Sold yesterday at Christie’s in New York for a staggering $142m, a Francis Bacon triptych has become, for now, the most expensive artwork ever to be sold at auction. This record-breaking sale is part of a far-reaching shift that is currently taking place in our globalized economy. More specifically, in this post I want to look at the value of art which is consumed by a global elite, or the top 1%, whose vested interest in the art market must be considered in relation to the remaining 99% of the world’s population. Widely adopted by the Occupy Movement, and further popularized by the American economist Paul Krugman, the political slogan ‘We are the 99 Percent’ describes the growing disparity and inequality of late capitalism. In the first instance, this post will seek to contextualize how contemporary art is predominantly produced for and consumed by the top 1%. However, the exchange of artworks amongst the global elite focuses on the financial value of art as an object. In this article I wish to question a paradigm that primarily equates the value of art with financial value. Rather, what needs to be considered is how the economic inequality of late capitalism provoked the emergence of a new art which is widely shared on the Internet and which foregrounds art as a social agent for change. The value of this art – an art that depicts late capitalism in crisis – cannot be measured by financial means, but rather, it must be measured in its ability to freely communicate and establish new perspectives on a quickly shifting social and economic condition.
A major crisis is currently occurring in the global art market. This crisis is precipitated by a global elite recognizing in the 1980s and 1990s that the acquisition of artworks, as tangible objects of value, can be used as an investment vehicle alongside other more traditional investments. This trend of investing in art at the top end of the market was in part fuelled by the global phenomenon of the art fair and the widening network of art biennales now stretching from Sao Paolo to Vladivostock. The trinity of art-object-investment gained a wholly new dimension when Art Basel in Switzerland was franchised in Miami Beach in 2002 with great success. In the new millennium the global art world celebrated ever-increasing prices by ‘masters’ as well as contemporary artists. The art auction season, spearheaded by Sotheby’s and Christie’s, became a spectacle in which an ever-increasing value in contemporary art caused an equal measure of amazement as well as bewilderment. For instance, at $3.34m Andreas Gursky’s ironically titled work 99 Cent became the most expensive photograph to be sold at auction in 2007. The value of the photograph cunningly surpasses the value of the entire store as well as its stock depicted within the image. The value of Gursky’s photograph and the perspective from which it was taken appears to symbolize the growing chasm between those who buy his works and those who purchase the 99 cent products as depicted in the image.
Then came the crash in 2008. Shocked Lehman Brothers employees carrying the content of their desk at the head quarters in New York and at Canary Wharf in London belongs to one of the most defining images of the 21st century. Another defining image is that of the former United States Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, a giant of a man and ex-CEO of Goldman Sachs, looking tired and worn out as he literally begs the US government to bailout the banks. Threatened by the prospect of a total collapse of the banking system, several governments throughout the world, in what now appears like an thrilling game of high stakes poker, followed the US lead suit by bailing out their banks. The logical conclusion that could have been drawn from the art market boom in the new millennium, followed by the near collapse of the banking system, a lack of liquidity and the ensuing age of austerity in 2008, would be that the art market too would suffer, if not collapse as well. Damien Hirst’s grotesquely opulent sculpture first exhibited in London in 2007 and which consisted of a platinum cast human skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds titled For the Love of God seemed to epitomize an art market that has truly gone out of kilter with the rest of the economy. Hirst’s sculpture, in fact much of Hirst’s body of work as a whole, appeared to signify the end of an excessive and equally speculative era.
In 2013, half a decade since the crash, it is quite clear that far from collapsing or slowing down, the top end the global art market has, in fact, accelerated. Driven by even higher prices in artworks that are traded as commodities, this year Art Basel is expanding into Hong Kong in an attempt to cater to clients in the booming economies of Asia lead by Chinese buyers desperate to find ways to invest their money. This desperation is partially fuelled by the lack of other safe investment opportunities as the Chinese government seeks to cool down the domestic property bubble through taxation and strict limits on the amount of properties individuals can own. Here, the acquisition and collection of artworks is synonymous with wealth management. Yet in more ‘mature’ economies in Europe and America a very similar pattern is beginning to emerge in which only a tiny elite participates in the art market. This is the 1% as described by Paul Krugman. Whether it is Hong Kong, Moscow, London or New York, the long arms of the oligarchy are reaching deeper and deeper into the global art market, driving up prices of a commodity that is, increasingly, produced for this specific clientele. This form of art trading has, in fact, become a spectacle in its very own right: the London art fair Frieze Art combined with Frieze Masters recently charged the exorbitant entrance fee of £50, or about $80, for the pleasure to bask in the presence of the global super rich.
In this context it is important to specify that it is only the works of a few handful of artists represented by an even smaller number of galleries that are actively participating at the top end of the market. It usually excludes emerging artists, it excludes smaller galleries and it most likely excludes not-for-profit organizations. In that sense the art world is perfectly reflecting the economic conditions of the 1% as the art market too is only controlled by a small number of individuals, institutions and corporations. Recognizing this warped economic dynamic, in 2012 one of America’s foremost art critics, David Hickey, launched a fierce attack on contemporary art, arguing that it is made for extremely rich people for whom the critic acts as ‘intellectual head waiter’. Against this backdrop, traditional art historical interpretations of an artwork as an object, its classification in a canon and the subsequent consideration of its cultural value become increasingly irrelevant. If art becomes a form of wealth management, the prime concern is not a consideration of the art object’s cultural or social value, nor is it a consideration of the artwork in a wider canon, rather, it is purely a speculation about its future prospect to rise in financial value.
Yet inasmuch the art market is changing, the world as a whole is changing too. In Europe and America a once solid middle class is being decimated by austerity measures and a rising cost of living, whereas the boom in emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia or India reveals great social and economic inequalities. The crash of 2008 was an opportunity to create a more equal, more sustainable and fairer world. Instead, the crash has caused the exact opposite: never before has the gap between the rich and poor been wider and never before has the global economy reflected a plutocracy than it does today. The shockwaves of capitalism in crisis are increasingly perceptible as major protests and riots continue to breakout in cities across the world. There were almost as many major riots in 2011 across the globe as there were in the entire first decade of the new millennium. It would be incorrect to contribute this only to the Arab Revolution(s) as protests partially galvanized by the Occupy movement continue to develop in major cities. At this historic junction, in which the 1% seek to maintain the status quo and the 99% seek to invert it, the production, dissemination and appreciation of art shall play a major social function.
Inasmuch the huge influx of money created a crisis of meaning in art at the top end of the market, the art produced by and for the 99% acts as an agent advocating social change. In the first instance, this art is not shared in galleries that are haemorrhaging the finances of the plutocracy, it does not constitute an ‘investment’ in the strict financial meaning of this term, nor is it exclusively visible to those who can buy it. Rather, this art of the moment is ubiquitously available via the Internet, it bears a resemblance with a meme in that it is widely shared and evokes ideas that help to explain the present condition. This art taps into the imagination of a generation who is frustrated about the present status quo yet who is equally optimistic about the future. This art does not simply represent the world that we live in, but rather, it provokes ideas about how this world can change for the better, how it can be more sustainable, how it can be more equal. Like a virus spreading rapidly across geographic, religious, political or ethnic boundaries, this art is powerful – it has the power to change people’s perception of the world and, as such, it has the power to change the perception of one’s position in this world. Such art usually bypasses considerations about authorship or about originality. The craft apparent in this art cannot be found in the eloquence of a brushstroke or the aesthetic composition of an image, but rather, the craft of this artwork can be found in the ‘beauty’ of the idea that it communicates. The more powerful the idea the more this art is shared amongst others. The cultural and social value of this art, as opposed to its financial value, lies in its ability to communicate, or, as the Latin origin of the word suggests, in its ability to relate to the common.
Feel free to add links to this ‘art of the moment’ in the comment box below.