by Sophie Cras (translated by Malcolm DeBevoise). Yale University Press, November 2019. 244 p. ill. ISBN 9780300232707 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed May 2020
Sara Quimby Library Director, Institute of American Indian Arts, firstname.lastname@example.org
While rooting itself in the ground of economic discourse and financial language, Artist as Economist: Art and Capitalism in the 1960s, births an inspiring vine of insight that blooms, grows, and intertwines itself around particular works from the 1960s international art scene. These works take monetary and commodity exchange as their subject matter and sometimes their art process itself. Author Sophia Cras offers a fresh look at some well-known artists of the time, namely Yves Klein, Larry Rivers, Andy Warhol, Ray Johnson, Marcel Broodthaers, as well as others, and analyzes specific works that investigate and/or problematize the contemporaneous economic and financial climate that artists found themselves beholden to. As indicated in the title, the artist becomes an economist by situating their art practice within the system of monetary policy, transactional and commodity exchange, investment opportunity, and speculation.
The strongest arguments within the book occur when Cras adeptly weaves interpretation of works with archival and economic history. The first, third, and fourth chapters mostly contextualize artists’ works within the historical dimensions of tumultuous economic policy changes by the government or market forces, often evidenced by popular discourse. The first chapter grounds Yves Klein’s utopian vision of immateriality within contemporary monetary policy, particularly the inconvertibility to the gold standard. This is a thread of an argument that the reader can pull out at different moments in the book; another thread is the art market becoming a place of investment, and subsequently the gallery system as a place of exchange. Cras examines particular works from Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Morris, and Les Levine that specifically immerse their process and resultant art production less in creating subject matter about this evolution, but in the vein of conceptual art, revealing the mechanisms of financial artistic production. Thinner are lines of discussion around the dollar bill or the franc, where they rely on standard iconographic interpretation. In addition, the sometimes uncomfortably close analysis of exchange and economy shadows the socio and gender-based import of certain pieces.
Overall, Cras’ deep research into artist archives fleshes out her account of the persistent and sometimes ambivalent intention of artists to take on the financial system. Cras takes a decidedly apolitical stance, different than that of canonical social art historians, such as T.J. Clark or Thomas E. Crow, by writing an art history that does not take the lamentation of the commodification of culture as its point of origin. Instead, while not disputing this art history, she merely steps aside and reexamines works that employ exchange-based aesthetic dimensions from the ground up. And in so doing, she makes a unique and important contribution to the literature about this time period.