The high price of success

Art value, price and distribution

Erik Empson

The art market is far from being a free market. What would it look like if it were? Anyone could choose to make art, anyone could see it, buy it, exhibit it and write about it. In reality of course, galleries vet purchasers, artists form cliques, collectors shun the unrecognised, museums pander to political correctness and auction houses pilfer from buyer and seller alike.

As a (privately) regulated market then, who does it benefit and is it worth changing? With the exception of recent intellectual property legislation and the regurgitative power of the museum, it is not the state that generally regulates the art market, but a network of private individuals with disproportionate economic or cultural power. In this it is not dissimilar from the prevailing economic system, but the economics of art follow special rules and art occupies a particular space in the spectrum of modern social life.

Art production is distinctive in two essential ways. Firstly, the product is made to be alienated; its destiny is to transfer hands, to circulate. As aesthetic expression it is, from conception to consumption, surplus, excess, the productive squandering of time and effort. Secondly, the alienated artifact decreases or increases in value when consumed. Its cultural affect accumulates like dust and grime on a canvas. It is the portrait that haunted a child from above the piano, the first sublime sensations stirred by representations of the human form. In this respect, unlike the commodity, the value of which is destined to be annihilated by consumption, unlike these mirrors which reflect but do not hold, art soaks up and stores human sensibility and becomes a vehicle for it.

Most polemics that celebrate art's power of social transformation would draw on a utilitarian view that a good portion of art, as a social good, should be held as public property. But as art is increasingly at variance with common and acceptable notions of the good, it is hardly possible to maintain that the consumption of any one element of it is better a public possession than a private treasure. Museums make art spectacular; they position art as something over and above the individual in a booming voice that says ‘I am more than you’, an outside that is her interminable truth. Taste is managed, human intimacy is forlorn, lost is the commitment to invest in another individual’s creative freedom, people are divided; and all this for over a tenner.

The money trick

At some point in our recent history Western culture has seen a sea change: the pursuit of money has come virtuous. Not a new view, but never one as pervasive as it is today. In the art world, supposedly a realm of freedom outside of instrumental reason, the saturation of this ethic has had particularly severe consequences. Fuelled by the world of speculative finance, success is now measured by price, the economic has subsumed its antipode, the aesthetic, with the result that the art work is reduced to a commodity and all that goes with it. Far from 'hostile worlds' wherein ne'er the twain of beauty and price may meet, the artworld has orchestrated the subsumption of the distribution of art, both to command where it ends up, and vigorously control and exploit its value as a financial asset.

One important effect of this is that price, rather than expressing value, acts dynamically in relation to it. Once price becomes symbolic, a sign that can be manipulated, the discourse about anyone artifact becomes more important than the content itself. Worse, if economic worth becomes a criterion of judgement, then there is no natural end to the ascending cycle of holding something in esteem and raising its market price; they complement one another in the most sinister of ways. The most obvious consequence of this is that the masses are excluded from participating on equal terms in their culture. A less apparent result is that artists’ work is not circulating; it is stacked in studios and storage, haplessly waiting for the right exposure where it can realise its inflated market price.

If artists have successfully separated themselves from the world of work, and attained freedom and control over what they produce, this emancipation is nothing if they don’t think about its circulation, distribution and consumption. If the tension in the modern artworld is the subsumption of the estimation of the aesthetic value of an artwork to its exchangeable value, even if an artist doesn't care so much for the money as for the recognition, price has become the overarching determination of success.

Artists have been drawn into the extremes of a struggle over livelihood on the one hand and a need for recognition on the other. But rarely is it the artist herself that insists on high returns and very little money actually needs to change hands for art to be productively consumed. Productive consumption here means the sale augments the total cultural experience of society. It is much better, in most circumstances, to sell six paintings for £500 each, than one for £3,000.

Distributing affect

The conventions of private views illustrate how injurious high prices are to the audience and art lover alike. The higher the tag, the better the canapes, the whiter the walls, the more morbid the experience becomes.

The Free Art Fair, following some great traditions of experimentation with the distribution of art, has gone a long way to showing how, by making irrelevant the socio-economic status of the audience you change the moral character of the event. But so ingrained is the connection between worth and price, in last year's show at least, the giving away for free merely reversed the spectacle without upsetting it - economic value was still very much on visitors’ minds, and it failed to shift the focus onto a discussion of the art itself.

Imagine the positive upheaval however, if at a show say of ten pieces, the artist or dealer elected to form a hustings and give free one work to the most passionate plea, the most eloquent appraisal, the most sincere of reflections that were delivered from the floor. Would this not shift the balance to a considered discussion of the real (aesthetic) value of the art? Can you imagine it being detrimental to the fortune of the other pieces in the show?

Widening accessibility to art is no longer about pumping public money into this or that museum acquisition, or uber-managed exhibition. Those funds would be better spent giving emerging artists a basic income to allow them to function in a precarious market. It means getting art into more private lives (which, with the invasion of the internet, are increasingly public anyhow) widening the experience of the work, heightening the possibility of productive encounters with it.

Dialogue, not money, is the real currency of the art world, it is discourse that binds it together, forms the artists' cliques, the dealers' whispers and the critics' nods. The straightjacket of high prices merely ratifies this exclusivity, creating scarcity, stasis and mimicry. Brave it is to stand against this current but unless more do, those with the greatest wealth will continue to dictate what can be said, seen or heard.

*Text written for and first published in the catalogue (pdf) for the Free Art Fair 2009 at the Barbican, London.

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