Thursday, February 2, 2012

Spot Shops

 Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent. (1999); $30 Damien Hirst spot themed coffee mugs
(Return to Part I)
"Laundry detergent is a commodity," the art blogger Greg Allen reminded me over twitter recently. Allen, who like Felix Salmon is an art collector with a background in finance, pressed me to explain my assertion that art is not a commodity in any way-shape-or-form. Allen pointed out that companies like Dow "invest heavily to differentiate [these products] as brands, so as to get a premium price." He's right, but as my economist friend Guan Yang was careful to make clear to me when he and I discussed the matter, "there are various degrees of commodity-ness. Oil and gold are more commodified than pork bellies and orange juice." Art is a commodity-ness outlier, a black swan out at the far edge of the consumer economy's left field.

Because Larry Gagosian appropriates the sorts of voodoo marketing techniques required to differentiate undifferentiated consumer-commodities like laundry detergents, cigarettes (which in the US, must by law contain only Grade A tobacco), gasoline, and other products that are virtually identical, in order to milk Damien Hirst's mid-career for every last penny of premium pricing dollars. But that does not put art on the spectrum alongside Laundry detergent. In fact, the hierarchical product lines created by Gagosian (and other art marketers) look a lot more the kinds of schemes used by automobile and cell phone makers.
Wall Street (1987); Black Hawk Down (2001)

When I asked Guan about cell phones he told me, "You could argue that feature cell phones are somewhere on the spectrum." What is crucial to remember about "feature cell phones," is that they didn't exist 20 years ago. Cell phones are a technology that have benefited from "commoditization" to a degree that throws that term into new light. The first time a cell phone appeared in a Hollywood movie was Oliver Stone's original Wall Street. Gordon Gekko is shown using a Motorola DynaTAC brick. In 1987 possessing a cell phone was a signifier of wealth and importance - something high-power hedgies and lawyers might have. Less than 15 years later Ridley Scott had a Somali boy use a "feature cell phone" to warn armed gangs inside Mogadishu of a coming American attack.

Cell phones had been commoditized and within 15 years had gone from a luxury item to a commodity as ubiquitous and as cheap as corn - this was effect that Adam Smith and Karl Marx never could have imagined. The first time anyone fingered the effect was in 1965 when Gordon Moore pointed out that a dollars worth of of computer processing speed had been doubling every 18-month for at least a decade. Moore was the first to observe an effect that is now observable in almost ever aspect of the global economy. This is not a variation of Adam Smith's pin factory observations. The exponential rates that Moore first observed are not aspects of the division of labor. The postwar consumer economy is built on the commodity trading and specialization of capitalism that Adams and Marx would have recognized, but it is it's own beast. While critical theorists continue to focus on "specialization" and "commoditization" of pin making, like computer chips and cell phones, art has been commoditized - but "art" has changed in ways as different from cell phones as cell phones are different from pins.
Pins and pin points: Tara Donovan, Untitled (2003); Damien Hirst, L-Isoleucinol (2010-2011)

Again, it is not absurd to imagine that in a year or two a teenage boy might walk the streets of  Mogadishu wearing a Spot Print t-shirt, or drinking out of an " DH" mug, but no one will mistake him for art collectors any more then the movie audiences in 2001 would have mistaken the cell phone wielding Somali teen-ager in Black Hawk Down for a hedge fund manager. On the other hand, while cell phones are remarkable for the speed in which they were commoditized, art is remarkable for how differently it has commoditized.

If I had tried to explain to the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr, in 1936, that hundreds of people would line up for hours, every day for weeks outside of his museum, just for the chance to stare into an artist's eyes, and that would be considered art he would have thought I was being silly. If I had tried to explain to him the contortions Tino Sehgal puts museums and collectors through to "acquire" an "encounter", Barr would have thought I was mad. I936 was the year Barr mounted, Cubism and Abstract Art, a show of abstract painting and sculpture - a form of modern art now seen as "corporate" ie commodified. "As this volume goes to press" Barr wrote in that show's catalog, "the United States Customs has refused to permit the Museum of Modern Art to enter as works of art nineteen pieces of more or less abstract sculpture under a ruling which requires that sculpture must represent an animal or human form." The effect of the commoditizing on art is not that art became cheaply available to everyone, it is that everything, no matter how cheap, has became art.
Polka Dot Beanie Baby collectable; Damien Hirst, Spot Painting (????)

The goods that art most resembles are Tulip Bulbs, Beanie Babies and Comic books. That class of assets that we lose our fucking shit over. Irrational exuberance doesn't begin to explain the behavior I saw when I visited Sotheby's in London the day before Damien Hirst auctioned off the remainders of his restaurant Pharmacy in 2004. My guide described to me trying to talk he clients "off the ledge" - explaining to them that the flatware and salt shakers they were prepared to spend thousands of dollars on were not authenticated by the artist and would be worthless. "It does no good" she told me, "I can't stop them." 

Art is a market. We have auctions that set prices, and, as David Hickey writes about brilliantly in his essay The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market, art marketers make use of the same "hierarchies of value" carmakers and other consumer manufacturers use. Hickey, an art world gadfly, writes that first aesthetic experience was hot-rodding cars as a teenager, and that he found the transition from cars to art an easy one to make: 
There were structural differences, of course, the principal one being that, since production was dissemination, the custom-model came first in this economy.  It was clear, however, that the large institutions of the art world, like the Whitney Museum uptown and the art school out at Yale, functioned like General Motors, establishing brand names, institutional agendas, and hierarchies of value out of materials provided by the auction markets."
Star Fuckers: Lawrence Wiener, Benjamin Buchloh; David Bowey, Damian Hirst, Julian Schnabel 

But it is clear that just because art is subject to the same forces does not mean it behaves like other markets. It is its own unique kind of market. The artist William Powhida, who has made a career out of dissecting and charting the art market, points out that art is "the ULTIMATE commodity": 
The fashion industry continually tries to generate the symbolic and potentially 'priceless' value (which allows art prices to rocket into orbit) and always has to settle on an absurd, yet laughable price compared to high-end art... Is art a commodity? Yes, one with a limitless (priceless) valuation in theory, but you can stop at the highest auction record ever practically speaking, versus other commodities like a fucking handbag that would LOVE to have that possibly limitless valuation, but doesn't, because handbags aren't considered to have any symbolic value (unless it belonged to a celebrity and accrues other sentimental value).
Christian Viveros-Faune recently argued that the best art is "Ungovernable." Where on the spectrum of commodity-ness does trashing a cop car belong? How do you price a vandalized bridge? Someone will figure it out. It may never rise above the price Hirst is getting for a licensed Spot Painting skateboard deck, but, unlike the "goods" peddled in the Gagosian "Spot Shop," the price of trashing a cop car or vandalizing a bridge may also rise infinitely. Precisely because the artworld pretends it's business is not-business, it attracts the Lloyd Doblers of the world and it also attacks the Voinas, but it also attracts would-be-Hirsts. As economist Hans Abbing points out, precisely because art pretends not to be a business, it is the most cut throat of all possible markets - a war of all against all, and by any means possible - because to acknowledge any ethical norms or formalize a code of conduct would be to admit we are selling "goods" in "stores" and not "works" in "galleries."
Damien Hirst; Voina in Jail


  1. The reason Greenberg loved formalism was because he saw it as a way to undermine commodification. The Kitsch was the commercial, high art was the reaction to that. His mistake was in believing that some intrinsic quality of abstraction would prevent it from becoming commodified. You could make a pretty good, simplified case that the history of art since Greenberg is defined by the evolving relationship of art to it's commodity nature.

    High art Ab-Ex is commodified? return to the kitsch in pop art. As that becomes commodified, engage that commodification directly via Koons and Hirst. Undermine markets with street art? Commodify them So on and so forth. So on an so forth.

    While Greenberg may have been wrong about the type of art to combat capitalism, he seems to have been on point about the art/ market dialectic.

    At this point I'm not sure where we're left. Subversion itself seems to have been commodified. When dialectic permutations move so fast as to become a single high pitched whine, what are you left with? Either the system continues to wrap itself around itself, returns in part or whole to a system more directed to the support of ideologies, or some other fundamental shift has to occur.

    Maybe. I may just not have had enough sleep.

  2. I really do think that art is an extraordinary commodity, not just as Bill points out, in its limitless possible value, but also by how it behaves in terms of "commodification." You suggest that it is a back and forth of avant-gard "subversion." A for sure, that is the story we most often tell about it, bu there re a lot of things that doesn't tell us - for every instance that painting has been brought lower, there are examples of things we would have never thought of as being art being treated as art.

    "Being treated as art" is a massive constellation of physical, legal, economic, and social conventions. When we call something art we are wrapping it in high esteem. African masks and native American Totem Poles were once objects of anthropological significance only. They belonged in the Natural History Museum. They are now unquestionably art.

    This leads to the age old question: What is art? Art in the sense we mean within the contemporary art world is a machine for thinking about art. This is an idea I explored in a post a while back:

    "Like science, Art can be thought of as a totalitarian metanarrative, one that destroys older traditional art, but can also be looked at as an 'ordering of knowledge' - a structure that connects otherwise irreconcilably different cultural orderings that makes them viable, not only to one another, but to all Art."

    As art "commodifies" it isn't debased, it is enlarged. The whine you hear isn't the sound of us hurtling towards a bottom. Its the sound of a cultural term being "kneaded and stretched and twisted in an extraordinary demonstration of elasticity."