Does aesthetic value—or, to be as general as possible, artistic value—matter at all in the art market anymore?
Consider the concluding paragraph to a recent post by finance writer Felix Salmon, who has been covering (and criticizing) the art market for Reuters with care and diligence:
The trends in the art world are clear: newer money is gravitating towards newer art, which is considered a store of financial value and even possibly a source of significant profit. In order to make money in this world, connoisseurship doesn’t particularly help: what you need is “insider information” and the ability to hype certain artists to the type of collector who doesn’t know whether he’s buying a painting or a photograph. The only barrier to entry is money — which means that lots of rich people have decided to play. Most of them will end up losing, but all markets need losers, and — most importantly — all markets need a marketplace. If Christie’s can become that marketplace, then it will effectively have become the platform responsible for turning the informed appreciation of beauty into a greater-fool game where it doesn’t matter how much you pay, just so long as Christie’s can persuade someone else to pay even more in the future.
A theme of Salmon’s writing is that the art market has become a kind of mirror image of the machinations of the stock market. In fact, the world of the art auction is beginning to transcend the stock market’s conservative limitations: as Salmon notes, “pump and dump” trading, illegal in the stock market, is not only legal in the art market but a skill that collectors brag about to potential clients.
But I think the analogy can be taken one step further: not only has the art market begun mirroring the stock market, the artwork has begun mirroring money itself.
Paper money, of course, is a collection of intrinsically worthless objects, but which represent quantities of wealth. So too the artwork, as it is treated in the auction houses, has effectively become an arbitrary container of monetary value. If it still has any intrinsic artistic value, this value has become thoroughly irrelevant to its price—the displacement of connoisseurship by “insider information” as the primary asset for intelligently buying and selling art proves this. As long as dealers and advisors can make people *believe* that an artwork is worth a certain amount of money, that is enough to get it sold. The art object could be anything, or nothing. It is merely an x-variable, pointing to whatever amount of money was most recently paid for it.
It is no mystery then why so much of the highest selling contemporary art is, to put it mildly, total shit (aesthetically speaking): there is no reason whatsoever why it should need to be good! The process of commodifying the art object has, we’re learning, also purified it of any excess interest—intellectual, artistic, aesthetic. I tend to read Jeff Koons as almost explicitly commenting on this in his art; is there any artwork purer, more thoroughly stripped bare of interest, than his balloon dogs? By the standards of the art market, Koons may be our greatest living artist: he has come closest to reducing the artwork to a truly arbitrary signifier.
But I think this is actually a hopeful situation, all things considered. If the art market eventually collapses—which I think is probable the more people start to understand how rigged it is—all the crap, the Koons, the Hirst, etc, will be washed away. Buyers of art will have no criteria of judgment other than actual artistic value. Good art will sell once again.