The fetishism of the art commodity

Posted: 28 January 2013 in Uncategorized
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Ctp Eve Auction Post-Sale PR Feb 2011_page1_image1

Art as a commodity “appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Like chandelier bidding (when auctioneers begin a sale by pretending to spot bids in the room, although they are often do nothing more than pointing at the light fixtures), not posting prices in art galleries (thereby violating the “truth in pricing” law), and so on.

In this, art markets are not unlike financial markets, in which financial instruments (like private equity investments, hedge fund, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps) are bought and sold as if they were commodities—and with participants exhibiting a similar aversion to any kind of externally imposed rules.

“The art world feels like the private equity market of the ’80s and the hedge funds of the ’90s,” James R. Hedges IV, a New York collector and financier, said. “It’s got practically no oversight or regulation.” . . .

“Is there any reason to believe that regulating the art market will be any more effective than regulating the financial markets has been?” asked Jonathan Brown, a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. “Many of the players are identical.”

In both cases, participants act as if they’re buying and selling commodities like any other but they treat them as something special, with their own bespoke rules and elite status.

Dealers said posting prices on valuable works in an open gallery creates security concerns and disrupts an exhibition’s aesthetics by transforming artworks into commodities.

“We consider it tacky to do that,” Richard L. Feigen, a longtime dealer, said.

Others say posting prices would reduce the market’s elitism. Galleries, experts say, often choose to whom they will sell and favor good customers, especially those whose ownership will add luster to an artist’s market standing.

The fact is, neither works of art nor financial instruments are commodities—although they are bought and sold on markets, generally among the same small group of wealthy investors, who engage in conspicuous consumption and use the portions of society’s surplus they’ve captured to create further claims on that surplus.

Until it all comes tumbling down and we’re made to pay the costs.

The fetishism of art as a commodity, like that of financial instruments, arises not from the social relation of producers to the sum total of labor but, rather, from the social relation of a small elite to the sum total of surplus labor produced by others.

  1. Bruce says:

    Interesting. The analogy to hedge funds strikes true — but I’d love to learn more about how the players here turn the inflated valuations they create in “auctions” — which superficially looks like throwing money away — into subsequent capital gains (or tax deductions that function as capital gains). Creating capital gains out of nothing seems to be the game these days.

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