Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Zombie Formalism: Or, How Financial Values Pervade the Arts



Damien Hirst, Dantrolene (1994)

What follows is a guest post by Sarah Hegenbart.

Once upon a time, the month of June was jet-set season for the international artworld. After a meet and greet at the preview days at the Venice Biennale, which used to take place in early June, the crowd of artists, curators, critics, dealers, and collectors jumped on a plane, a train, or a yacht heading towards Basel, Switzerland. Basel wakes up at least once a year when astronomical amounts of money are paid for works so contemporary that the paint on the canvases has hardly finished drying. Or possibly even works that are such hot shit that they are not available yet because they are still on view in one of the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale. But the unavailability only increases the desire. (This is a pattern recognizable from other unhealthy relationships, too.) Knowing the economic laws of supply and demand, clever dealers strategically positioned themselves in the pavilions of the Venice Biennale to advertise their artistic assets.

Observing recent art world phenomena and the ways in which financial values pervade the perception of aesthetic value, I have to confess that I have lost trust in it and its authority. Some others have, too. The British artist Jeremy Deller, for example, criticized the privileged treatment of the super-rich in his mural We sit starving amidst our gold. The painting features a giant man wearing an old fashioned suit who angrily throws a miniature yacht into the lagoon. The surfaces of the Venetian skyline in the background of the picture indicate where the outburst of anger takes place. The work formed part of his exhibition English Magic in the British Pavilion, and referenced a situation that had occurred during the preview days of the Venice Biennale in 2011. That year, a yacht belonging to billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich moored directly in front of the Giardini, the site of the Biennale. Its enormous size not only infuriated locals, since it blocked the view onto St Mark’s, but also operated as a symbol for the influence global capitalism exerted on the Bienniale. In fact, the man depicted in Deller’s mural is not just anyone, but the famous British Arts and Crafts artist William Morris. Deller described him as “a true artist, with incredibly strong beliefs: artists wouldn’t get involved like that today.”

If the artworld appears to cater increasingly to the desires of the global rich elite, we have to ask how this impacts the assessment of the value of an artwork. This is a serious issue. Public institutions and art events exert an increasing influence on the generation of financial values. The curatorial decision to include an artwork into an exhibition or biennial offers a strong incentive to dealers to advertise the exhibits to a higher prize. But is it only the art institution that has an impact on the generation of financial values, or does the world of finance also influence the creation of aesthetic value in artworks?

Zombie formalism suggests that it does. “Zombie formalism” refers to a type of art designed specifically to cater to the demands of the market. In 2014, the art critic Walter Robinson invented the lovely term to label paintings that possess “certain qualities—a chic strangeness, a mysterious drama, a meditative calm—that function well in the realm of high-end, hyper-contemporary interior design.” The style of zombie formalist paintings is characteristically a type of abstraction (hence “formalism”) that requires sophisticated theorizing in order to be bestowed with meaning. The necessity for the zombie-like return of omnipotent art critics (hence “zombie”) hints towards a problem aestheticians, art critics, and curators all currently face. Robinson particularly targets the American art critic Clement Greenberg here. Greenberg’s essay “‘AmericanTypePainting”, which was initially published in Partisan Review in 1955, provided the intellectual framework that substantially contributed to the fame of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock. However, if we need art critics like Clement Greenberg, the uber-theoretician of abstract expressionism, in order to be able to bestow works of art with value, then do artworks possess value independently of these theoreticians? Moreover, if the artistic decisions of zombie formalists are primarily based on appealing to the market, to what extent do the representatives of art institutions merely underwrite the inflation of the economic value of such paintings by virtue of their endorsements? Clearly, the potential for conflicts of interests between the art institution and the art market are myriad.

Lucien Smith belongs to the generation of zombie formalists. His art is a fake version of abstract expressionism minus the quest for meaning. His aesthetics is decorative and not too distracting (or to say it bluntly: It is boring). It fits nicely behind the couch in the recently purchased townhouse of the nouveau rich and does not distract too much from the curtains in the room either.


Lucien Smith, Witch Bitch Would You Like to Be Like? (2012)

Smith became famous for his so-called Rain Paintings produced in the repetitive factory style of the capital-oriented artist by spraying paint onto canvases with fire extinguishers. Generally, Smith’s aesthetics possesses “the earmarks of the process-type noodling” of flip art. “Flip art” doesn’t refer to the DIY animations of our youth, but to art that, like many houses, gets “flipped”. Flip art is treated and traded like stocks, and often tends to rapidly increase in value. The statement accompanying the installation of Smith’s Seven Rain Paintings (at the OH WOW Gallery in Los Angeles in 2012) increases the experience of emptiness that appears to have become the mode of aesthetic experience elicited by such paintings:

“Outwardly, the rain paintings associate with anti-figurative and non-objective practice. … His work acts as a tangible moment, a chronicle of exploration as he negotiates with existence. He reminds us that an artist’s trajectory is a sensory reflection of individual experience.”

This attempt at an explanation of Smith’s Seven Rain Paintings leaves one with hardly any additional information about the installation. While such pseudo-philosophizing is not a new phenomenon, it has become the stock and trade of the contemporary artworld, generating value out of nothing. Robinson traces the origin of this market-aware art movement back to the 1980s when the art market reached its so far highest peak and attracted a new type of investment collector – Charles Saatchi being the most renowned example. Saatchi’s name is inextricably linked with the artist Damien Hirst, one of the most successful of the so-called YBAs (Young British Artists). While a strategy to argue against the impact of zombie formalism on aesthetics and art history might be to claim that this phenomenon only concerns “investor art” but not true art with art historical relevance, Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012 revealed that zombie formalism is not merely an art market phenomenon but has insinuated itself into the very institution that institutional theorists view as responsible for the conferral of art status onto objects.

To understand the institutional theory, it’s important to know a little about its history. It initially emerged in response to a challenge. “Mr. Andy Warhol, the Pop artist,” as the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto calls him in his seminal essay “The Artworld,” challenged conventional aesthetics when he exhibited “facsimiles of Brillo cartons, piled high, in neat stacks, as in the stockroom of the supermarket” in an art gallery. Why are those objects artworks while the Brillo boxes to be found in a supermarket are not? Danto answers that “what in the end makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo Box is a certain theory of art” (emphasis added). One commentator holds that this response sounded the “death knell for aesthetic definitions of art,” i.e., theories that define artworks with regard to the aesthetic properties they possess (like harmony, subtlety, or symbolism).

Danto’s idea that the contextualization within artistic theories initiates the framework of an artworld, which eventually confers art status on a certain object, was the beginning of what is called the institutional theory. While Danto appears to hold a historical account of the artworld (though he avoids spelling out in much detail who precisely belongs to it), the philosopher George Dickie, who developed the institutional theory further, accounted for the artworld in a different way. According to Dickie, the artworld is a social institution determining whether something may – or may not – count as a work of art. Dickie conceives of the artist and the public as “the minimum framework for the creation of art” and even allows for “a number of supplementary artworld roles such as those of critic, art teacher, director, curator, and many more.” But he failed to account for the burgeoning impact the market was exerting on the artworld. This attempt to define the artworld is question begging because it is circular. If the fact that something is embedded within the framework of the artworld is sufficient for it to count as an artwork, then we need to know how to define the artworld. But it looks like the artworld is defined as whatever enables the creation of artworks. It’s like saying that frappuccinos are the things sold at Starbucks, and that Starbucks is the institution that sells frappuccinos. If you’re trying to learn about what Starbucks is and what frappuccinos are, these definitions won’t help you. Dickie did not see this as a major problem. My contention, though, is that the entwinement of the art market with the artworld undermines the institutional theory in a far more serious way than even its inherent circularity. The following examples illustrate why.

During the Olympic Games in 2012, Tate Modern staged an exhibition with the simple title Damien Hirst. That simple title intimated that the retrospective of this global art world phenomenon required no further explication. The lack of a subtitle also conveyed an emptiness that resonated deeply in Hirst’s notorious paintings (have a look at his spot paintings with titles of drugs), sculptures (his diamond skull, for example), and installations (his shark in formaldehyde springs to mind here). So it is not surprising that art historians and critics attributed limited artistic value to Hirst’s practice. Yet there is a striking gap between their assessments and the astronomical, nearly unparalleled economic value the art market attributed to Hirst. Nevertheless, the reasons that led to Tate Modern’s decision to stage this exhibition in a year in which the world would focus on London as an Olympic venue appear dubious. (Isabelle Graw’s book High Price contains a relevant discussion of this.) Was it Hirst’s strong influence on the art market that drove this decision rather than any kind of genuine art historical interest in his work? If a leading institution such as Tate Modern decides to honor one of the predecessors of zombie formalism, the question arises whether the institution still possesses the authority to validate art.

More recently, the gap between the artificially created monetary value of artworks that stands in no relation to their value qua art was spectacularly revealed and exemplified by the British street artist Banksy. At an auction at Sotheby’s London on October 5, 2018, during the notorious Frieze Art Fair, he wrote history with the self-destruction of an artwork. As soon as the hammer fell and his Girl With Balloon was sold for £1.04m, an alarm went off and the astounded audience watched as the piece shredded itself. Banksy later released a video illustrating how he had built a shredder into the frame of the picture.

He purported that by shredding the work he had subverted its incorporation by the financial market. But the very action which was supposed to extract his art from the capitalist system effectively followed the logic of capitalism and constant growth. The shredding, ironically, led to a speculative increase in the financial value of the work.

In both of these cases, art’s monetary value is artificially increased through an institutional act. Yet, this institutional act (i.e. the artistic intention, the discourse created by a commercial art dealer, the contextualization within a major exhibition, and the sale at an auction house) is primarily driven by economic considerations. The drastic increase of the monetary value of key artworks and the tendency to use works of art as speculative investments suggests that the artworld nowadays is substantially different in aspiration and function from the artworld that institutional theorists had in mind. If the artworld is more and more determined by global capital, does it still possess the legitimate authority to function as a validating factor for the conferral of art-status?

To return to Jeremy Deller’s appreciation of William Morris as a “true” artist, one might wonder whether there any artists living up to this standard and, if so, how to figure out who they are. My suspicion is that answering this question requires a standard for evaluation beyond the pressures of the financial markets. It leads us to the demand for a curatorial standard of taste. Curators are usually those who select the items – and the values – to be included in exhibitions, and biennials. Through their act of artistic decision-making, they not only give suggestions of who the “true” artists may be, but also play a role in aesthetic and financial value generation.

The tendency of the artworld to cater to the needs of the super-rich poses a problem for evaluating an artwork since audiences are then presented with evaluations supported by the market. Since curators themselves do not benefit from capitalist spectacle (in contrast to art dealers, artists, and many art institutions), they could function as gatekeepers to guarantee that works are displayed which are relevant artistically rather than merely financially. Contemporary art, moreover, is discourse-dependent and this discourse is strongly influenced by curators. (Needless to say, art critics feature centrally in this discourse, too. However, my focus is on curators since they are the ones whose choice of works forms part of a process of generating financial and aesthetic values.)

Curators thus have a significant responsibility. Their choices both bestow works with art status and contribute to the artificial construction of monetary values. My view is that we require something like a curatorial standard of taste to protect the artworld against arbitrariness and infiltration by the art market. This requires an interdisciplinary effort between art historians and philosophers to restore criticality and autonomous decision making to a sphere in which the free play of artistic creation and curation is increasingly confined by the demands of financial markets. If a curatorial standard of taste can be established, it might go some way toward making the artworld more functional in a way that prevents the perversion of the arts through financial values.

It is telling that even our exemplar zombie formalist Lucien Smith has come to find the market forces that shape the contemporary artworld dysfunctional and unhealthy. In a recent interview, he reflects on his early work and concludes that “the model that was set for me when I was younger … wasn’t a healthy model. It was about sucking up to collectors and trying to sell for the highest prices. That stuff isn’t real. That’s not art.” In a related 2014 TED talk, he spoke out about his depression and drug addiction born from his desire for fame and money. To escape from the artworld, Smith finally retreated to the countryside and is now painting landscapes in Montauk.

Notes on the Contributor:
Dr. Sarah Hegenbart is a philosopher, art historian, and curator. She works as a lecturer in the History of Art and Architecture at the Technical University Munich. Her current research project Diagnosing post-truth politics: Dialogical art and black aesthetics interrogates normative claims of transcultural artworks against the backdrop of philosophical approaches rooted in the Global South. She is also co-editor (with Mara Koelmel) of the anthology Dada Data: Contemporary art practice in the era of post-truth politics (forthcoming). Prior to her current position, Sarah completed her doctorate at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Her dissertation, From Bayreuth to Burkina Faso: Christoph Schlingensief’s Opera Village Africa as postcolonial Gesamtkunstwerk?, explored Opera Village as a testing ground for a critical interrogation of Richard Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Sarah also holds an M.St. in Ancient Philosophy from the University of Oxford and a Magister in Philosophy and History of Art from the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Images via Flickr, Wikimedia
Edited by C. Thi Nguyen


  1. I think your analysis is right for that extreme form of art market and its effects on audiences’ expectations and institutional programming. But I think that if, by some miracle, that market were knocked out of existence, we would still have difficult questions about the economies we live and work in.
    For example, this institutional gate-keeper model keeps the focus on the objects or products of an artist’s labour. More and more I find that to be a problem, not because of any biographical conception of art evaluation but because it allows us to forget that art is produced by artists. It’s almost like curators are prospectors looking for a rare resource, which they can extract and take back to the institution and display to the world. The ethical and economic stance you take to a person that produces something which you benefit from is different from the stance you take to resources you can discover and appropriate (or it ought to). I would say this extractive model is the norm in that part of the art world not populated by the superstars and people with money.
    So, I think the much more interesting and difficult economic/ethical argument is about the conditions in which artists make art and whether those conditions are conducive to them being ‘true’ artists of the kind that the ideal curator might seek out.
    You made a tantalising mention Deller’s appreciation of Morris, bringing the attention to the artist for a moment. It’s important to point out that Morris was born into a wealthy family and had the freedom of action that goes with that, and being a man.

  2. Thank you for your excellent summary of an argument that has been ongoing since the term ‘contemporary’ became tacked onto ‘art.’

    I’m reminded—here in the art hinterlands of Cleveland, Ohio—that the art system/Art System is an ad hoc affair that unfolds somewhere else. However, as an artist/observer I’m fascinated by the various circularities which have accrued to this art system. There cannot be a propositional-evaluative meta-system enabled to subvert those (anti-aesthetic!) circularities. Why? There is no way to defend such an operationalized ‘rational’ evaluative system because it would be always fragile. Whereas, the economic system is robust. Whereas, the encompassing cultural social systems are also robust, and are messy, and are too dynamic and resourceful.

    It is also hard to envision a system which could mediate between the different aesthetic subjectivities of curators—even if those subjectivities could be made to yield (to an unknown extent) to a (largely) non-circular objective system.

    Was Chuck Close correct when he offered, “There are no great undiscovered artists” ? We now have recent research (1) about the conditions for young artists emerging and succeeding. We understand that this art system elevates very few artists on a yearly basis up and out of the middle market. We comprehend the stereo-typical conditions that usually make this elevation possible, and more likely: for example, plucked out of a top ten MFA show, partly subsidized Manhattan crib, a job/internship in the art world, (and, as Jerry Saltz has intimated, possessing ‘good teeth.’)

    Is one powerful historical idea the actual case? You know, the one that holds the sublime aesthetic experience is neither widely available or accessible to all but specific privileged instances of sublime human consciousness; the genius standing in front of genius? If so, the need for expertise is paramount. Art advisors are there to tell the collector: ‘This work is sublime, plus, it will appreciate in value!’

    Meanwhile, in the USA, with its two million plus working artists—I’m adding in photographers—is it even possible that 95% of their creative output is crap in comparison to whatever is burning brightly at a given moment in NYC/LA/Miami/Chicago? Rarity is the token of the financial transactions in the Art System.

    Of course the reality of global cultural systems provides the unremarked upon elephant in the room: there are art systems at lesser scales everywhere! If art is what cultural systems produce then the recently globalized art system proper is set in relief. Art is everywhere. Those small art systems mediate excellence (superiority) all the time; yes, it is a circular mediation; and, what artists, mostly to a person, have to say about it is: “it’s all subjective.” I suppose artists should know better!?

    I note most trained artists sincerely believe that great, exceptional, sublime, art is very rare. But, this is a truism, maybe even is a truism of academic training, and it is unable to serve, obviously, as a proposition. (I’m self-trained.) However, I would love to design the experiment able to tackle the contemporary proposition that the perceived value of artwork in the so-called Art System is always primarily contingent on secondary aspects rather than primary, aesthetic aspects. In other words, it could be demonstrated that most artwork comes to be shuffled off the stage for reasons other than presumptively expert aesthetic valuation deployed to certify valorization.

    (1) Quantifying reputation and success in art
    Samuel P. Fraiberger, Roberta Sinatra, Magnus Resch, Christoph Riedl, Albert-László Barabási

    • The above comment was made by me, Stephen Calhoun.

      The difference between the first- and second-best things in art absolutely seems to escape verbal definition—it is a matter of a hair, a shade, an inward quiver of some kind—yet what miles away in point of preciousness! Absolutely the same verbal formula applies to the supreme success and the thing that just misses it, and yet verbal formulas are all your aesthetics will give. —William James

      Art is not a thing; it is a way. —Elbert Hubbard

  3. This was from a text exchange with BFA or MFA trained friends in Higganum, Pittsburgh, and Shaker Heights. Apologies for the telegraphic concision of some of the points!

    “I think what’s at stake in what this article is about is the subversion of the sign. Lucien Smith is prob. the best focus for it. What is the sign of art? The speculation on art subverts the sign in one direction — toward plutocracy and abstraction (money). To pull the sign back, one has to develop an alternate mode of exchange, which implies an alternate mode of the situation and process of art. Basically, drop money and go for bartering. In so doing, drop conspicuous consumption and the space of flows and go to art as a technique of existence, social labor, politics as social formation over long processes, not gallery installation, etc.

    “But this then falls mighty shittily on most starving artists who then have to fill their days with jobs that take them away from the meaning in existence (sometimes). And so the more basic question is raised: what existence to fashion? Art then becomes a question of personal economy. It becomes philosophical in the ancient sense of experimenting through a way of living, of finding one’s way in a structurally compromised economy.”

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