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ART VALUES
OR MONEY VALUES?

by Donald Kuspit
 
 We don't have art movements any more. We have market movements.
-- Walter Robinson

By way of introduction, I want to quote some lines from the tenth and final Duino Elegy of Rainer Maria Rilke. Describing the "booths" in a fair -- let's call it an art fair -- "that can please the most curious tastes," he asserts that there's one "especially worth seeing (for adults only): the breeding of Money! Anatomy made amusing! Money's organs on view! Nothing concealed! Instructive, and guaranteed to increase fertility!"

I will suggest that the irrational exuberance of the contemporary art market is about the breeding of money, not the fertility of art, and that commercially precious works of art have become the organ grinder's monkeys of money. They exist to increase the generative value and staying power of money -- the power of money to breed money, to fertilize itself -- not the value and staying power of art.

Money supposedly has no value in itself, that is, it is valuable for what one can exchange it for, but I will suggest the surge of art buying is money's parthenogenetic way of saying that it is valuable in itself, indeed, value distilled to purity, the quintessence of value in capitalist society.

Many years ago Meyer Schapiro argued that there was a radical difference between art's spiritual value and its commercial value. He warned against the nihilistic effect of collapsing their difference. I will argue that today, in the public mind, and perhaps in the unconscious of many artists, there is no difference. The commercial value of art has usurped its spiritual value, indeed, seems to determine it. Art's esthetic, cognitive, emotional and moral value -- its value for the dialectical varieties of critical consciousness -- has been subsumed by the value of money.

Art has never been independent of money, but now it has become a dependency of money. Consciousness of money is all-pervasive. It informs art -- virtually everything in capitalist society -- the way Absolute Spirit once did, as Hegel thought. Money has always invested in art, as though admiring, even worshipping, what it respected as its superior -- the true treasure of civilization -- but today money's hyper-investment in art, implicitly an attempt to overwhelm it, to force it to surrender its supposedly higher values, strongly suggests that money regards itself as superior to art.

Art's willingness, even eagerness to be absorbed by money -- to estheticize money, as it were -- suggests that art, like every other enterprise, from the cultural to the technological (and culture has become an extension and even mode of technological practice in many quarters) is a way of making and worshipping money -- a way of affirming capitalism. Indeed, it is a way of signaling the triumph of capitalism over socialism, that is, the unimpeded pursuit of money and profit at the cost of the common human good that might be achieved by the re-distribution of capitalist-generated wealth.

Capitalism moves in where Communism has failed -- however much both let down human beings, if in different ways -- as the opening of art auction houses in ex-Communist countries suggests. They are in effect beachheads of capitalism, much the way the priests who accompanied the conquistadors were beachheads of Christianity.

If the Artnet list of new auction records for 2006 [see "Art Market Watch," Dec. 21, 2006] is any clue, the old technology of painting remains the most successful way of making money, suggesting that painting, however supposedly dead or in mourning for itself, remains economically viable. Even more interestingly, money's respectability has made once disrespectful avant-garde art -- art once scornfully irreverent towards capitalist society, art that claimed to be a spiritual revolution against its material values -- respectable.

Today it is no longer a matter of art legitimating and celebrating the power that is money, but of money legitimating and appropriating art by making it a capitalist fiefdom.

Inevitably, one must recall Andy Warhol's prescient idea of business art, that is, his recognition that art has become a business and making money in business is an art, implying that the making of money and the making of art involve the same motivation. A new hierarchy of value has in fact been established: money has come to have a higher value than art.

Money no longer serves and supports art, art serves and supports money. When money showers its blessings on art, the way Jupiter showered money on Danae, art spreads its legs in gratitude. The days when Mark Rothko said that "the artist can abandon his plastic bank-book" (1947) are over. So are the days when art seemed "timeless" and "transcendental," to use his words.

Money is timeless and transcendental, and anyone -- artist or otherwise -- who abandons his or her bank-book looks like a self-destructive fool.

Since Rothko wrote, we have witnessed the slow but steady encroachment of money on art. Escalating auction prices confirm that the capitalization of art is complete. Money has completely conquered art, indeed, art has become a species of money.  

Collectors and dealers look like conquistadors, cornering the market in a particular art to extract the last bit of money from it. They pan for gold in art, search for the holy grail of gold, indifferent to the meaning it had for the natives who valued artistic gold because it had the radiance of the sun god, symbolized its life-giving power. It was a spiritual light, confirming that art was sacred, that is, a necessity of life and mind. Art was spirit in material form, the material of art a means to a spiritual end. Art was always inwardly fine, whatever profane form it took. Dürer understood this when he mourned the melting of many sacred works of Pre-Columbian fine art for their gold, a process he witnessed on his visit to the Emperor's court in what was then the Spanish Netherlands. 

Only art that makes money finds its way into the textbooks, which sometimes seem like rationalizations of auction results. Official art history tends to follow the lead of the art markets, consciously as well as unconsciously. The triumph of money over art is the final triumph of the pure capitalist spirit that Marx described in the Communist Manifesto.

While Schumpeter's idea of capitalism as "creative destruction" is a proper retort to Marx, the issue today, with respect to art, is whether capitalism has a destructive, limiting effect on creative freedom or whether it is an adequate stimulus to creativity -- whether the wish to economically profit from making art makes for a spiritually profitable art. Is the convergence of art and money -- the equating of art with money -- healthy or unhealthy for the artist, however much it may be a sign of healthy capitalism?

I will return to the question of the general spiritual effect of the capitalist appropriation of art by money, but now I want to get down to the brass tacks of art prices in 2006 and their effect on the perception and evaluation of art. I will offer an understanding of the value and meaning accorded to works of art -- and, by extension, the artists who made them -- by the amount of money paid for them.

Paying a certain amount of money for a work of art can be compared to placing a bet on a number in roulette. It is in fact less of a gamble, for the more money one places on the art number the more one guarantees that it will win the art game. Big money guarantees big art historical returns -- good art historical fortune as well as a very good economic future. It is a way of controlling the game. It is a way of fixing the spin of fortune's wheel so that it is always in one's favor. It only stops on the most money.

Gamblers such as art dealer Jeffrey Deitch and collectors Donald and Mera Rubells, recently installed on a College Art Association panel with Jerry Saltz and Peter Plagens, two art critics, confirm that big money has taken over art. Deitch and the Rubells never lose, while art critics are the intellectual losers (the profession has declined since the days of Greenberg and Ruskin). It is nouveau riche money that finds new meaning in old art and old meaning in new art -- that has perverse insights -- not the self-styled critical establishment.

What does it say about de Kooning that Woman III (1952-53) was sold by Hollywood mogul David Geffen to hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for $142,500,000? Does the fact that one rich person sold it to another rich person mean that it is rich with meaning? And what meaning? Does the fact that Geffen also sold Pollock's No. 5 (1948) for $140,000,000 mean that Pollock is less artistically important -- whatever that might mean -- than de Kooning, whose painting cost $500,000 more?

De Kooning's greater importance seems to be confirmed by the fact that Geffen also sold de Kooning's Police Gazette (1955) for $63,500,000. Is Geffen manipulating art values or is he just making as much money as he can? Or is the unconscious point that Geffen and Cohen are more important than de Kooning and Pollock because they have more money that either of them ever had?

The players have become more important than the artists whose works they play with because they have the money and the artists don't. In the eyes of our society, the enormous amount of money Geffen and Cohen have gives the paintings of de Kooning and Pollock a sublime value and unconditional importance they would not otherwise have.  

The intrinsic value these paintings have, whatever it is -- and it can no doubt be understood in several ways -- never makes them more valuable than the extrinsic value they acquire by reason of their exchange value, that is, the money that becomes their equivalent. More crucially, recognized by money, they can no longer be recognized for what they artistically are. Nor can they be questioned and put in historical perspective -- money makes critical consciousness a coward, forcing it to fall in line or shut up. Assumptions can no longer be questioned; elevated to economic heaven, the work is taken for granted as unquestionably important, indeed, fated to be important. Arguments questioning it fall on deaf ears, and eventually the voice that made the argument is censored by marginalization. I am suggesting that the price paid for a work of art becomes its absolute and authoritative value, even if the value the price implies is not particularly clear. It is presented without explanation -- the price is the explanation.

Also, a low price suggests a short-term investment, while a high price suggests a long-term investment, and ultimately the "pricelessness" that confers immortality on art -- its value beyond money even though its immortality resides in the vast amount of money it can be exchanged for. High prices seem to mean high reputation, but I am suggesting they create high reputation. The high prices paid for de Kooning and Pollock confirm that they are long-distance art-historical runners rather than sprinters who fall by the historical wayside.

In the last analysis -- indeed, beyond any analysis -- money makes them major artists, on the order of Leonardo and Michelangelo -- nobody dares question their greatness, their establishment importance -- rather than minor artists, like, for example, Bouguereau and Meissonier, who have a certain passing place of interest to period historians. No critical historian dares argue that de Kooning and Pollock may someday be regarded the way Bouguereau and Meissonier are today, should their Abstract Expressionist style come to be regarded as artistically inauthentic and insignificant, which is what happened to Bouguereau and Meissonier once Fauvism and Cubism came along, superseding them in significance and topicality. No longer theoretically fashionable, they lost critical and cultural favor, and with that artistic value, became anachronistic historical curiosities.

Thus art marches on, advancing into new territory once thought artistically uninhabitable, making the old colonized territories look quaint and naive, that is, no longer speaking the "truth" of art. But to many knowledgeable art lovers such worked over territories as Leonardo and Michelangelo seem like bastions of artistic truth in barbarian artistic territory.

According to the Artnet list, the most avidly sought-after artworks on the auction market during October and November of 2006 -- the works that sold for new auction records for the artists who made them -- and presumably they form a hierarchy of value and meaning -- were: 

            (1) Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, $87,936,00;
            (2) Paul Gauguin, L'homme à la hache, $40,336,000;
            (3) Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Berliner Strassenszene, $38,096,000;
            (4) Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXV, $27,120,000;
            (5) Edward Hopper, Hotel Window, $26,896,000;
            (6) Egon Schiele, Einzelne Häuser--Häuser mit Bergen, $22,416,000;
            (7) Clyfford Still, 1947-R-no. 1, $21,296,000;
            (8) Andy Warhol, Mao, $17,276,000;
            (9) Norman Rockwell, Breaking Home Ties, $15,416,000;
            (10) Francis Bacon, Version No. 2 of Lying Figure, $15,416,000. 

There are several noteworthy things about this list, each indicative, in a different way, of the power of money value to create or at least impose art value. If we understand the price paid for a work of art as an aspect of the esthetics of its reception, creating a new horizon of interest in and consciousness of it, then we can say the price is also a way of creating critical value. The question is what kind of critical value.

The list implies the conflation of critical value and social value, where social value tends to be reduced to national value, implicitly understood as a bottom line value. To say this another way, price is political warfare carried out by economic weapons. Price signals a partisan national choice, and with that supposedly national art values.

Thus the Austrian artist in number 1 position was once of lesser reputation than the French artist in number 2 position -- as modern Austrian art in general was and in many quarters continues to be regarded as of lesser value than modern French art -- but, by reason of his extraordinary new economic prominence (more than twice as much was paid for the Klimt work as for the Gauguin work) has achieved greater fame, indeed, assumed the mantle of unquestioned greatness. He is now in the pantheon of big time art. A reconfiguration of critical values has occurred by way of money, and with it a new outcome for the familiar battle between Austro-Germanic and French national values.

Similarly, the placement of a major German Expressionist in a higher position than a major American Abstract Expressionist -- de Kooning is second only to Pollock in the Abstract Expressionist canon -- implies that the New York School, however important and "original," is still not as important and "original" as Die Brücke.

Again the canon created by American art administrators has been changed -- an American derivative of French art has lost pride of place, coming in second to a German competitor. Schiele's economic elevation over Still -- if only by the sliver of a million dollars -- implies the same thing. Once again an Austrian foreigner "matters" more than a homebred artist.

Again we see what looks like a change in the hierarchy of canonical stylistic values, suggesting that, like Rhadamanthus, the market makes decisive critical judgments. But they are based on socioeconomic competition between nations. France was defeated by Germany -- the United States came to its rescue and liberated it -- but now Germany is more economically successful than France, and a strong ally of the United States. I suggest this is one of the reasons that the art of Germany and Austria, a country in its sphere of influence, are achieving higher prices than French and American art. Germany and Austria are no longer marginalized, pariah countries, whereas, strange as it may seem to say so, the United States has become one by reason of the Iraq war as well as the dubious diplomacy, not to say arrogant go-it-alone attitude, of the current administration.

There is no way that art prices can avoid reflecting sociopolitical realities, for art values have always reflected them, if not exclusively. I am not saying that the nationality of the artist is the major factor in the price, but for money it is often a deciding factor, however unconsciously. I am also saying that for all the supposed transnationalism of art, national styles continue to exist, and national values are at stake in art prices. In a sense, money falls back on nationality -- it tracks the prosperity rating of a country, taking serious notice when art contributes significantly to the gross national product, which it does especially when a country becomes a cultural tourist destination and an artist a national treasure in the making -- to give itself "theoretical" credibility. But of course in capitalism money is theory and practice in one. It is sufficient unto itself: all money has to do is assert itself to be convincing.

Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of the list is the nearly equal commercial value accorded Warhol, Rockwell and Bacon. It conveys the breakdown of difference between popular commercial and fine art, which in fact occurred almost simultaneously in the work of all three artists. This is evident if one looks at their iconographic sources, implied public and even handling, which is relatively unnuanced -- even simplistic -- from a fine art point of view.

Perhaps most astonishing is the vote of economic confidence in Hopper, who apparently stopped being marketable when Pollock emerged into prominence in the '40s. Is a return to Social Realism in the works? Has Hopper entered the pantheon of modern artists despite his all-American Social Realism? The answer is unclear, but by achieving economic esteem Hopper gains enormous artistic prestige.

The rest of the list confirms my sense of the prominence, if not absolute priority -- but the other priorities are not always clear -- of nationality in setting a price for a work of art. Would Xu Beihong's Slave and Lion, in place number 12, have sold for $6,925,450 in any other place than Hong Kong? The same can be said for Chen Chengbo's Danshui, also sold in Hong Kong, for $4,478,149, putting it in place number 16. One place ahead of it, in number 15, is K. A. Somov's Pastorale russe, which sold for $5,184,615 at an "Important Russian Pictures" auction in London.

Lucio Fontana's Concetto spaziale, attese, sold for $4,030,189, putting it in place number 19. Would it have brought in that price if it was not part of an Italian Sale, but part of a general modern art sale? In my opinion its Italian identity gives it an economic value it would not have if it was simply one more piece of so-called advanced or experimental art. It is the importance of Italy that carries the importance of Fontana, not vice versa. Not entirely, but one is buying into Italy, as much as Fontana. After all, he comes from a country where great art was made, so he must be a great artist, or at least worth serious economic attention. 

In Madrid, H. A. Camarasa's El Casino de Paris brought in $3,701,266, putting it a respectable place number 22. If the work was sold outside of Spain it is likely that it would be much further down the list. There is no escaping the fact that national pride is responsible for the high price -- $1,600,000 -- paid in November 2006 for Norman Rockwell's painting of Lincoln the Railsplitter (1965). According to the Financial Times (Feb. 17, 2007), the picture was purchased from Ross Perot by the Butler Institute of American Art, reminding us that its value has more to do with its all-American character than its artistic qualities.  

I find certain things ironically encouraging about the list. For example, Carl Andre's Aluminum Steel Plain and N. C. Wyeth's Stand and Deliver tied for 36th place (listed in alphabetical order as 36 and 37), at $2,032,000 each, suggesting that Minimalism and Illustration have the same value, which sounds right.  

Similarly, Henri Eugène Le Sidaner's La table aux Lanternes, Gerberoy, Anselm Kiefer's Balder's Triume, and Grandma Moses' Sugaring Off all tied for 52nd place (listed as 52, 53, and 54), at $1,360,000. This raises an interesting critical as well as commercial question: why does a work by a minor French Impressionist, a work by a major German Neo-Expressionist and a work by a celebrated American Folk Artist sell for the same price? Are they equal in artistic value?

Moses was a homespun amateur artist, Kiefer is a professional career artist who trained at the Düsseldorf Academy and was a Meister Schuler of Joseph Beuys. Does this mean that one doesn't need art education credentials to become an important artist? Does it mean that old women from rural environments can make it big? That one doesn't have to be theoretically fancy to become a big-shot artist? Interesting questions about creativity in general as well as art in particular are raised by the commercial equivalence of Kiefer and Moses. And Le Sidaner, who suggests that camp followers may be as artistically important as those they follow.

I can continue through the Artnet list, which numbers 401 items, raising similar questions, all suggested by comparative prices. The last work on the list is Tetsuya Ishida's Untitled, which sold for $100,257, at an Asian Contemporary sale in Hong Kong. He is one of 27 Asian artists on the list, suggesting that Asian art is coming of economic age, and that national identity makes an important difference, for the clear message is that Asia as a whole, particularly China, is a major economic force in the global art world.

The development of art prices follows the development of nations more than it follows the development of art values, if they develop. The nation an artist comes from matters as much economically as it does artistically, indeed, perhaps more. In short, the credibility of the artist is tied to the credibility of his country.

I suggest that as the political credibility and economic power of the United States declines and the political credibility and economic power of China grows -- as Shanghai overtakes New York and even London and Frankfurt as a commercial center -- the art produced in the United States will lose economic and artistic value while the art produced in China will gain economic and artistic value, with a few art administratively enforced exceptions. The market goes where there is growth rather than stagnancy. The fact that Zhang Xiaogang's Tiananmen Square sold for $2,318,766, placing it number 33, and Eric Fischl's Daddy's Girl sold for $1,920,00, placing it number 39, suggests as much.

It seems clear, then, that the artist's nationality influences the price of his or her art. The price is in effect a barometer of the economic weather in his or her nation, that is, its existing and potential wealth. I even venture to say that it signals how free market the artist's country is. The more free market, the higher the price of the art, confirming that the art market is a free market. The libertarian character of the art market accords with the unregulated character of contemporary art production.

Marshall McLuhan famously said "art is what you can get away with." Today art is what price you can get away with. This seems confirmed by the fact that, as Ella Fontantels-Cisneros, the founder of the Miami Art Central museum, said, "New artists used to start by pricing their works at $2,000; now they start at $10,000, $15,000, $20,000."

Thus art has become a venue for the exhibition of money. Fontantels-Cisneros attended this year's New York art fairs. They were underwritten by "everyone from Altoids breath mints to hotelier Mandarin Oriental to the law firm Clifford Chance." (FT, 2/17-18/07, p. W14.) Presumably sponsorship by these brand names will publicize and brand the new art so that it can get its asking price.

Art is clearly good publicity and business, as Nicolas Serota, the director of the Tate galleries, noted when he pointed out that "seven of the 10 top visitor attractions in the UK are publicly funded museums and the overall economic impact of the national museums and libraries alone is 2 billion pounds a year." Even more to the point, "the Arts Council had a 70 per cent cash increase in funding since 1996," which in 2002 resulting in the exportation of "cultural goods to the value of $8.5 billion, more than the U.S., more than China." (FT, 2/15/07, p. 7). Clearly art offers an exceptionally good return on investment. Clearly Serota is a good businessman, which is no doubt why he was made a Lord.

Let me emphasize that while these art money comparisons raise art value comparisons, the market offers no conceptual follow-through or rationale for its prices. Indeed, whatever the national differences, it tends to preclude critical discussion of artistic differences, even as it crudely signals them. Money's reason for being is enough to make the being of any art rational and give it critical import.

In other words, money is the only raison d'etre and meaning art finally needs. You may say that money values have nothing to do with art values. But art prices not only impinge on them, but imply there is no need for independent evaluation of art. Any independent consciousness of art misses the capitalist point that it is has become a form of equity -- estheticized equity, but equity before it is esthetic.

Today art's importance is that it creates money. It is not clear that money creates art, however much it may "patronize" it. Art's value is guaranteed by money, which doesn't mean that without money it has no value, but that money value overrides art value while appearing to confer it. Both art and criticism have been defeated by money, even though money gives art critical cachet, thus validating it as art. Even more insidiously, money has become more existentially meaningful than art.

Indeed, I am prepared to argue that money rushes in to full the vacuum of existential meaningfulness left by art that has lost spiritual purpose. To put this another way, speculative investors in art, that is, those who buy it as a material investment rather than for its spiritual qualities, and thus in effect deny them, and in general show their spiritual indifference and existential backwardness, are comparable to the "locusts" that Franz Münterfering, former chairman of Germany's Social Democratic party, called hedge fund investors who make hostile bids for companies. "Locusts. . . move into a field, eat it to the ground, and move on to the next without looking back." (FT, 2/15/07, p. 3.)

Let me conclude with a suggestive anecdote from Paul Raffaele's account of his visit to the Korowai, a New Guinea tribe of cannibals (Smithsonian, 9/06). Once a human being becomes a witch (khakhua) he or she becomes edible because he or she is no longer human. White men (laleo) like Raffaele "are forbidden to enter their sacred river, and [his] presence angers the spirits. KorowaI are animists, believing that powerful beings live in specific trees and parts of rivers. The tribesman demands that we give the clan a pig to absolve the sacrilege. A pig costs 350,000 rupiahs, or about $40. It's a Stone Age shakedown. I count out the money and pass it to the man, who glances at the Indonesian currency and grants us permission to pass.

"What use is money to these people? I ask Kembaren as our boatsmen paddle to safety upriver. 'It's useless here,' he answers, 'but whenever they get money. . . the clans use it to help pay bride prices for Korowai girls living closer to Yanimura. They understand the dangers of incest, and so girls must marry into unrelated clans'" (p. 57). 

I suggest that money has entered the sacred river of art and muddied it, even as it attempts to undo its sacrilege by paying artists off. But it looks like the relationship between art and money has become incestuous, suggesting that the marriage between money and art will produce defective artists. It already has, in the form of anti-artists.


DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University. This text is derived from a talk titled "Art Values or Money values: An Analysis of Art Prices in 2006," given at the New York Studio School on Feb. 22, 2007.



 



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