On the Art Market

I had a great time at Frieze Talks in London on Thursday with music writer Geeta Dayal, artist Thomas Demand, and Frieze editor Sam Thorne in the panel "Who Owns Images?" Sam gave a great framing introduction and Thomas presented one of his fascinating projects while lending us his insight into one cause of the extension of copyright law: the Nazis were protecting Richard Wagner’s widow’s income. For my inner (not so hidden) music geek, hearing Geeta lend her insights into changes in music relating to sampling was fascinating. Naively, I had not realized that due to the cost of licensing, sampling is now restricted to big ticket acts. With the average cost of a sample rising to $10,000, it’s easy to see why. I also was fascinated to hear that this is the reason that there haven’t been any box sets or reissues of classic hip-hop albums: they would simply prime the pump for more lawsuits. Afterwards we had a great conversation about music that ranged across the spectrum from Robert Fripp to Hafler Trio to South African shangaan electro.

My only regret that Thomas Demand misunderstood me: maybe it was a language barrier. But he seemed to be upset that I  suggested that the fact that new media art has largely proved unsellable to private collectors is a hint of a rising crisis of value in the art market. Thomas countered by saying you can’t have it both ways: infinite reproducibility and authenticity in art. Instead, he offered the example of Matisses which, as unique (auratic… although he didn’t say so) objects are worth tens of millions even though they are just bits of canvas and paint.

I found his attempt to explain authenticity in art through cash value a bit surprising but actually that was my point! Value is a funny thing and, as people who’ve studied economic theory know, it’s a gaping hole in the center of both neoclassical and Marxist formulations. We’ve got working theories, but value just doesn’t come together for us. At times–notably when bubbles burst–value collapses rapidly. Take the Dutch tulip mania or the housing crisis. These bubbles work not on the basis of inherent value, but rather because of the greater fool theory: you assume that there is someone out there who will buy what you have to sell for even more than you paid for it.

It’s surprising how much operates in terms of the greater fool theory. Take Apple computer, for example, the company is growing rapidly and–assuming that there is nothing fundamentally flawed in its price/earnings ratio and other fundamentals (disclaimer: I haven’t looked at these and since I am writing this post 38,000 feet above the Labrador Sea I am not about to) are in line, then the analysis would be in favor of purchasing the stock. I for one, greatly regret not keeping the Apple stock that I had in 2000. I’d have some absurd amount of money in my pocket if I hadn’t sold it during the dot.com crash. But Apple doesn’t pay a dividend and with the price of the stock and the amount of reserve cash they have, a hostile takeover is unlikely by anyone short of the government of China. In short, just what does one get from one’s investment in Apple besides the ability to watch the ride and pass on the share to the next fool, er, investor? Nothing really and if for some reason people stop buying the stock, the value will evaporate in the blink of an eye unless Apple makes an effort to stop it (to be fair, since Apple can, this makes purchasing Apple stock a good deal better than investing in a Ponzi scheme).

Art is like this too. There is simply no way that those Matisses return the kind of value they do. They’re fantastic of course, but their value is a social construct we agree to. Or take Thomas’s work, which I greatly admire. My father, who was a painter and collector of artworks is of a different generation and he simply wouldn’t understand how photography could be worth anything. After all, he would reason, anybody could take a photograph with a camera and an enlarger can churn out as many as you want. Naturally, I don’t agree at all, and I am sure that when it comes down to it one of Thomas’s photographs takes more hours to produce than one of my father’s paintings given the elaborate setup work necessary. If you want to go the materials route, then Thomas wins again.* Still Thomas isn’t your usual photographer. In contrast, only the value assigned by the October crowd and by the art market, plus, I suppose a bit of comic relief, makes a Richard Prince cowboy photograph valuable.

But if photography is now valued, new media art has failed to achieve that sort of value. This is not to say that new media art won’t become a matter of speculation in the future: an electronically tradable work could be subject to the same rapid financial trading that securities are today. New media art is ideal for investment-oriented collectors! Still, somehow we are’t comfortable with it. Even with brilliant and accurate televisions that rival the resolution of many cinemas in most wealthy households, new media art hasn’t made it into many private hands.

There is a resistance here and I think the reasons are complex. Perhaps it is because of the overidentification of screens with computer work and television, practices that are still somehow too low brow. Or, perhaps it is because of the threat of piracy. If one knows where to look one can find pirated video art. But right now it doesn’t seem like much of a threat: if you have a Bill Viola playing on your TV, it’s hardly going to get you much admiration from your friends if you say that you pirated it.

When I got to the airport, I checked Twitter and found out that, according to this CNN article, the art market is rejoicing because after some down years sales at the Frieze Art Fair are back on track. The biggest sale so far was a truly beautiful Damien Hirst, "The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths," consisting of three glass panels filled with grids of embalmed fishes sold by the White Cube gallery for £3.5 million. I suppose that whoever bought it didn’t come to our panel or they might have thought twice.

But back to new media art. It may cut a little too close for comfort to the problem of value for us. The reason that the Matisses are so expensive isn’t because they are worth it: they are, by any accounting, vastly overpriced. Rather, the phenomenal rise of the global art market is the product of a world economy that economists have said many times over is awash in liquidity. There is so much excess capital out there seeking places to invest that it is driving the art market up to absurd levels. At a middlebrow level, such a market collapsed in the late 1990s when suddenly Thomas Kinkade’s works were worth a fraction of what they were selling for.

If it’s easy to dismiss the crash of "the painter of light," there’s more to it than that. Postmodernism was marked by the dominance of the culture industry–the permeation of culture by capital (in terms of investment) and the permeation of capital by culture (in the form of big business’s employment of cultural techniques to spur flexible accumulation). Today, however, we are seeing the collapse of the culture industry. Advertising, music, publishing, and film are eerily repeating the fall of Fordist enterprises in the 1970s and 1980s. Who would have thought that they would ever see such dark days? And yet, in part–but not entirely–due to the remorseless efficiencies of the Internet they have been brought low.

Art, somehow, seems to survive. For reasons that are hard to understand (prestige? the promise of authenticity? amusement value? sensory pleasure?) it occupies a hallowed position, if only for the moment. It’s a sink for overaccumulated capital, sopping up excess money that seeks investment opportunities wherever it can find them. There’s little question that there’s still a big bubble out there not only in art, but in the global economy as a whole. Excess capital can be easily redirected into political lobbying to protect more excess capital and–given that this is precisely what has happened under the Obama administration–we’re unlikely to see change anytime soon. Anytime soon, that is, unless the bubble pops.

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