From Warhol to Koons, Koons to Hirst: The Branding of 'Taste' in 'The Art Prophets'

Such a book as this is a useful reminder that everything, from every source of cultural and technological output, is marketable to someone, somewhere.

The Art Prophets: The Artists, Dealers, and Tastemakers Who Shook the Art World

Publisher: Other
Author: Richard Polsky
Price: $24.99
Format: Hardcover
Length: 261 pages
UK Publication: 2011-12
Author website:
US Publication date: 2011-11

I'm uncomfortable with this book for several reasons. Don’t get me wrong – it’s well-structured, well-argued, informative, and has a very cool cover. There's a sort of clear overlay in place of a traditional dustcover, so text and symbols interact interestingly together. Black, white, red, grey (Mondrian-minimal colours) create a very tasteful interplay and the frontispiece, typeface, and general layout are visually appealing – rather like a text/art display in a modernist gallery. So this is a desirable, small object.

No, it’s not the thing itself that bothers me; there are some excellent chapters here and some really revealing information. Rather, it’s the overall sense that ‘Art’ depends upon the ‘Dealers’ and ‘Tastemakers’ of the title. Richard Polsky is undoubtedly right in almost all of his arguments and accounts, but that doesn’t have to mean that I like it. Ivan Karp, the ‘Tastemaker’ behind the discovery of some of the greatest modern American artists, is Polsky’s template for how to do it. Karp, he reckons, showed the ‘tenacity’ that enabled Andy Warhol to emerge. Warhol in his turn led to Koons, and Koons to Damien Hirst.

However, this is not necessarily a good thing. For certain artists to have mastered the self-branding and broken through in the mega-million dollar market in their lifetimes only throws into sharp relief the penury and obscurity that others have experienced because their style and skill has become outmoded, thanks to the judgment of one of these ‘Prophets’ that Polsky endows with so much capacity. I seriously hope that he means this title as a pun on ‘profits’.

Less obnoxious is the account offered of the discord and disputes that have run parallel to the rise and rise of the art of the comic book artist and graphic novel illustrator. The exploits of Stan Lee at Marvel, whilst pretty harsh on some of his most talented colleagues, have the authenticity of work in the cut and thrust world of publishing. Ruthless as he might have been, Lee guided an entire industry into the 21st century – becoming as mythic in the process as some of his most famous characters. However, Polsky never fails to remind us of the sheer innovation shown by the artists and writers who are behind some of the most famous strips.

Such a book as this is a useful reminder that everything, from every source of cultural and technological output, is marketable to someone, somewhere. Native American Art, Street Art, Poster Art (Chet Helms and Bill Graham’s techniques for recognition – so entertaining!) all have their place once they are identified as a movement and it is the producers of the work that have the most difficult chore. Whilst they are busy creating the art how do they find the time, energy, or even inclination to be their own marketeers?

So, Polsky’s self-aggrandizing ‘prophets’ and ‘visionaries’ have their place – I suppose. It just feels a bit depressing. I like the look of it and the beauty is in the detail, but all in all this is a grim read for idealists like me.


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