Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Culture: the new religion of the art market (with a little help from Max Weber)


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In all ideology men and their relations appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.- Karl Marx 

In this post I'd like to discuss some of Max Weber's more artsy paragraphs to expand our discussion on the art market, contemporary art & the absence of critical discourse.

First, we need to review some of Weber's nomenclature: Weber approaches Modernity, and particularly Capitalism with ambivalence. In broad strokes, Protestantism replaces medieval Christianity with a new economic form: Capitalism, where the old ethic of spirit & atonement shifts into a new ethic of profit-making & accumulation. That would be a superficial reading.

Rationality for Weber comprises two complementary and antithetical aspects: Wertrationalität (substantive rationality) which is often contrasted with the pragmatic idea of Zweckrationalität (goal-oriented rationality). While the latter is technocratic, the former is bureaucratic. Modernity turns the old "charismatic authority" (Charismatische Herrschaft) into a new "bureaucratic authority." See it as a mind behind the apparatus.

We're interested in Wertrationalität because of its paradoxical nature. This is a normative step above goal oriented rationality. Think of meta consciousness, a mind behind the system. For our purpose, the question is, how could the mind behind the system legitimize and implement practices or policies that endanger the system?

This is the aporetic side of Wertrationalität which can produce value judgments which are non-utilitarian in nature.

The apparent contradiction between the two rationalities becomes enforced by the authority emanating from the system (Herrschaft), which presents a structural redundancy within Modernity. This is fascinating: Rationality being swayed here and yonder by authority.

We need this background if we want to understand our present predicament. Let's move onto three aspects of late capitalist Wertrationalität:

1. The subjugation of the natural world (Global Warming).
2. The pursuit of military supremacy through nuclear technology (Cold War).
3. The subordination of capital, trade and migrations to a global system (Globalization).

To connect the art/market alliance, we're particularly interested in #3.

Reading Weber on art
Magical religiosity stands in a most intimate relation to the aesthetic sphere. Since its beginnings, religion has been an inexhaustible fountain of opportunities for artistic creation, on the one hand, and of stylizing through traditionalization, on the other. *
The dichotomy religion/aesthetics is essential to understand Weber's thought on art. Initially, art & religion are connected. Art is a powerful medium to express religion's purpose (didactic medieval art being an example). These two are brought together by "asceticism," the devout practice behind religiosity, which Weber defines as "definite, methodical conduct of life." Asceticism becomes the spirit of work, frugality and savings, i.e., capitalism's conveyor belt. With the waning of religion, asceticism merely changes its initial rejection of the world for a new worldly conduct.

The agent which brings this ascetic shift is "sublimation" (Sublimierung). A transformer of drives, sublimation turns raw libido into a spiritual ethos.
This sublimation of the religious ethic and the quest for salvation, on the one hand, and the evolution of the inherent logic of art, on the other, have tended to form an increasingly tense relation. 
As part of this process of economic and technological change, art becomes a new medium to channel society's old religious drive (paradoxically, as we will see, this cannot fully obtain).
This development causes the disappearance of those elements in art which are conducive to community formation and conducive to the compatibility of art with the religious will to salvation.
This is Weber's picture: Art withdraws from the life-world (Lebenswelt) and its communitarian role is left asunder. The new set of values presents art as self-sufficient (for example, l'art pour l'art countermovement, in contrast with the more community driven Arts and Crafts Movement in end of Nineteenth Century England).

But we're ahead of ourselves.            
Under these conditions, art becomes a cosmos of more and more consciously grasped independent values which exist in their own right. Art takes over the function of a this-worldly salvation, no matter how this may be interpreted. It provides a salvation from the routines of everyday life...
Two things here: "salvation" vs. "this worldly salvation." Fast-forward after the end of the avant-garde into postmodernism and beyond to the now. The worldview where art is self-sufficient is dictated by a new authority: The art market. One figures "salvation" should come from this worldly capital accumulation.

Does art become the new religion? Not quite.

Once it has been cut from its epiphanic telos, art cannot congeal to a purpose. Art serves a different master: Time. ** In other words, art needs a form in the theater of the present. Not the passing instant, but a contractual alliance with a permanent present of capital accumulation: A life insurance with which to scaffold its foundation of magic.

This is how time and money form a binity:

Weber was curious about the cultural and economic implications of Benjamin Franklin's motto: "time is money." Indeed, financial capitalism is about instantaneity and money. With the reign of Globalization, capital remains a form of labor substitution, but as financial capital becomes more salient, labor recedes more into the shadows (a collector doesn't pay more for a painting because artist "X" spent more time on it: that's up to the art market, the supreme price equalizer).

 Nowness becomes contemporary art's residual financial value cashing in ae$thetic value.

or better, market value = ae$thetic value

We come back to Weber original insight: Magical religiosity stands in a most intimate relation to the aesthetic sphere. The lost magic of religiosity comes back sublimated as market accumulation. Not social, but financial exchange reaping an aura of inevitability.     

Ae$thetic value as the new self-normativity
Art takes over the function of a this-worldly salvation, no matter how this may be interpreted. It provides a salvation from the routines of everyday life, and especially from the increasing pressures of theoretical and practical rationalism. 
As Weber has it, our disenchantment (Entzauberung) with the world cannot be redeemed with only art. Art is the means, not an end. Art, or better yet, contemporary art is preserved inside a social summum called Culture. This is the supreme constellation of values.

Following Weber's discussion to the now: Culture transforms the old "what's right" of morals into "what's beautiful" of aesthetics. In fact, the kantian prerequisite of beauty as purposelessness automatically vanishes.

"Beautiful" is not an aesthetic category  even if presented in that manner in art catalogs & art publicity but a top-down economic diktat legitimized as "aesthetic" value by the art market.

"beautiful" is whatever sells

Authority (cultural) is directly proportional to economic power.
The inaccessibility of appeal from aesthetic judgments excludes discussion. This shift from the moral to the aesthetic evaluation of conduct is a common characteristic of intellectualist epochs.
Critical discourse doesn't have a place here. Present "aesthetics" excludes "discussion" because critical discourse's nature is resistant to art publicity, the art market's selling arm. When the art market's Wertrationalität takes over, "inaccessibility" becomes a obscurantist strategy with the sole purpose capital accumulation.

As contemporary art presentations multiply and the masses consume it as culture, more and more publicity discourse is produced to support it. "Inaccessibility" is an obscurantist strategy of obscurantism with the sole purpose of profit-making.

Here are some provisional consequences of our present cultural paradigm:

 More auctions (capital circulation to produce capital, Marx's old definition).
 More art fair art, which in turn requires opening up new art fair markets to assuage market appetite. 
 More redundancy, less stylistic diversity.
Multiplication of conflicts of interest, i.e., market vs. art institutions become more pronounced.
 Market pressure foists wishy-washiness into curatorial practices.
 Outsourcing labor to specialists to produce more non-making art.

The danger ahead is that Culture, in its all-pervasive form, stimulates conformity through a pretense of active pursuit. In fact our general sense of achievement is nothing but anomic resignation in the face of occupational specialization.

(to be continued)
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*All quotes taken from "The religious rejections of the world and their directions," in H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds), from Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 340-3. ** The definition of productivity is the value of goods and services produced in a period of time, divided by the hours of labor used to produce them. The industrial revolution shortened time per production of each unit, which increased productivity. Marx's idea of surplus value is linked to these correlations.

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