Art meets money: a moral panic!

By Tessel M. Bauduin

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Money, or more specifically, capital, is a hot and controversial issue in the art world. As Jan Baetens noted recently on this blog, commerce in and commercialization of the art world are debated subjects. Magazines and newspapers report record after record in sales: just recently, nine New York auctions of art from the 1950s to today raised (combined) $ 2.230.800.000, with Christies alone raising 853 mil. dollar (682 mil. euro). These sales led to, for instance, the Dutch newspaper the NRC, and international art news outlets such as the Art Newspaper and Art News proclaiming it the greatest auction record in history, and noting that ‘never before has so much money been spent on art in such a short period’.

The fact that for instance Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol was auctioned for $81.9m makes people upset, to say the least. There are complaints about the art market being a bubble. Auctions houses, gallery owners, and buyers are accused of speculating. New billionaire buyers on the art market buy art only as an investment; or, at best, they buy art to increase their social standing. All of this is clearly considered deplorable. As Matthew Slotover, co-founder of influential art platform Frieze stated recently at a panel discussion, ‘Money should follow art. Art should not follow money’.

The panel discussion in question was ‘Art, Capital & Avantgarde’, hosted at Amsterdam discussion venue De Balie as part of the Amsterdam Art Weekend programme (28-11-2014). Other speakers included the new director of the Stedelijk Museum, Beatrix Ruf, artist Zachary Formwalt, and sociology professor Olav Velthuis. The discussion’s description asked whether there still even is ‘critical potential to a painting that has become a market-fetish, a toy for speculative investors and a glaring symbol of the global inequality of wealth?’ Indeed, can one even avoid the ‘pitfall, power and influence of big money’?[1] A similar spirit of fear, distrust and even disgust towards money pervaded the panel. Traces of a moral panic were undeniably tangible. Artists, institutions, galleries and also, collectors and buyers should above all be motivated by the quality of art; or such was the consensus. The presence of capital in the art market—and its related associations of speculation and investment—was clearly considered a horrible development. Young rich buyers acquire art works of Hirst, Koons, Warhol or Richter only to store them; in other words, they don’t even have visual access to their art, let alone any aesthetic enjoyment if it. What horror!

The one really valuable contribution to the panel, in my view, was provided by the one scientist on the panel: sociologist Velthuis from the University of Amsterdam. Using data and statistics, Velthuis made clear that the money-discussion is indeed a moral panic, perpetrated by the media, which has nothing to do with actual developments in the art market. Indeed, corrected for inflation, the total amounts made at art auctions have over the past 30 years hardly kept any pace with the growing number of billionaires worldwide. Whatever those new billionaires are doing with their money, they’re certainly not buying art. Velthuis’s book Talking Prices. Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton University Press, 2005) clearly outlines how the panicky art discourse operates, and subsequently demonstrates why it is based on untruths and distortions by using historical data and insightful statistic analysis.[2] Besides for students of art markets, art sociology, patronage and the arts in general, it should be obligatory reading for members of the art world as well.

In the end, the most important question, which touches upon the roots of this debate, remained unanswered. Why, in fact, are money and capital such “dirty” concepts in the art world? Why should art not follow money? Indeed, already in the art market of the Dutch Golden Age collectors were buying art as an investment, or to raise their social status, besides out of appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. In Renaissance times the Florentine Medici family were great patrons of the arts, and they used their patronage to gain further wealth, influence and power. Art has never stood apart from society and that society’s concerns. Obviously throughout the history of the arts aesthetic quality has been talked about as the major qualifier for discussing, collecting and acquiring art, but in the end, money, social standing and other concerns have always played their part in the real transactions of art. Only a cursory study of contracts between artists and patrons will reveal this. This, clearly, is why cultural historians are such a welcome presence in these debates. If only to point out that the notion that art should remain free of any social or financial worth, but be pure, authentic and original and only judged on its aesthetic worth, goes right back to 19th century art discourses. Thus this ‘moral panic’ about art prices is nothing new—and not even true, at that.


[1] De Balie, ‘Art, Capital & Avantgarde’: http://www.debalie.nl/agenda/programma/kunst,-kapitaal-%26-avant+garde/e_9491548/p_11647645/ (accessed 1-12-2014), my translation. 

[2] Read the introduction here: press.princeton.edu/chapters/i8035.pdf. 

Image credits: Steve Lambert, ‘Capitalism Works for me’ at Spaces Gallery, https://www.flickr.com/photos/spacesgallery/6173517984/in/photostream/ shared under creative commons

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