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Continuing the Debate on the Value of Art

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L.F., art historian based in Berlin

One main impasse of art theory is the concept of value of art. Here we find solid historical materialist theory production like Max Raphael in the 1920s and 1930s (cf. Raphael 1989), or, also strongly rooted in historical materialism, Karel Teige (whose Marxist theory of the art market “Jarmark umění” is unfortunately not yet translated into English, only to French as “Le marché de l’art”, cf. Teige 2000). In his text from 1936, Teige produces art history as a history of the contradiction between art and market since the 19th century. Later Marxist theory like for example by Peter Hacks in “Schöne Wirtschaft: Ästhetisch-ökonomische Fragmente” (1988) is more freely using a variety of value terms, that do not aim at forming a closed economic theory. This we also find with post-Marxists like Diedrich Diederichsen (2008) or Jean Baudrillard (1981), who experiment with the terms exchange value and surplus value while their theories on this remain a sketch. Others like Marina Vishmidt (2018), Kerstin Stakemeier (2016), Angela Dimitrakaki (2015) or Jaleh Mansoor (2016) are more strict again in their theoretical constructions, for example working on the terms “speculation”, “reproduction” and “abstraction. Isabelle Graw, who is often quoted in art history for her economic investigation of art history in “High Price” (2009), is therein further removed from questions of value, as she founded her work on the sociological terminology of Pierre Bourdieu.

Let us take a look at Baudrillard, because while he remains a bit obscure in his terminology, he might nevertheless provide some helpful points. In his book “Symbolic Exchange and Death” (1981), he devotes a chapter to the art auction. He does this in order to ‘locate’ the value-forming process of art – comparable to Diedrich Diederichsen (2008), who locates the surplus value of art in the labour of cultural mediation. Baudrillard reconstructs an institutionalization of the sales talk in an art gallery which is through this transformed into the ritual of the art auction: the public becomes part of the process of negotiation. We could add: just as art is exhibited to be true, its market is exhibited to be true. Collecting, once a courtly activity, becomes a commercially performative act: buying in front of an audience. The collections themselves, in turn, are usually festively dissolved on this market – in the auction of estates. Does the specific legal and performative process of auctioning art constitute a collection value? As we see in this example, an art collection is not only a form, it is a process, juridically (previous owners, provenance, death, estate, auction right), politically (representation, power), economically (patronage as hedging, collection as a speculation portfolio).

These aspects are mostly missing in the “Art and Value” book by Marxist art theoretician Dave Beech from 2015, here he describes to the special status of art in the various schools of economics with a focus on Marxism – with a small blow against Diederichsen: “Diederichsen’s economics of art reads like a Dada poem made out of cuttings from Capital Volume I.” (p. 21). Like Diederichsen finally he is also including the labour of cultural mediation in the production of art. He just calls doesn’t call it surplus value, but just value. With both Diederichsen and Beech I am missing the practical economic mediations, like the special practice of art auctions – Boltanski and Esquerre (2017) are loosely touching upon such processes in their considerations of the “collection form”, but drop the concept of materialist value as it is discussed here, in favour of a pragmatic sociology of price.

Let us consider an art historian who has worked on the art market, including the auction market. Nicholas Green stands for a Marxist revision of art history, a “more interdisciplinary approach, raiding, though with caution, the methods of sociology, economics, anthropology to stretch and toughen art history’s epistemological hide” (1989). His book “The Spectacle of Nature” (1990) is an important study of the value of art during the 19th century, precisely because it is interdisciplinary and thus has more empiricism to offer than, for example, the theoretical steamrollers of Max Raphael and Karel Teige from the 1930s. Jaleh Mansoor would be the counterpart to this for the time of “Marshall Plan Modernism” (2016). Isabelle Graw’s “High Price” (2009) period covers the time after the “Spectacle of Nature”, unfortunately she bases her methodology mainly on Pierre Bourdieu, whose theory Lily Woodruff summarized somewhat strongly as: “tautological and inescapable loop of both cause and its own interpretation such that the individual can be reduced to a collection of observable social effects” (2014).

Building on Nicholas Green I want to conclude the text with juridical aspects, i.e. how has the development and application of laws for artistic production, accumulation and circulation historically influenced the value of art. Could this be a new key angle for a revision of art history and art theory? In Green’s list the law is missing. Is this perhaps be another starting point for a revision of art history? The systematic analysis of legal conditions comes to mind: guild law, academy law, colonial law, auction monopolies, auction law. For example the rise of the citizen to become an art collector is economic, political and also legal. So is the rise of the artist to a market participant. And finally, so is the accumulation of colonial looted art, which then serves new branches of collecting and also as material and formal inspiration for the ascended Western artists. For each of these points a separated corpus of literature exists, which combined around the question of value could serve further revision of the discipline.

Cited literature:

Baudrillard, Jean – The Art Auction. in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. 1981

Beech, Dave – Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical and Marxist Economics. 2015

Bernes, Jasper – The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization. 2017

Boltanski, Luc; Esquerre, Arnaud – Enrichissement. Une critique de la marchandise. 2017

Diederichsen, Diedrich – On (Surplus) Value In Art / Mehrwert und Kunst. 2008

Dimitrakaki, Angela; Lloyd, Kirsten (eds.) – Economy: Art, Production and the Subject in the Twenty-First Century. 2015

Graw, Isabelle – High Price. Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture. 2009

Green, Nicholas – Circuits of Production, Circuits of. Consumption: The Case of Mid-Nineteenth-Century French. Art Dealing. Art journal, 1989

Green, Nicholas – The Spectacle of Nature. 1990

Hacks, Peter- Schöne Wirtschaft. Ästhetisch-ökonomische Fragmente. 1988

Mansoor, Jaleh – Marshall Plan Modernism: Italian Postwar Abstraction and the Beginnings of Autonomia. 2016

Raphael, Max – Marx Picasso. Die Renaissance des Mythos in der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. 1989

Stakemeier, Kerstin; Vishmidt, Marina – Reproducing Autonomy: Work, Money, Crisis and Contemporary Art. 2016

Teige, Karel – Le marché de l’art. 2000

Vishmidt, Marina – Speculation as a Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital. 2018

Woodruff, Lily – Didier Bay’s Photographic Sociology of Post-1968 Paris. 2014 nonsite.org/article/didier-bays-photographic-sociology-of-post-1968-paris

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