Thursday, February 2, 2012

Spot Markets

Of vitrine and vitriol; the cynical mariage of art and commerce: 
Jeff Koons, Total Equilibrium Tank (1985), New Wet/Dry Tripledecker (1981); 
Damien Hirst, A Thousand Years (1990)
(Return to Introduction)
"Art is bought and sold, but it is more than a commodity." I plucked this quote from the comment thread below a Ben Davis post about the economics of being an artist (or lack-there-of). This sort of hand wringing reached it's hight within art world critical theory circles during the 1990s when A-list art theorists like Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh made their careers casting doubt on the cynical "commodity aesthetics" of the late 1980s. By then the anxiety was already a century in the making and it while it has waxed and waned, it has remained a central concern. But right now there is new urgency to the question of "art's commodity status" in the wake of the circus surrounding Damien Hirst's Complete Spot Paintings. And with that new urgency there is a renewed desire to stake some special ground for art. A territory outside of, or above the vulgar and banal market floor. I believe this is an understandable, but short-sighted strategy. Art isn't more than a commodity. Art is a commodity. To see a thing for what it is, now, and not what it should be, isn't defeatist, it is the only way to anticipate what a thing can possibly become. And because art can and does function according to market forces, is not a victory for the cynics. Art behaves differently than all other commodities and all other markets.

No mater how provisional, "Autonomy," some extraterritorial staging ground for resistance, is and always was a fiction. Today's defenders might consider changing tack, working instead to locate art more precisely based on the flood of new facts now available. It may be that this fresh batch of worry will produce a would-be-Frankfurt Schooler who will succeed in casting Hirst's latter-day "simulation painting and sculpture commodity" into the shadows for a time (picture Hal Foster dressed as Gandalf), just as a Foster and Buchloh cast Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel into shadow, for a time (now picture the Maginot Line, ca 1939). If the project is to expose the cynics for what they are, however, it requires understanding what sort of commodity art is; and that requires fresher insights than Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, or even Louis Althusser - all of whom were brilliant, but all of whom were observing a very different capitalism. While they spoke of commodities, these theorists could not have imagined the global scale and complexity of today's economies.
Gerhard Richter, 1025 Colors (1974); Hirstian gigantism (2012)

For those too Postmodern to invoke artistic "autonomy" there is the somewhat less absolute "privileged status" - this seems to be a device to invoke the "aura" of "originality" or "authenticity" or perhaps even the "original" or "cultish" object, but to do so at a remove - the obvious desire is to make a Modernist claim without sounding like a Modernist (more serious thinkers tend to use "privileged status" at a double removed - in either the past tense or with heavy air quotes). Whatever it is they imagine they sound like, those who invoke this sanctuary are holding on to a frail and dwindling territory. The rising tide of Neo-Liberalism is a truly nightmarish flood. Economic inequality is a very real blight. And the political power of a tiny (less that 1%) asset class, is a real danger to out common life. But denial is just a form of dispair.

Those who still feel it is crucial for art's wellbeing to imagine it as non-commerce are in denial. Most have by now backed off absolute distinctions, and are left to defend art as a commodity plus some ineffable quality. All that remains to these latter-day-critical theorists is a slow death-by-a-thousand-small-cuts retreat. One does not have to believe in any degree of autonomy to see that while commodity-art resembles the trappings of other markets even these art/products are different in fundamental ways.
Say Anything (1986); sell everything (2012)

The Marxist understanding of "commodity" (where much of this hand wringing has its origins) is anything bought or sold that satisfies any need or desire. When the art historian, George Kubler, was faced with a similarly all-encompassing set, "man-made things," rather than imagine art as separate by means of some intangible "privileged status" he looked for a tangible difference in the ways we value the things we make. And, as Roberta Smith has observed, “Pleasure is an important form of knowledge.” Kubler found a tangible difference by means of desire: 
Let us suppose that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, and poetic things of the world. By this view the universe of man-made things simply coincides with the history of art. It then becomes an urgent requirement to devise better ways of considering everything men have made. This we may achieve sooner by proceeding from art rather than from use, for if we depart from use alone, all useless things are overlooked, but if we take the desirableness of things as our point of departure, than useful objects are properly seen as things we value more or less.
We have a choice. We can either side with the Lloyd Doblers of the world who “don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.” - in which case we would be left with a reedy and dry artworld. Or we can look to Kubler, who also observed that "a good story can begin anywhere the teller chooses... the question is to find cleavages in history where a cut will separate different types of happening." Separating art from what it is not does not require pretending that it isn't meant to be bought and sold, it requires understanding how differently we behave when buying and selling it.
 Andreas Gursky, Chicago Mercantile Exchange (1997); Damien Hirst Spot Painting opening (2012)

Crude oil, gold, copper, corn, frozen orange juice concentrate and pork bellies are commodities. Full or partial "fungibility", the market treats these goods as equivalent, or nearly so, no matter who produces it. Commodities can and are therefore, traded as a huge undifferentiated markets, these sorts of markets are highly volatile - the undifferentiated products form a single pool and disruptions move through them, unobstructed, like a tsunami radiating outward from a fault. And these commodities are traded in massive standardized units (barrels, tons and train loads).

It's possible to imagine buying or selling as a huge anonymous "lot"- a train car full of landscape paintings for a chain of motels - but that is not what we mean by either "art" or "art market." Likewise it's not impossible to imagine a corncob being sold at auction for a million dollars (Jacqueline Kennedy's childhood cob). But again that is not what we mean by commodity. Because art is "bought and sold," and art is a market, is no reason to concede that it therefore "behaves like other markets." Although "identical market forces do exist," all markets are in no way identical; art least of all.
Medium is the message: Mark Wagner, IOU(2008); Damien Hirst, For the Love of God (2007)

The key difference between art and these sorts of commodities markets is that art is profoundly differentiated. Art is so many things and is traded in a thousand different ways - that range from the kabuki formality of institutional acquisition/de-acquisition practices to Pablo Picasso doodling on rent checks. (Forcing the question: Do you 'cash' a Picasso?) The prices set by the auction represents a small fraction of the economic activity of artists; even the top tear 1% (as the kids like to say). The art market is fragmented, stratified, and paradoxical. While auction may index the value of the small percentage of high earners (wild guess:1%), most art work is handled via informal economies (I've signed one or two contracts in my entire career) and even illicit trades (Europeans love paying cash). So there is no way to index the full market. This is crucial, the reason behind commodities' volatile prices is that the are undifferentiated: a copper mine closes down and the effects move (tsunami-like) through the entire copper market.

To have a functioning commodities market for things that are less absolutely undifferentiated there has to be an agreed on definition of that commodity. These are legal definitions. Frozen orange juice concentrate is a commodity, and by quirk of history, onions are not. Art at its highest levels isn't completely unregulated, but the complete market (it is an unregulatable market is crucial to understand. it means the market can never be fully understood (or fully manipulated/controlled) as an single undifferentiated, unobstructed, whole. That art is not a commodity is no quirk, it has to do with what art is and isn't at the most basic levels. 
Daniel Loeb, Adam Lindermann, and Damien Hirst, This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home (1996)

Unless we disastrously reverse the trajectory we are on, "art" will never be definable under law (which is not to say it never has), hopefully it will never even be definable outside of law either. In 1979 Rosalind Krauss fretted "Over the last ten years rather surprising things have come to be called sculpture: narrow corridors with TV monitors at the ends; large photographs documenting country hikes; mirrors placed at strange angles in ordinary rooms; temporary lines cut into the floor of the desert." She observed that "criticism categories like sculpture and painting have been kneaded and stretched and twisted in an extraordinary demonstration of elasticity, a display of the way a cultural term can be extended to include just about anything."

But according to Theirry De Duve “It is not when the crowd says ‘this is a painting’ that we have a true modernist avant-garde painting, but rather when it says ‘that is not a painting.’” As it turns out this same rule applies doubly for contemporary art - a term more that, in the 30 odd years since Krauss published her anxieties, has been made to hold supertankers, meaningful stares and Pad Thai. When Hirst and other YBA's made their splash at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, it was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's condemnation of Chris Ofili that galvanized the New York artworld's support for a show it had, until then, been deeply ambivalent about. Sensation was a museum show of the Saatchi art collection. Placing that sort of critical imprimatur on an advertising executive's private collection was a mixing of art and commerce that had artworld insiders squirming (until Giuliani gave them a suitably offensive outside threat to turn there ire on). This is not the sort of regulatory environment that makes for healthy commodities trading.
William Powhida, Oligopoly (2011); Damian Hirst, Oligop (2012)

And while repeated attempts have been made to bundle, chop and sell art in shares like mortgages, student loans and other toxic properties, art resists these sorts of shenanigans. "These ludicrous creatures" is what the Reuters finance blogger Felix Salmon calls art funds. He writes that they "have strong claim to being the most ridiculous asset class in the world, no one should ever invest in them, and they invariably fail." Elsewhere Salmon writes that "Art" - by which he means things bought and sold on a case-by-case basis - "is a negative-carry investment which pays no dividends, and as such it’s very risky. Its historical returns, on their own, don’t make up for that risk."

According to Salmon art has had the advantage of being "uncorrelated." The theory being when all your tech stocks tank, you still have your Damien Hirst painting. "The problem with this argument is that the current art-market bubble, especially in contemporary art, has attracted so many hedge-fund managers and other financial types that art is now correlated, quite strongly, with various financial assets." A prime example of art being "correlated" to markets is Damien Hirst, who in 2008 broke records with $270m in sales at auction, but only sold $19m in 2009 after the market when tits up. "As such" concludes Salmon, "it still doesn’t make any sense to invest in art as an asset class. Buy art because you love it, by all means. But don’t kid yourself that you’re making a sensible financial investment, because you’re not." (Continue Reading Part II)
Lawrence Lessig unraveling the Global Financial Collapse (2011); Felix Salmon spinning Damien Hirst at Davos (2011)

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