Corporations dominate our thinking as we begin this last decade of the 20th century. Corporate America is being challenged by corporate Japan. Europe must amalgamate in order to meet the challenges of both ... and not to lose out in the sell-off which is bound to take place as the Soviet corporation begins to break up. In this rapidly changing social/cultural environment, the state is increasingly understood in corporate terms - yesterday's old-fashioned bureaucrat is today's modern manager. Cultural institutions, including museums, are no exception and corporate architecture, corporate ideology, corporate sponsoring is something that is now shared by most modern museums - and the works of art on display are obliged to struggle with the schizophrenia of being simultaneously their own autonomous selves and examples of corporate largesse.
Something has happened to the artwork during its passage from studio into the corporate space of the museum collection. It has been purchased - and in corporate culture this kind of transaction stands hierarchically above all others in the scale of meaning. Regardless of the intention of the artist, the act of purchase transforms the work into a consumer durable of the most formally pure kind. In fact works of art, in the context of advanced industrial societies, are the ultimate icons of consumption, having no other functional value of any real importance except perhaps of providing employment in the art industry. The central problem for serious artists working in the western industrial countries today - and soon to be eagerly confronted by the industrial countries of the East is that, at the moment of sale, the work of art becomes a part of - even a picture of - the market economy and all other meanings are reduced to a supporting role. For artists concerned with social / political / ecological issues the situation is even more critical. In tactical terms, all that a corporate target for a critical artist would have to do to neutralise the attack and turn it to its own advantage is to buy the work and donate it to a museum. This would be more effective in the long run - and much much cheaper - than reforming the mean, nasty and very profitable policies under attack.
Of course, at least until now, most corporations are still too proud or offended to follow this course - against the advice of their expensive PR consultants - but they will come around. In this situation, when every criticism is able to be absorbed and turned to support the "liberal" image of the offending corporation (or institution or individual or ideology), it is clear that direct political or socially critical art is doomed to appropriation and exploitation. There are strategies for operating within the consumerist ideology for instance Warhol's tactic of building his own corporation to make and market consumerist art that had consumption as content - which succeeded in making the submerged structure of the consumer society visible (but at the cost of appearing to support it). It sounds easy but to make the strategy work, you really do have to make a lot of money.
So for the rest of us the only answer can be to proceed in the knowledge that, in a consumerist society, every piece sold is doomed, by virtue of the cash transaction, to become another icon of the "free market". If we know that when we are making the work we can include it (as a kind of image) in the work. We can also work towards the development of new and perhaps less easily appropriated forms with which to challenge the corporate hegemony ... assuming, of course, that we feel that making art in the present circumstances has any meaning at all.