand, the growth in the market as a whole, and particularly that of contemporary art and collectibles, has attracted a greater spectrum of consumers which arguably support a broader range of contemporary artists and make their markets (and livelihood) viable. With increased transparency through the emergence of large scale databases and increased opportunities for engagement with art works, both in re-imagined public spaces (museum, gallery and civic) and in commercial setting (such as art fairs), there is also evidence of a "democratizing" trend. This includes more people than ever engaging in the art world - from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and for different reasons. In either scenario, economic actors and institutions in the art world are faced with extreme uncertainty (Dempster, 2014) and have been forced to adapt or be replaced by an increasing number of alternatives.

This paper aims to provide a reading of art world actors and institutions, informed by the lessons offered by Niccolo Machiavelli in Il Principe, published in 1513. Claimed to be one of the first works of modern political philosophy and certainly one of the most influential and controversial texts of Western literature, a significant dialogue has existed in political theory and philosophy regarding this work's ongoing and contemporary relevance (Mansfield, 1996; D'Amanto, 1972; Strauss, 1954, to name a few). More recently, on the eve of its 500th year anniversary, the book has itself witnessed a renaissance by scholars who have re-assessed it arguing for a more nuanced and positive interpretation (Viroli, 2013). Drawing on the method of using metaphors from other fields to explain current socio-economic structures (Bronk, 2009), this paper will consider whether Machiavelli's insights might help inform a better understanding of both the extremes and wider trends of the contemporary art market.

With its various passages on the acquisition and retention of power, on the qualities necessary for leadership, especially in times of significant turmoil and extreme uncertainty, and the tools and tricks of influence and control, The Princeclearly has currency in any highly uncertain environment where actors have to make decisions with potential major consequence based on little or difficult to access prior information. Although possibly not as significant as concerns about the survival of Princes and States, art world actors and institutions arguably share some contextual and personal qualities with Machiavelli's intended.