Where is the money?
Many people are anxious that the growing class divide in the art world and the succession of record-breaking prices paid for contemporary art endanger the belief system supporting it. But why is nobody worried about money itself? Isn’t what happens at an auction that money celebrates its freedom, its release from the burden of being a means of comparison? Is art the new money? On a currency that lives from the bank of the gaze, into which we all make payments.
The reassurance of the public has become a surprising new rhetorical mode in the world of art auctions. "This isn’t a bubble, it’s the beginning of something new“, asserted Christie’s chairman Brett Gorvy after their autumn 2013 sale. After still more records were broken in the spring auction, his colleague Steven Murphy sought to assuage doubts about whether art still had anything to do with what was happening in the top price bracket. "More people than ever before want to connect with art", he said, turning his gaze to the rank and file of the art-industrial complex, "and the growth in this audience globally makes the few, individual, true masterpieces available more valuable than ever before."
This kind of language brings to mind the way politicians reassure the public that their pensions are safe, or Mario Draghi’s pledge that the ECB would do everything in its power to save the Euro. A faltering belief system has to be shored up by investments of confidence, in the form of proclamations that art is safe (and thus also its prices). The difference is that auction houses are neither pension schemes nor central banks. Instead, they are unregulated marketplaces that inflate prices, but cannot print their own wares. The artists are the still the ones who do that.
But if we take seriously Murphy’s description of the symbolic economy that underpins the creation of monetary value, it is based not so much on individual objects, nor even on producers or buyers, but on view-counts among people who, in Murphy’s words, "connect" with art. He thinks in terms of the number of impressions, or, as the critic David Joselit would say, "hits". Murphy’s analysis of the system implies that the more hits art gets from viewers, the more appropriate and stable the high prices for top works become. In other words, we all play a part in driving up prices.
The anxiety that the auction house representatives evidently feel they must counter was summed up by a headline in the Washington Post: "As the price of art rises, is its value plummeting?" Plausible as the question seems, these may be the wrong terms; as worded, the question unites idealists and speculators. Art, after all, is not the only commodity in play in the frenzied commercial world of art auctions: there are serious sums of money in the game too. In each exchange of commodities, two items mutually confirm each other’s value, and it is only trust in financial policies, currency reserves and the state’s monopoly on violence that allows money to be regarded as a benchmark instead of as a commodity that it itself at risk.
Yet when a Bacon triptych sold for $142 million last autumn and a similar one made only half that amount this spring, or when somebody pays a million for the work of a young artist such as Alex Israel, then the money itself is clearly not of so much consequence. When just 85 individuals control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together, as Oxfam pointed out in January, then in the longer term money does not function as a means of comparison and an instrument of social participation as it once did at least in some societies since Fordism. Is money, understood as information, as an abstract mediator, still a key currency? Or is it a free-floating monetary spectre with no connection to production and the exchange of goods – a law unto itself, autonomous in a way that art has never been? Does it now look to art to give it a backstop and make it count? And hasn’t the incomprehensibility of the sums exchanged at art auctions long since replaced the incomprehensibility of art itself? "I don’t know what money means anymore", said art investor Asher Edelman, as he walked out of the room before the end of Christie’s evening auction in May.
Why is it that, whereas Warhol once sought recognition in the world of pop music, today the likes of P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Kanye West seek recognition in the art world? Why have the super-rich of Dallas for the past five years been pouring their money into private museums designed by star architects? Why are curators from the Guggenheim and UBS scouring every continent for contemporary and emerging art the way investors once sought sources of tea, rubber or gold? Perhaps it is because art and money are currently trading places in an astonishing way. Art is becoming a currency, harder than coltan and gold. That may be what Gorvy sensed last autumn with that fascinating sentence, "It’s the beginning of something new."
In the past, it was museums, curators and magazines that dispensed credit and in doing so also enhanced their own value. They set the criteria of quality that determined the prices. Then prices started to become independent of them, a process set in motion on the one hand by the increasing concentration of wealth in private hands and on the other by the globalisation of the art market in which an ever growing number of participants competed for a limited number of broadcasting spots with ever-increasing reach and an accelerating circulation of art in the media. Art fairs and mega-galleries, with their high concentration of both space and time, became the focus of attention and the dispensers of credit. But gallerists are already complaining that even the market is no longer a reliable benchmark. Art-flippers such as Stefan Simchowitz and his Hollywood and Silicon Valley friends are reshaping the rules with their Instagramisation of art, rapidly issuing recommendations and reselling art via social media. And auction houses, especially Phillips de Pury, are undermining the decades-old boundary between the primary and secondary market by bringing new works under the hammer within months.
Ultimately, this means that money is no longer the yardstick; it has become a performer, whose record-breaking accomplishments are measured in art. Why did Christie’s waive the seller’s commission on the sale of Jeff Koons "Balloon Dog" from Peter Brant’s collection? Because the spectacle of the transaction was worth more than the money. And because the currency underpinning everything here is not money; nor is it merely art, and most certainly no longer critical appraisal or art-historical significance. Instead, what counts is the number of views or "hits". Attracting attention is the foundation of social recognition. And over many centuries art has proved its trading power in that respect.
As collector Donald Rubell already told the New York Times back in 2010, "People are now realizing that art is an international currency". In "After Art" (2012), David Joselit takes Rubell at face value by conceptualising "currency" as "image-power": the capacity of an image to draw attention to itself, and rack up hits. Joselit’s concept of currency refers not only to exchange, but also to "currents", in analogy with the data streams in financial markets. Just as digital data are capable of transporting a wide array of media content, so too, according to Joselit, is art a universal carrier that can create links within a system of circulation between entirely disparate objects, people, and subject matter. He attempts to escape the grip of economics by framing art as a cultural currency rather than a monetised currency, emphasizing its potential as an ambassador within a global diplomacy. The museums designed all over the world by leading architects are, for Joselit, the central banks of cultural wealth.
At the same time, the museums are logos materialised in space, which are themselves deployed within a global economy of images. They constitute content, just like the art that develops its image-power through hits. Not as banks, but as repositories of visibility. The bank itself has no fixed location. It consists of everyone who "connects" with art. In other words, the currency of art cannot be measured in terms of individual objects, which are merely the vehicles that allow the activation of the actual capital – which takes the form of presence and visibility, for example at an evening auction in London, Hong Kong or New York, or in a music video at the Pace Gallery attended by the full complement of New York’s art elite, who offer Jay-Z their symbolic capital and in one stroke enhance his own. This brings us to the "celebrity turn": art and celebrities not only serve as one another’s backdrops but are increasingly taking on one another’s key characteristics. This was clear in the PR video for the evening auction at Christie’s, in which skateboarder Chris Martin wove his way through the warehouse and showrooms while the artworks flashing past pulled the camera towards them, like magnets. A sports celebrity, artwork and the camera here formed gliding force-fields made of various fashionable signifiers that come together in hits that multiply their image power and attract hits from an audience that is invited to identify with a social game from which they are actually excluded by the fact of the unequal distribution of wealth.
Evidently, the eye of the camera has replaced the "eye" of the the pure, disembodied gaze that artist and writer Brian O’Doherty identified as the addressee of art. Artworks must perform before this eye – as must the viewers, the buyers and their money. Because for those who have image power, this power increases with each act of exchange. Art has to circulate more and more in the decentralised bank of the gaze. And in doing so, it shores up a field of constantly renewed connections in which it seems that one simply cannot afford not to open an account. If Winston Churchill painted privately, the latest works by George W. Bush demand a public. Art is already overtaking film and pop as the leading cultural industry. In Los Angeles, according to Stefan Simchowitz "it has become the de facto definer of social hierarchy". What choice does Marina Abramović have when Jay-Z channels the structure of "The Artist is Present" in a music video? She plays along, to connect her own image power with that of Jay-Z.
After all, image power is not the sole preserve of art. Anyone who takes Joselit’s theory seriously will find that there is no longer any intrinsic difference between art and other forms of image power. What difference there is we define ourselves, in our beliefs, and in what Suhail Malik (in "Texte zur Kunst" 93), called the social over-valuation of art. And perhaps it is precisely this idealism that not only leads us to look aghast at the auctions or to shrug our shoulders and decide to concentrate once more on art but also actually accelerates the concentration of image power at the upper end. By printing currency, artworks, art texts, exhibitions and reviews, but above all in viewing art, we lower the value of our work and increase the profits of those who possess the necessary image power. Whose image power is greater – that of Pharrell Williams, inviting the Guerrilla Girls to take part in an exhibition he has curated, or that of the Guerrilla Girls, who sought to undermine the event critically?
Gorvy and Murphy are right: art is safe. Let’s worry more about the money. It used to be a very civilised means of exchange. It’s a shame it no longer works.
Kolja Reichert is a writer and editor at Spike. He lives in Berlin.
Translated by Ishbel Flett