Saturday, July 16, 2011
Art = merchandise
After our tentative manifesto, we need to address the art object. Generally there is an double entendre within The System (i.e, the market/institutional totality).
Primarily, the art object (aO here in) is praised for its aesthetics qualities. Aesthetics, if it ever made sense, begged the question by defining aO as art.1 On the other hand, aO is valued as commodity.2 aO appears in a gallery for sale. It is shown with this pretense, i.e., its promotion by the The System presupposes its sell-able potential.3
This money-making face of art is never presented up front. Why? It would destroy art's cultural cachet. It may even devalue its (artificial) value. I say artificial because $value$ is primarily a psycho-social construction.4
Art is sustained by two pillars: the Romantic idea that art can redeem humanity5 and the decadent idea of art-for-art's sake.6 Aesthetics rejects in toto the idea that art can be a commodity, such as corn, sugar or nickel. Yet, art is openly sold at auctions like other commodities, such as boats, Elvis' jumpsuits, etc. Even in its most obvious presentation, the auction, art is surrounded with this aesthetic aura.
aO is sustained by aesthetics's two basic myths: 1- Art's non-functionality, which is contradicted time and again when art is sold. 2- The myth of beauty, whereby beauty becomes the medium which helps commodify aO as such. This tension between aesthetics and the art market was indiscernible as long as aO still retained some independence.
Before the Twentieth-Century, people would admire an artist's expertise to represent reality (whether on a plain canvas or a marble block). Even during the avant-garde the idea of building something from scratch (inherited from the Arts and Crafts Movement) still commanded respect. Not any more. When curators and collectors run after a sculpture by Koons, they could care less for the artist's mastery. Or rather, the mastery is deferred to craft experts whom are paid by Koons to produce objects (they gladly forfeit their rights in the final product).
This is the era of the artist as producer. A producer of what? Merchandise.
The value of Pink Panther does not inhere in the object. Price is contingent. Koons' piece would not fetch $16 million on an auction (thought the expectation was $20-30 million) were it not for the amazing efficiency of The System. So, we can declare the following:
Surely, this face of art is taboo. In a vernissage the talk is not about aO as merchandise. As a matter of protocol its selling price appears in a separate sheet (obviously, exposing aO's $value$ has an inhibiting aesthetic effect). While appearing antithetical, the aesthetic and the market sides of aO are in alliance.
The aesthetic discourse has one last salvo to save appearances. Being a commodity is not aO's essential quality. But that is very difficult to sustain in a world where art is run by the art market. Why not inverting the relationship once and for all?
Because the idea of essentiality is the perfect sale-pitch for The System. It turns the buyer into a god and aO into a fetish.7 It's way more appealing to think your money affords an essential, than the idea that your money just reflects a particular market trend. Right?
(to be continued)
1 Aesthetics is the confusing discourse that analyses and stipulates the art-object within the parameters of taste, beauty, etc. Aesthetics assumes that art is exemplified by the work of art, which is true but trivial. There are several approaches: a) the essentialist claims that art comprises only a certain kinds of objects, b) the sociologist sees art as imbued with a social role of emancipation, c) the anthropologist considers art as a particular cultural activity. 2 Every art-object today circulates as potential for accruing value, i.e, acquiring & passing value. 3 That there are non-profit spaces or artist-run cooperatives doesn't change this fact. 4 A we learned from the 2008 financial crisis. A reason banks don't lend money is because "a perception." Consumer spending, as an economic category, depends on overall economic perception. 5See Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man. 6 See Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic. 7I take Marx's idea of fetishism: The reason commodities cannot express the labor that went into making them nor the social relations of production in which the labor was performed is that value is thought to emanate solely from a commodity's price, not from what money expresses, namely social labor. Apply this, though in a different sense, to Pink Panther and you get a different picture.