The code of the game

by Alexandre Dias Ramos

| versão em português |

Win or lose, the important thing is to play the game. But, at least read the rules before you start

Chess is a representation, on a board, of a dispute between two kingdoms. Medieval dynasties vied for territory, power and prestige. Any similarity with the art world then, may not be entirely coincidental.

Every art project, exhibition or publication brings into play a large number of actors who play various roles building the procedures, values, and content that make up the broader dynamic of the game. Making a wrong move usually consists of elimination; while moving correctly allows one to pass through the right places, have access to the means and the right people, and win the game.

In The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style: the essential guide for artists, curators, and critics, the author ironically and assertively compares some players in the art world with pieces on the chessboard. The book is certainly about more than this — it is without a doubt an indispensable manual for understanding our ecosystem. However, it is worth focusing on this comparison:

  • The museum director is the King, the most important piece in the game, but also the most contradictory, since he has no power in himself; he can move in any direction, but only to a limited extent. He depends greatly on the support of the other pieces, principally the Queen.
  • The collector is the Queen. She is on the same “team” as the King and is the most powerful and flexible piece. She is able to move all over the board and strongly influences the decisions and strategies of other components. To a great extent, it is she who decides the outcome of the game.
  • The curators are the Rooks, with unilateral powers. They always need the support of the Queen and other pieces to move ahead.
  • The dealers are the Knights. They are unpredictable pieces with long reach that can help the Pawns to survive and, depending on their position on the board, bring them success.
  • The critics are the Bishops, who always move diagonally and carry the moral weight of the game. They support the Pawns from afar and the King and Queen at close range.
  • The artists are the Pawns, the weakest and most fragile pieces, with limited room to maneuver. They are also the most numerous and those that require the most help from all the other pieces. As they advance, they acquire prestige, until, at the other end of the board, they can transform into any other piece (usually a Queen) and determine the rules of the game.

“(…) art chess cannot be won exclusively by using an attack strategy, but rather by combining a technique of fighting and seduction.”1

The player who has the best strategy wins the game. The curator, contrary to popular belief, has very limited power and is constantly dependent on the infrastructure and support of the public and private institutions, collectors, and sponsors involved in the projects. For each one of these it is the money and interests that sustain their support that bear the greatest weight. In a highly contradictory dynamic, the curator becomes better known and more “powerful” the broader they can spread his or her network of relationships with the influential people and institutions, who, in turn, determine the way the curator will play the game.

The comparison proposed by Helguera clearly maps out the range of action of each agent in the art system. He at once demystifies the power of the artist and the curator and portrays the collector as the figure who exercises the most influence over the market. Given that some of the most important art museums in the world are funded and maintained by rich families through the donation of works of art or large quantities of money, we can imagine the influence that some of these collectors have over these institutions.

Being a collector means being a member of a select club of aficionados who can acquire, keep, and show the works they like. This provides the power to share a love of art and to frequent settings where this love is appreciated. At the same time, this privileged position is the one, among the various positions in the art world, which requires the least specialization — simply put, it is enough to have the financial resources to purchase works of art. This deliberately bold statement shows that the system can be powerfully influenced by people (in key positions) who are not as well prepared professionally — as art critics or university professors, for example — and who can, for reasons such as their liking the color blue, the theme adopted by their interior designer, or frugal memories of his spouse, acquire or reject certain works in art galleries, fairs or auctions and, in some way, interfere with the careers of artists, dealers and museums.

On the other hand, the art market tends to be guided by quality and it is certainly true that collectors who are better prepared, more assiduous, and studious have more important collections and operate more professionally in the market, buying not on impulse, but based on a set of factors that include taste, provenance, the style of the artist and the appearance of his or her works in the collections of cultural institutions, thereby turning the purchase into an act that has a positive effect on the market, since it makes sense for the system as a whole.

Playing chess requires time, patience, and a lot of strategy. Each move needs to be thought out in the short, medium and long term; some pieces have to be sacrificed in order to capture others… Everything is visible on the board, but invisible to those unaware of the rules. As Pierre Bourdieu put it, someone is part of the game if they play by its rules and know the code for deciphering them.

The mordant irony of the Pablo Helguera’s book at times seems light-hearted compared to the everyday experience of institutions. “Dark forces” interfere in the rules of the game all the time; we are pieces but, at the same time, players, and — to add a little excitement — we do not even always know whom we are really playing against. It is therefore never too late to read a manual that shows us how to compete (with finesse) with the arms we have and, above all, survive. We also hope there is some room for chance. 


The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style
by Pablo Helguera
132 pages, softcover
Jorge Pinto Books Inc., New York, 2007


1 . Pablo Helguera (2007: 6).