Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

I've mangled my thoughts about this over at Artworld Salon (in response to a post about an exhibition on "Perspectives on the Art Market"), so I'll take advantage of a clean slate here to see if I can be more clear.
Via a conversation with a very smart and compassionate artist last weekend, it became (a bit) clearer to me that the scapegoating of the "art market" really needs to end. Not because I'm growing so very weary of it (although I am), but rather because it's counterproductive. Taking artists and others at their word that they'd like to see change in the way things stand, it's becoming apparent that harping on about the art market will not result in that change. Why?
The art market, like the vacation home market or even the stock market is not a self-interested force unto itself. Rather, what it looks like at any given time is a reflection of the nexus of economic conditions and the values and desires of the culture at large. In other words, the art market is us (or the best us possible given the current economic realities).
Currently, it reflects a culture in which money is valued above all else; above fairness, above patriotism, above family, above compassion, above spirituality and generosity, and above higher ideals, such as are often symbolized by the arts. Money is king, and we bow down at its throne. If our values were different, then our markets (art included) would be different.
In other words, most attempts by artists at exploring the ins and outs of the art market, per se, amount to navel gazing. There are two reasons for that: 1) most attempts at examining it are not well-informed enough to lead to real insights (the truth about the current art market is in fact so complicated it's beyond the grasp of many of the world's best economists); and 2) the root of the reason it looks the way it does is the collective set of values that led us to feed it (i.e., the culture) and ignoring that root will not change anything, despite how much energy is put into examining its result. The market is merely a symptom: the culture is what's diseased. You might find satisfaction in whining about the shortness of breath caused by your emphysema, but it's ludicrous to do so while lighting another cigarette.
So what am I suggesting here? To my mind it's now more clear that art's role in changing the art market is to reflect back to the public not the truth about the current art market (whatever that might be), but rather the truth about the culture that's given it birth, because only via a shift in our values, will we see a shift in the market. Only by quitting smoking will we have any chance of seeing an improvement in our emphysema. If we rant on about our shortness of breath, but keep smoking, we'll change nothing.
One commenter on Artworld Salon asked if I was suggesting that the art market was an invalid topic for art. I'm on record as saying there are no invalid topics for art. But, as the exhibition in question was designed to “invite a skeptical awareness of market mechanisms” and “an active engagement with possible alternatives,” it's fair, I feel, to suggest no amount of skepticism about the market will lead to meaningful alternatives so long as we're not also holding up a mirror to the underlying root of why we (us, right now) have the market we do. It's parallel to saying, between drags on that Marlboro, "Yes, I have shortness of breath...see...hu-u-uughhh...there it is...damn shortness of breath, with its wheezing and coughing and making it dangerous to climb a flight of stairs. See, I fully understand what this shortness of breath is. So why isn't my emphysema getting any better?"

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30 Comments:

Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!

5/23/2007 09:11:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

A mixed reaction:

Rather, what it looks like at any given time is a reflection of the nexus of economic conditions and the values and desires of the culture at large.

agree. broad but clear.

In other words, the art market is us (or the best us possible given the current economic realities).

disagree strongly. the broad stroke oversimplifies here. the grain is not the aggregate nor is the aggregate the grain. this does not articulate a place for those of us who are not benifiting or participating in that market whatsoever. unless we have some sort of virtue for either opting out or being left behind?

Currently, it reflects a culture in which money is valued above all else

did you read Bob Herbert yesterday?

If our values were different, then our markets (art included) would be different.

there are artist's with different values making different art. the venues of the market place seem to want little to do with them.

In other words, most attempts by artists at exploring the ins and outs of the art market, per se, amount to navel gazing.

strongly agree. this sort of work is meaningless to a majority of people who walk the earth. plus it tends to suck.

If we rant on about our shortness of breath, but keep smoking, we'll change nothing.

fair enough. i feel like i am mid shift at the moment. no idea what the results will be. it's a process that has been building for at least six months, if not a year.

but in all fairness to those who continue to harp on the art market, for some it may just be a matter of semantics. not everyone is so precise with language. the art market might as well mean the art world might as well mean the local established venues for exhibition.

i get the feeling that sometimes, when artists bitch about 'the art market' they are in their heart bitching about a lack of existing venues to show the sort of work they are creating--work that might already reflect a different set of values like the one's described above, work that might revision how art could and should function in our culture. problem is, how to share it? yes yes, DIY is always an option. but remember, such artists might already be tired. they're making work that is outside the narrow box of existing financial support, likely holding down a job and meeting other responsibilities, and now they need to decide if they want to commit to organizing an independent exhibition which can be tremendous work in itself. makes the vocation sting.

that shortness of breath isn't always from smoking. for some, it's due to running a marathon. that being the case, i think a few folks have the right to bitch a little at the end of the day, even though their words might not be as carefully chosen as they could be.

5/23/2007 09:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

feel like i am mid shift at the moment. no idea what the results will be. it's a process that has been building for at least six months, if not a year.

Excellent. Keep at it.

they are in their heart bitching about a lack of existing venues to show the sort of work they are creating

I think that's exactly what it boils down to (self-interest). Which will, again, change nothing.

that shortness of breath isn't always from smoking. for some, it's due to running a marathon.

The shortness of breath isn't the problem, regardless of its source. The emphysema is the problem.

think a few folks have the right to bitch a little at the end of the day

Absolutely they do, just don't expect such bitching to be taken seriously as art on that merit alone.

5/23/2007 10:13:00 AM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

Absolutely they do, just don't expect such bitching to be taken seriously as art on that merit alone.

Goodness no. IMHO, 99% (give or take) of the time, even the justified bitching is just bitching. It amounts to little more than a means of letting off steam after a long day (or before the next!).

Every so often, frustration and angst does bear important fruit. But this is where your symptom/disease metaphor comes into play. If you are going to let loose on the things that are making you blue, why of all things, focus on the art market? There are many other injustices more worthy of one's angst and activism... maybe this is what you meant with your post in the first place?

5/23/2007 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

There are many other injustices more worthy of one's angst and activism... maybe this is what you meant with your post in the first place?

That's certainly the take away idea, yes, but it's not just that there are more worthy injustices. It's also that expressing those injustices more truthfully/insightfully stands a much better chance of leading to change in the art market than bitching about the art market does.

5/23/2007 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

On the plus side, an overheated market gets a lot of people interested in art who might not have been exposed to it before. Let's just hope that if the market goes down, they don't all abandon art like yesterday's has-been pop star.

5/23/2007 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Let's just hope that if the market goes down, they don't all abandon art like yesterday's has-been pop star.

Hear. Hear.

That raises another interesting question I've been thinking about lately though. What if the correction to the perceived excesses of the current art market is not to be found in the down turn of the market, but rather in its expansion. A more inclusive market could provide balance. And it needn't be centered on (only)acquisition, but perhaps introduce a new model of patronage, permitting a broader range of intent and/or approaches to flourish. Motivation to support it would, of course, need to follow a shift in values (I can't see this evolving without one), but the idea that only a cleansing collaspe of the market can cure it of its ills strikes me as unimaginative and (what's the opposite of creative...oh yeah) destructive.

5/23/2007 11:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

First of all: What Edward said! Art is a wholly-enclosed subset of society. Art is the little pocket mirror that comes with your cosmetics kit.

But it's not "culture" we're talking about, it's human nature. We're all individual economic entities, and always have been. We're not men on a chessboard. America understands this. The crumbled (and some still crumbling) totalitarian regimes of the 20th century found out the hard way. Any improvements to human society must take human nature into account. Money is just way to exchange power between people, it's not good or bad by itself.

Everyone is focused on the guy who bought the Warhol, but what about the guy who sold it? He's got $70m in his pocket. If you really want to Save the World, go send him a pamplet or something. But if he doesn't want to play your game, consider trying a breath mint, or moving along to the next guy. Not everyone has to play the game by your rules.

The "trickle-down" theory is not that rich people will give money to poor people, but rather, the realization that that money gets created at the top. Money trickles down anyway. Where do the poor get their money under socialism? Heaven? Socialism merely replaces the individual rich with one big government. Reagan just primed the pump at the source. The alternative to spending $70m on a Warhol is not to spend $70m on fighting world hunger, but rather, the alternative is a world where the extra $70m would not have existed in the first place. One accepts that a world which can fight world hunger is a world where every so often there's an extra $70m to spend on fun.

5/23/2007 11:53:00 AM  
Anonymous this broad said...

Currently, [the art market]reflects a culture in which money is valued above all else; above fairness, above patriotism, above family, above compassion, above spirituality and generosity, and above higher ideals, such as are often symbolized by the arts.

I am confused by this premise. How exactly does the art market reflect our culture's obsession with money? That has become the conventional wisdom, and yet I can not really articulate how it works. Can anyone break this one down for me?

It seems to me that the market reflects a culture in which *ART* is worth more than anything else (more than houses, more than cars, more than vaccinating children against preventable diseases, etc.) Which is out of whack for sure, but it's interesting to hear so much griping about that fact coming from people who make and/or love art. I suspect (as has been mentioned here before) that most of the griping is from people who are upset that they are not able to get in the way of all the money being thrown around, and a smidge is from the guilt of the few people who have gotten in the way of the money but feel a little dirty about it.

I think one way artists could collectively change the system fast is to change our own models for making and pricing our own work. Any time we make a unique thing and price it at over $1,000 we are marketing our work to rich people and there is not really any way around that.

5/23/2007 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

The market is merely a symptom: the culture is what's diseased. You might find satisfaction in whining about the shortness of breath caused by your emphysema, but it's woulludicrous to do so while lighting another cigarette.

If the $71,000,000 Warhol is the symptom (shortness of breath) and the culture itself is the disease (emphysema), then it follows that Edward_'s post, Why the Warhol Was Worth It, reads like a celebration of the symptom.

5/23/2007 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How exactly does the art market reflect our culture's obsession with money?...It seems to me that the market reflects a culture in which *ART* is worth more than anything else

It may be that in this case we have to rely on the untruth that the plural of anecdote is data, but consider, for example, the growing trend of collectors buying with their ears. It's not the "art" they're placing value on, because too often they haven't even seen it before they know they want it. It's the perceived value of owning one they want. The notion that if so many people are talking about it, it's gonna appreciate. Moreover, its the association of owning certain art with having money they too often seek. "You have a piece by [insert hot artist here]? Wow, you must be loaded." Finally, its the increase in the number of folks who set up shop to sweep up the crumbs because there's so much flying around so quickly, they know some will fall between the cracks (see this story for what I mean). None of that is about the "Art," per se.

Oh shit. Did I sign my name to that comment???

5/23/2007 12:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Cough Piece, Yoko Ono, 1961.

5/23/2007 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

it follows that Edward_'s post, Why the Warhol Was Worth It, reads like a celebration of the symptom

Would you rather I lie because you wish it were otherwise?

5/23/2007 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Maybe it is my imagination, but it seems as though, years ago, curators had much more power, they could expose us to art that reflected values that were outside the mainstream, art that resisted established systems of power.
(Which is why, despite the all the criticism, I applaud Alanna Heiss' bravery in broaching the topic in the "Not for Sale" exhibition.)

Money, more accurately, collectors, seem to be the tastesmakers now. Whatever their taste might be, their money validates the work, rather than the work being validated by curators who devoted their lives to studying art.

As funding for the arts has been cut back, non-profit institutions have had to "cooperate" with private sources of funding for exhibitions, which has the potential for all sorts of corruption.

Edward, I understand your point about the futility of bitching. Those artists who make art about injustice, and telling the truth about sources of power (who coincidentally are the ones who are probably ignored by the art market, and frustrated by hearing about how 'well' it is doing) have to work hard to hold themselves back from making work about the absurdity of it all.

5/23/2007 12:56:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

Would you rather I lie because you wish it were otherwise?

Lie about what? That the disease is good for business? I just find it curious, in the context of your analogy, that someone would celebrate the symptoms of a disease. Don't most people lament the symptoms while fighting the disease?

But I don't think your analogy is correct, because I don't agree that the $71,000,000 Warhol is just a symptom -- it is not only a perfect symbol of a diseased culture, but it also actively perpetuates it. It feeds the disease; it is a vital part of it. Also, I don't think we agree on the nature of the disease -- you're worried that people aren't buying art (or the right art) for the right reasons; I'm worried that wealth is being wielded irresponsibly, instead of being redistributed to those who really need it. I'm also concerned about where all this wealth is coming from, and why auction records continue to shatter during a period of significant escalation for U.S. militarism. Could there possibly be a connection between military aggression and wealth? Hmmm...I wonder.

5/23/2007 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

celebrate the symptoms of a disease

First of all, it's your characterization that I'm celebrating it, not mine. I explained in as honest terms as I could why I felt the piece would appreciate. To spin that as "celebrating" reveals a bias from the start.

I don't agree that the $71,000,000 Warhol is just a symptom -- it is not only a perfect symbol of a diseased culture, but it also actively perpetuates it

To back up my metaphor (which I'm sure will reveal more flaws, the further we push it), though, the symptoms (the market) of the disease (money worship) may indeed be so disabilitating that they make the person even less healthy across the board (i.e., because of shortness of breath, the emphasyema patient can't exercise), but that still doesn't change the fact that by treating the emphaseyma and eliminating it's source (smoking : a shift in values) you'll be much better off than you are by merely treating the shortness of breath.

OK, I've taken that to the edge of farce, so I'll back up.

You see the Warhol sale as perpetuating the problem because, as you note, you feel that money should have been more directly "redistributed to those who really need it." Knowing nothing about the collector who bought it, you, of course, cannot testify to how much money he/she donates to "those who really need it" in other ways, though, making the only logical conclusion of your stance that all money should be redistributed to those who really need it, which I believe is the definition of socialism, which, despite it's philosphical charms has yet to be implemented in a fashion that isn't much more inhumane than the system you're decrying.

Face it. Rich people have that kind of disposable income. Yes, you can urge them to spend it in other ways, but what realworld effect do you expect railing against that sale to have? Humiliate the collector into stopping at the $25 million mark, giving the desired prize to another bidder? What?

If there is, in fact, a better way (and the point of this post is just that), then I highly doubt criticizing that sale will lead to is as quickly as defining that better way and helping the rest of the world see why it is better.

5/23/2007 01:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

In other words, most attempts by artists at exploring the ins and outs of the art market, per se, amount to navel gazing. There are two reasons for that...

There's a third you might consider: that art could be the worst possible means of exploring the topic. Personally, I've come to find the art market uninteresting to write about. The idea of exploring it artistically just sounds horrendous.

The art market is like any other market in which taste fails to correspond perfectly with dollar amounts. There's an idea that art ought to operate independently of market forces, and it's true to the extent that the requirements of genuine artistic quality are completely contained to the to the work and its manufacture. Otherwise, it's just stuff, and can be bought and sold like any other commodity. I remain unconviced that the numbers mean anything.

I just posted an essay by Walter Darby Bannard on the NY auctions circa 1970. It might make for an edifying read.

Kate's idea that curators have ceded control of tastemaking to collectors presumes that they were somehow operating independently in the first place. I doubt that. In fact, given a choice, I'd rather have collectors calling the shots. My issue is not with the vast sums but with the laundering of reputations of contemporary artists by publically funded museums, which benefits the collectors who hold said artists, and which I see as a kind of welfare for the rich. Warhol is not a very good artist. This recently sold piece is unremarkable even for him. But I have less of a problem with the fool who just pissed that money away than the museums that rationalized Andy as high art in the first place.

5/23/2007 02:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Sorry, here's the Bannard essay.

5/23/2007 02:47:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

has yet to be implemented in a fashion that isn't much more inhumane than the system

Does this excuse an individual's decision to behave selfishly on such a grand scale? Must an individual be compelled to act against the greater good, by hoarding wealth and then using it to collect luxurious objects, simply because the system allows it? I'm only speaking to the morality of individual choice -- NOT advocating a system of forced redistribution. I'm only interested in socialist ethics insofar as they can be realized by individuals making ethical choices. Such ethics are not controversial -- we all know that it is better to help others than to indulge in selfishness -- but why have we allowed the capitalist system to rationalize away our own sense of human decency? It convinces us: SELFISHNESS IS GOOD! Bravo to the selfish rich man, may someday I will be as lucky as he!

Face it. Rich people have that kind of disposable income.

Yes, but why, and how? I have done more than simply rail against this purchase; I have tried to demonstrate connections between a culture of wealth (as evidenced by such a lavish purchase) and its corollary -- a culture that manifests the traits of abusive power: aggressive militarism and an hysterical obsession with security (immigration walls?, secret prisons??, torture???).

I highly doubt criticizing that sale will lead to is as quickly

I'm not here trying to convince the collector, or future collectors, to reconsider the next time they want to blow $71,000,000 on a painting. Instead, I'm more interested in why so many here don't seem to have a problem with it (or worse, seem to be celebrating it). How can we find a better way if we can't even recognize the problem?

5/23/2007 03:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Incidents of abusive power, aggressive militarism, and hysterical obsession with security far predate the current era. For thousands of years, from Jericho to Pisa, a "city" was a significant urban area surrounded by a massive defense wall. Spartan boys were stripped and thrown into the forest at 13 and not welcome back into town until they turned 14. Feudal lords could deflower any virgin on the property with impunity.

Jason, I'll bite. Convince me that there's a problem.

5/23/2007 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Ed sez:
And it needn't be centered on (only)acquisition, but perhaps introduce a new model of patronage, permitting a broader range of intent and/or approaches to flourish. Motivation to support it would, of course, need to follow a shift in values (I can't see this evolving without one)....

Taking this off into a slight tangent: This isn't so far-fetched as it might sound. I mentioned in a previous thread how surprised I was to read that most of the artists of the New York School (Pollock, de Kooning, and so on) spent the 1930s on the government payroll as artists. The WPA paid them simply to be artists -- in addition to all the artists it supported with mural commissions.

That's a broader model of patronage. Other commenters have noted that government-sponsored art is usually pretty crappy, but I don't think that necessarily has to be so. It's not like corporation-sponsored art has been nothing but fantastic.

Another broader model of patronage is one we're already working under. Consider how many art world people "support themselves" with a day job. In a sense, that's a form of patronage: A hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, no job on Earth (aside from aristocrat) left people with time and money for sidelines like oil paintings. Our society today can and does support that, to the extent that there are probably more artists alive and working right now than in all of previous history combined.

Heck, it's not just artists. The current LED revolution is due to a Japanese researcher who worked on the technology in his spare time and made a breakthrough. There are more scientists and engineers working right now than ever before, too.

So there are a lot of things at work here, and a lot of possibilities. We've been focusing on the Warhol for the past few days but it's really just a drop in a big, big bucket.

5/23/2007 03:50:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

to Jason:
Instead, I'm more interested in why so many here don't seem to have a problem with it (or worse, seem to be celebrating it).

I have a problem with it. Maybe I've made that clear, maybe I haven't. But I've only been so vocal about it because I'm still thinking about it. Taking it in. And frankly, I've been a bit distracted by what's going on with the Iraq spending bill and the bottomless DoJ scandal. Quite upset about it all.

to Franklin:
Convince me that there's a problem.

You probably wouldn't be raising this challenge if you were one of those virgins on the property or living on $3 of food stamps a day. But then again, in that position you might just blame yourself for your predicament. Members of social underclasses often do.

to Chris:

I don't always agree with your responses here at Ed's blog. But sometimes, like now, the internal logic and optimism of your post gives me pause. Thanks for the moment of hope.

(PS. Don't let my the physical form of my work confuse you, Chris. Ethically, I'm a neo-classicist at heart and believe strongly in the good that the WPA and the CCC brought this country.)

5/23/2007 04:38:00 PM  
Blogger aurix said...

to franklin: saying that things have always been like this (or worse) doesn't really validate your claim that there is no problem; it just means that there were problems then, and there are problems now.

to edward: i'd argue that symptoms are diseases or are regarded as such (even though this may not be entirely relevant).

i think the question that some people, including me, are trying to get at isn't about the value of art about the art market, which, yes, can be reductive and futile bitching. but to use your analogy, the question that's most interesting to me is, if someone has emphysema and all the symptoms are there, do you sell him cigarettes? Or do you help him in some way or another to buy cigarettes? is it 'wrong' for you to sell him cigarettes or even to let someone do it?

"To my mind it's now more clear that art's role in changing the art market is to reflect back to the public not the truth about the current art market (whatever that might be), but rather the truth about the culture that's given it birth, because only via a shift in our values, will we see a shift in the market."

the problem, though, is that it is impossible to make powerful art that critiques the culture the gives birth to the art market because as long as it's 'art' in the institutional sense, then it's lost potency because it's become part of the market and symptomatic of the culture, too.

moreover i doubt if the shift in values is even conceivable in this money-driven culture because if there's a fundamental shift in values, it's also a fundamental restructuring of the whole culture--that's quite radical and unimaginable in today's world.

a "shift" isn't gonna manifest itself in the art market because ther market by definition does not have space for a different value system. and if the shift appears, it can be argued that it's not a real shift from the start, but, like art about the market, has been thoroughly subsumed.

5/23/2007 05:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

You probably wouldn't be raising this challenge if you were one of those virgins on the property or living on $3 of food stamps a day.

This doesn't convince me that there is a problem.

Saying that things have always been like this (or worse) doesn't really validate your claim that there is no problem; it just means that there were problems then, and there are problems now.

This doesn't convince me that there is a problem.

My understanding was that Jason thinks that there is a problem with spending $71M on a painting. I'd like to know what that problem is. Or if I misunderstood, what the correct problem is.

5/23/2007 06:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

--in response to Ed_'s analogy, with a few more responders as inspiration. I apologize for the length..

One whom has emphysema, even with a friend saying "perhaps you should not smoke, with your emphysema and all" might continue to choose to smoke. As is their perogative. The problem is the 'emphysema' in our case is not just infecting the user...the entire restaurant is now smoke ridden; others have even forgotten smoking causes emphysema, or choose to not care--as it is their perogative to partake, especially if they have the 'lung capacity.' Afterall, who would chose to quit when 'all the cool kids are doing it' so to speak..? Sectioning off areas of the restaurant for the nonsmokers seems counterproductive..

Allowing one to do whatever they want as an inalienable right is showing everyone it is ok to do whatever they want, regardless of who it harms...confusing this beautiful ideal with the notion that it is because only 'I' matter.

Perhaps the only way around is to actually choose who is 'worthy' of purchasing a peice...which is impractical, and probably just as counterproductive? This, however if such the case, should only be done by the artist, not collector nor dealer.

As much as I might not agree that Warhola is particularly worth 70m, I do believe it will go up in value, hopefully because it is one of his 'stronger' peices. I'd much rather the rich spend their leisure on paintings than on a personal jet or supplying their sexually rambunctious daughter with every for her heart's contentment...art is more meaningful than any fleeting entertainment or selfish insignificancy. Ignoring the importance of the existence of art by using it purely as a personal social gain (if such is the goal) is honestly disgusting, no matter the cause.
Is the fact the work went for so much showing that art is more important than the other options for the moneyspending, or rather reflecting the idea that the social status earned from spending the money is important? Now, which should be the case?

We've bred people into pursuing self-centered actions in their everyday life, which is confusing when taking into account how humans are such social creatures, even to the point where we develop societies insinuating that the individual can do nothing with out the 'aid' of a group (or at least the purpose of such actions would truly never exist if not for the group's existence.) The beauty of selfishness is you never look outside your own box to notice the flaws in is implementation. I do digress..

. . . s r w

5/23/2007 07:38:00 PM  
Blogger aurix said...

to franklin: i just reread your posts and it seems that the "problem" jason was referring to and that you were responding to was "Incidents of abusive power, aggressive militarism, and hysterical obsession with security far predate the current era" rather than the $71 mil. paid for a painting--although jason said the $71 mil. connected to abusive power.

on another note, i got your point about art-as-commodity and the art market as any other market. and if we're talking in pure market terms, then sure, just like edward said, a commodity is worth whatever someone's willing to pay for it.

but then with the sale of the warhol , this thread is also referring to a culture of which the sale was symptomatic.

5/23/2007 08:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

So the sale is a symptom of abusive power in the culture? Prove it.

5/24/2007 08:51:00 AM  
Anonymous jason said...

So the sale is a symptom of abusive power in the culture? Prove it.

Franklin, I doubt you're sincerely interested in my response, but I'll try to satisfy you. I believe I've already written more than enough to answer your question (if you include my comments from the previous Auction threads), short of proving it, of course, but I'll try to simplify for the sake of my argument.

(1) The collecting of high-art objects is one of the most obvious expressions of luxury, and is the ultimate prize for luxurious society. High-art auctions continue to shatter previous records, reflecting a massive amount of growth for the luxury class (which can be demonstrated by economic data). Essentially, the gap between the have's and the have-not's continues to widen, as the latest auction results painfully remind us.

(2) Paralleling this period of massive growth for the luxury class (in which, admittedly, auction records are only a very small indicator), the U.S. has notoriously become more aggressively militaristic and increasingly obsessed with security, as evidenced by...well, everything.

(3) Aggressive militarism and the hysterical obsession with security are necessary in order to sustain a luxurious society. In short, luxury and abusive power are corollaries. This was true during the days of feudal lords and it's still true today. The so-called 'free world' of representative government and capitalist markets have been promised by many as an alleviation to these social and political problems. Clearly, this has not worked out. Instead, we have an expanding wealthy class (who spend $71,000,000 on single paintings) and more war, and more war, and the threat of more war (not to mention a global environmental crisis!) .

If this still isn't clear, then I'll defer to Socrates (from The Republic, in dialog with Glaucon):

"Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.

True, he said.

Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music--poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also makers of divers kinds of articles, including women's dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.

Certainly.

And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.

And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbours' land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?

Most certainly, he replied.

Then without determining as yet whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public.

Undoubtedly.

And our State must once more enlarge; and this time the will be nothing short of a whole army, which will have to go out and fight with the invaders for all that we have, as well as for the things and persons whom we were describing above."

5/24/2007 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Jason, thanks for that thoughtful response; it's about as decent of an explanation as can be summoned for these things. The observations correlate with a certain war of choice we're involved in right now.

But correlation does not equal causation. It's tempting, pleasurable, even, to liken our leadership to Greek senators pining for better sofas, but poor societies also attack each other. So it's fine as far as it works, but it's too facile for every case, even many of them.

In any case, laying all this at the feet of a spike in Warhol prices is not a real thesis if you actually care about limiting coercion. Far worse betrayals of liberty go on, as I'm sure you know. If art has a role to play in reform, I haven't seen results that look convincing either politically, economically, or aesthetically. And good intentions are not enough. It should work.

5/24/2007 02:33:00 PM  
Anonymous jason said...

But correlation does not equal causation.

Well, in the case of the "certain war of choice we're involved in right now," I find it curious that (a) al Qaeda chose to attack The World Trade Center, the symbol of American economic power, and (b) that instead of then attacking al Qaeda directly, the U.S. focused its military strength on the world's 2nd largest supply of oil.

poor societies also attack each other

Maybe so, but usually in an effort to become not poor. I would never suggest that the pursuit of wealth is the only reason for war, or the impetus for all wars, just that history shows us that wars are usually started because either (a) one side wants to expand or protect its land ownership, or (b) one side wants to expand or protect its access to resources.

If art has a role to play in reform, I haven't seen results that look convincing either politically, economically, or aesthetically.

I'm doubtful as well -- there's no substitute for the direct action of a mass movement. But insofar as art can function as a form of communication, it has the capacity to resist abusive power. The problem within the high-art system is that an artwork's most powerful communication is usually its status as a luxury commodity -- not the communication that most artists intend.

5/24/2007 04:03:00 PM  

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