I contributed a presentation to the international conference Labour of the Multitudes: Political Economy of Social Creativity which took place at the Free/SlowUniversity of Warsaw, Poland, October 2011. Here is a written draft for publication, without footnotes. A print version is available in A Rate Of Exchange
Its Friday the 10th July 1857, it’s mid-morning, cold for the time of year and drizzling with rain. We are in a crowd approaching the entrance to the spectacular Art Treasures Exhibition at Old Trafford in Manchester. As we enter the doorway, above our heads is inscribed the first line of English poet, John Keats's Endymion,
A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
Inside the spectacular, temporary, cast-iron and glass structure an orchestra is playing, and fountains cascading. The Art Treasures Exhibition is obviously inspired by The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations of 1851, the astonishing mid-century celebration of modern industrial technology, art, design and manufacturing. The Great Exhibition, of some one hundred thousand objects in Joseph Paxton’s pre-fabricated cast-iron and glass Crystal Palace, a temporary building so vast it enclosed mature elm trees, was a perfect performance of the free trade ideal. Fourteen thousand exhibitors from all around the world competitively displayed their goods in a previously unimagined space of exhibition and leisure. The traditional distinctions between things dissolved in entertainment. The Great Exhibition was the template for every museum, department store, shopping mall and trade fair thereafter, as historian Donald Preziosi suggests;
We have never left the Great Exhibition.
Inside the Art Treasures galleries, dense chatter accompanies the crowds as we navigate the 16,000 paintings and sculptures on display. Between the 5th May and the 17th October the exhibition will attract over 1.3 million visitors, that’s about four times the population of Manchester. And, I probably don’t need to remind you that Manchester is the shock-city of industrialization, a laboratory for experimentation in manufacturing, the organization of labour, trade and finance. Friedrich Engels is here, researching and writing, he had sent a series of reports to Karl Marx that were to be published as The Condition of the Working Class in England. The cities increasingly wealthy cotton merchants want to celebrate their wealth and power, although not through industry, they want to celebrate through an exhibition of Painting and Sculpture. And so they convene the most spectacular collection of artworks England has ever seen, under one roof.
As we walk through the exhibition following our printed guide, the artworks seem to be organised chronologically, a literal demonstration of the historical development of art. Although the exhibition is also subdivided into smaller spaces and themed; Pictures by Ancient Masters, Pictures by Modern Masters, British Portraits and Miniatures, Water Colour Drawings, and so on. Engels will write to Karl Marx:
'Everyone up here is an art lover just now and the talk is all of the pictures at the exhibition…'
Given that most public museum collections are, at best, in a nascent state, the majority of the artworks are borrowed from over 700 private collections; from Britain’s wealthiest families. And many of the artworks have never been exhibited in public before.
The organization of the Art Treasures Exhibition, the interplay between private and public interests, the modes of exhibition and display of artworks have a formative influence on the public art institutions currently being established. For example, in London, Sir Henry Cole – one of the prime movers of the Great Exhibition - is intent on using some of the £186,000 profit to improve art and design appreciation. Land is purchased in South Kensington, and many exhibits from the Great Exhibition are acquired to form the nucleus of a public collection for the magnificent new South Kensington Museum - later to become the Victoria and Albert Museum.
At about the same time, and nearing the end of his life, Sir Henry Tate a sugar magnate, philanthropist and major collector of Victorian art offers his private collection as a gift to the nation. Parliament declines. Tate then offers to fund a public gallery to house his collection and to initiate a National Gallery of British Art, providing the government donate a suitable site, and undertake the gallery's administration. After much debate, Tate's offer is accepted. The site chosen is the disused Millbank Penitentiary, a huge prison near the Thames, its demolished and the new 'palace of art' the National Gallery of British Art is constructed. Later, the name will change to The Tate Gallery in recognition of Tate's generosity and commitment.
It’s Friday evening, and after a tiring day at the Art Treasures Exhibition we take a hansom cab to the Athenaeum in Mosely Street, the Athenaeum is a private institution, a club for the promotion of learning. We manage to squeeze into a packed, hot, and smoky lecture hall just in time to see the famous John Ruskin step up to the lecturn to deliver the first lecture in his series of two, entitled The Discovery and Application of Art. The second lecture, performed the following Monday 13th is called The Accumulation and Distribution of Art. Combined, the marathon lectures will build a coherent, if a somewhat rambling model, of a political economy of art, later published as A Joy Forever and Its Price in the Market.
Ruskin clears his throat, and begins
Now, it seemed to me that since, in the name you have given to this great gathering of British pictures, you recognize them as Treasures—that is, I suppose, as part and parcel of the real wealth of the country—you might not be uninterested in tracing certain commercial questions connected with this particular form of wealth. Most persons express themselves as surprised at its quantity; not having known before to what an extent good art had been accumulated in England: and it will, therefore, I should think, be held a worthy subject of consideration, what are the political interests involved in such accumulations, what kind of labour they represent, and how this labour may in general be applied and economized, so as to produce the richest results.
He goes on to discuss how to Discover your genius. He thinks that the recently founded public art schools – he calls them trial schools - are good and productive. And then how to Apply our found genius. Simply, we need people with money prepared to spend on contemporary art, and nurture it
It is Monday 13th, a little warmer although still raining, and we are back at the packed Athenaeum. Ruskin, stroking his beard, begins by recapping;
Our subject which remain for our consideration this evening are, you will remember, the accumulation and the distribution of works of art. Our complete inquiry fell into four divisions—first, how to get our genius; then, how to apply our genius; then, how to accumulate its results; and lastly, how to distribute them. —we have to-night to examine the modes of its preservation and distribution.
Art should not be cheap - great works depend on the quality of attention paid to them. You need a commercial network of artists, dealers and collectors to circulate artworks. Private individuals prepared to invest time, attention and money.
And yet, he asks rhetorically, how can we bring great art within the reach of the multitude? [Ruskin’s term] The answer? We need larger and more numerous public museums – to do for art what printing did to literature.
[…] don’t grumble when you hear of a new picture being bought by Government at a large price. There are many pictures in Europe now in danger of destruction which are, in the true sense of the word, priceless; the proper price is simply that which it is necessary to give, to get, and to save them.
While he appreciates the love and investment implicit private collections, he also recognizes the necessity of public institutions, of curating national wealth,
And then he ends by drawing this distinction
So then, generally, it should be the object of government, to collect the works of dead masters in public galleries, arranging them so as to illustrate the history of nations, and the progress and influence of their arts; and to encourage the private possession of the works of living masters.
Ruskin profusely thanks the audience for their attention, and then basks in thunderous applause having sketched the foundations of a political economy for artworks. His sketch has two principle structural forces: priceless artworks (literally] by dead artists removed from the competitive market by public museum acquisition, and a competitive market circulating and evaluating artworks by living artists.
We are in New York on the 18th October 1973, an Indian Summer, it’s a pleasantly warm evening.
Two years earlier, on 15th August, and without prior warning, President Richard Nixon announces in a Sunday evening televised address that America is abandoning the almost thirty year old Bretton Woods agreement, and removing the dollar from fixed-rate convertibility to gold. Through the Bretton Woods system, the US dollar had acted in the 20th Century, as gold and the gold standard had during Ruskin’s 19th. Inflation in the United States, the escalating cost of the war in Vietnam, a growing American trade deficit and increasingly vast amounts of finance capital circulating outside of government control, are all pressurising the value of the dollar. With Bretton Woods abandoned, the dollar is allowed to ‘float’, that is, to fluctuate against other currencies, and exchange rates promptly recalibrate.
In the midst of this financial downturn, and on the eve of divorce, Robert and Ethel Scull decide to sell 50 artworks from their amazing collection of American pop and Abstract Expressionist art at Sotheby's auction house in New York. The Sculls had begun collecting in the mid-1950s, when there was virtually no interest, none, or market, for contemporary art, with funds derived from a taxicab business founded by Ethel’s father.
When Jasper Johns first exhibits at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1957, not one of the artworks sell. Castelli calls Robert Scull, he visits, and buys the whole exhibition.
At the entrance to Sotheby’s on 5th Avenue, security holds back a crowd of protestors at the door, demonstrating at the obscenity of selling artworks for profit in a time of crisis. We manage to squeeze through and into the packed auction saleroom to mingle with gallerists, dealers, museum directors, wealthy collectors, celebrities, TV crews, and a drunk and irate Robert Rauchenberg. After three hours of frantic, and near hysterical bidding the sale ceases and has turned-over an astronomical $2,242,900.
Thaw, a Robert Rauschenberg combine-painting that the Sculls bought for $900 some 16 years earlier, sells for $85,000; Andy Warhol’s large-canvas Flowers, bought for $3,500, sells for $135,000, and Jasper Johns’ Double White Map, bought for $10,000, fetches $240,000.
The auction is a spectacular event, which ends in an awed silence and a sharp exchange as Rauchenberg shouts at Scull: “I’ve been working my ass off just for you to make that profit.” Scull retorts “It works for you too, Bob. Now I hope you’ll get even bigger prices.” The shock, is not just from the Sculls’ unbelievable profits, but also from the sudden realization that contemporary art is a viable financial vehicle. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and has a price in the market. A speculative market for contemporary art is both enacted and revealed, and one of the things revealed is a further bifurcation in the political economy of artworks.
Markets are a brilliant bundle of technologies, assembled to circulate things. All kinds of things. The most visible form of market, is the competitive market. A neo-classical economic model of a competitive market, pictures rational individuals pursuing their own self-interest, without regard for others, as the motive force in markets. The laws of supply and demand at play amongst these rational individuals, extrudes the values - often represented by a financial price – exchanged, in any transaction.
These fundamental elements; rational agents, supply and demand and price mechanisms function in all markets everywhere; like natural laws. Like gravity.
Except of course competitive markets don’t actually work like this. Or at least, only in ideological models. Principally this is because, the neo-classical model is spectacularly under-socialized, and the social labour of market-making is under- researched, under-theorised and undervalued.
Enabling values to be made, and made present is part of the work that markets do. And every value expressed as a price, is a nexus of myriad social processes. Markets are meshworks of embedded desires, needs, rules, technologies, rituals and obligations, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the markets for the circulation of contemporary art.
As in Ruskin’s sketch for a political economy of art, outside of public museums, and some secretive private collections in the Freeport of Geneva, artworks circulate through competitive markets. But how does this circulation take place? What are these embedded desires, rules, behaviours and obligations?
The bankruptcy of art history, and the public failure of criticism and art theory has enabled the values of competitive markets to dominate our recent evaluations of contemporary art. And markets mark the things that circulate within them.
As the Robert and Ethel Scull auction sale exposed, the circulation of contemporary artworks is structured by two competitive markets – and prices for the same assets in one, are routinely half that of the other. This already makes little sense to a neo-classical economist
The primary market is convened by gallerists who organise and manage ‘commercial’ galleries. Whether as small single person enterprises or vast corporate machines, what gallerists share is the desire to work directly with artists, promote their work through exhibitions, and sell their artworks to potential collectors.
To become a gallerist is easy, the start-up costs are extremely small – some enthusiasm, contacts, a small exhibition and office space, and an advertising budget. There are no formal qualifications necessary; no indemnity required, no trade association to join, and no regulatory bodies. The primary market is, for all intents and purposes, while not quite ‘unregulated’, certainly without a ‘formal’ professional structure.
It’s also easy to attract a group of artists keen to exhibit, just tell them you are a gallerist, and they generally come running. Typically a gallery will ‘represent’ between 10 and 25 artists. To be ‘represented’, usually means that an artist will be offered a solo exhibition annually or bi-annually and their artworks will be included in appropriate gallery group exhibitions.
‘Representation’ for the gallery, includes bringing the artwork to the attention of curators and collectors, and placing the artworks in curated public exhibitions, biennials, and at art fairs; nationally and internationally. They also arrange studio visits with select collectors and curators, organise private views to launch exhibitions, assemble press brunches and lunches, and choreograph lavish dinners and after-parties. The primary gallerist chooses, nurtures and develops the artists they ‘represent’ through creating a dense social network.
Much of the labour of nurture is in the management of the informational prosthesis of the circulating artworks; through producing press releases and exhibition invites, buying advertising space, placing articles in newspapers and magazines, publishing catalogues, documenting and archiving artworks, and by cultivating critics, editors and publishers.
These are just some of the mechanisms through which an emergent market for artworks is convened.
And into this potential market, the gallerist introduces new artworks to collectors. Usually artworks are taken on consignment from artist for exhibition, and it’s common for the gallerist to take a %50 commission, and often more, on any sales. Sold artworks leave the artists studio, pass through the gallery at exhibition and enter private collections. Here they remain until the collector decides to re-sell, or donate to a museum collection. Unsold artworks return to the deep-sleep of storage, while some linger in the gallery as ‘stock’ to be displayed to prospective collectors, or curators.
All ‘represented’ artists have a primary gallery. Any curators, public institutions or museums that want to exhibit the artists artworks have to deal with the primary gallery; and, any other commercial galleries who wish to exhibit and sell the artists artworks also have to do business with them too.
Gallerists talk endlessly about supporting young artists, they love visiting studios, socializing, and installing exhibitions; they love art, and prefer not to let commerce and the market ‘complicate’ their relationships. And yet when they discuss gallery stock, or their private collections, they know exactly how much they initially paid, the last market evaluation, any potential discounts to be offered to select collectors or museums, and of course, in the blink of an eye, are able to calculate the artwork’s financial appreciation.
While primary gallerists thrive by taking risks and having confidence in their ‘taste’, they also seek to hedge the risks involved, through their promotional practices and by managing their network of friends and collectors into an economy of taste. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu suggests that;
taste, is what other people like you, like.
If you or I were to stroll into the Foksal Gallery Foundation from the street with a pocket full of cash, fall in love with a Paulina Olowska painting on display, and decide we really, really wanted to buy it for our home. The gallerist will not necessarily sell it to us. Even if we offered to pay over the asking price. She or he will feel that we are the ‘wrong’ sort of person to own the artwork, or probably buying it for the ‘wrong’ reasons. And, if we are not already known to the gallerist, and therefore outside of their economy of taste, then definitely, we are the ‘wrong’ sort of person.
Nurturing the ‘right’ collector, and placing an artwork with them for the ‘right’ reason is the principle means of control the value of an artwork through the primary competitive market in the political economy of art. Selling for the ‘right ‘ reasons include, placing an artwork with a prestigious collector who will add to the evaluation of an artist and artwork – not necessarily the person prepared to pay the highest price. The ‘right’ collector might already have, or be in the process of building an ‘important’ art collection. The ‘right’ reasons might include the collector being prepared to sign a resale agreement, a quasi-legal document guaranteeing a ‘right of first refusal” on any future sale back to the primary gallerist.
The ‘right’ reason could be encouraged if the collector promised to donate the artwork to an important public museum collection at some future date.
Gifting an artwork to a national collection removes the artwork from circulation, but also lends prestige to the artist – and therefore future artworks, the generous collector, and perceptive Gallerist.
Through managing the circulation of artworks through economies of taste, an artwork or artist are never entirely disentangled from their producer – the Gallerist. It’s not surprising that relationships, and particularly long working relationships develop into friendships between gallerists and artist, or gallerist and collector, or perhaps all three. Collectors are often referred to as supporters, ‘angels’ or ‘friends’ of the gallery.
In the extraordinarily dense flow of gifts and obligations, debts and favours, loans and discounts that lubricate artworks in their circulation, economic transactions merge into relational social exchanges. A discount offered between gallerist and collector is as much a sign of mutuality, as a display of economic of power.
Primary Gallerists appear to do everything possible to delay an artworks spiral into the secondary economy.
The Secondary Market
The secondary market for contemporary art is structured through auction houses.
Auctions are relational competitive markets, and breathtaking theatre. The twin poles of drama - the flicker between despair and euphoria is endlessly produced, because buyers compete to establish an appropriate evaluation – when the hammer falls. The price is extruded as the auction is conducted, by the last person standing in the tournament of value.
Of course there are price precedents to refer to, there are reserve prices established, published estimates, and guarantees offered, and yet none of these can be taken as true. An auction has to be convened and set in motion to perform the social production of evaluation, live, and in real-time.
If the primary market relies on deep, personal and complex relationships between artists, gallerists and collectors. In the secondary market, artworks circulate through looser, more diverse and contingent networks outside the manipulation and monopolization of the primary market. While the primary market is reproduced within established communities of taste, the secondary market has to continually perform itself.
In theory, an auction is close to the ideal of a ‘free’ market. Anyone can participate, and everyone has equal access to the market, all the information regarding the market is readily available, and artworks are distributed on the ability to pay the ‘spot’ price. Except again, this is an ideological fantasy. Auctions are secretive and information is guarded, auctions are very sensitive to hype, excitement, gossip and rumour. And very, very susceptible to the arbitrary competitive clash of two determined bidders. When two or more collectors are determined to acquire the same artwork, or, when a particular individual wants to make a statement, a sensational or ‘sacrificial price’ can be achieved. A ‘sacrificial price’ inscribes a mark in the market “I can afford this” or “I want this, this much” or “ look at the scale of my desire” or simply “look at me”!
There could also be a financial logic in the desire to establish a ‘sacrificial price’, other comparable artworks already in the collectors collection will (notionally) have a similar evaluation. Simply, a sensational price recalibrates the market.
Anyone can attend an auction, in England no tickets are issued and no booking is required. Like legal trials, auctions are truly public judgements. And, anyone can purchase an artwork offered for sale, as long as they have the access to the appropriate sum of money, or credit-line. In the secondary market, there are only the ‘right’ reasons to transact. The auction does not care where the money comes from or where the artwork goes, as long as international laws are not seen to be broken. In the secondary market, the only taboo is around stagnation. Artworks must always circulate, and their extruded prices escalate. A stalled lot – an artwok offered for auction which does not reach its reserve price - fails to sell. It’s ‘passed’. This can damage the artwork, the artists reputation, all the other artists artworks currently in circulation, or exhibited in private collections. Worse, a stalled artwork could trigger a collapse of the current auction, and confidence can simply evaporate from the sale room; in an instant. And even more catastrophically, a failed lot can puncture a bubble and trigger a systemic market collapse. So, artworks that fail to reach their reserve price at auction are literally ‘passed’, they are passed over with a stifled incantation by the auctioneer of words barely audible on the saleroom floor ‘pass’.
‘Passes’ can be contagious. Perfectly healthy auctions can stutter, stop and die. If the secondary market thrives on constant circulation, record-prices and buoyant confidence, on the management of a ‘virtuous circle’ of evaluation, ‘passes’ expose the sensitive underbelly of market confidence. If you only want what other people like you want, and they no longer want the goods on offer; its over. Circulation ceases. ‘Passes’ are the inverse of the ‘sacrificial price’.
One of the instruments for managing circulation of artworks in the secondary market is the reserve price. The reserve is a financial boundary, agreed by the seller/collector advised by the auction house specialist. At auction, if the lot does not reach its reserve it returns to the seller/collector unsold. If bidders drive the price of the artwork above, it’s transacted from one collector, or dealer to another. Reserves are private financial agreements, usually somewhere towards the lower margin of the published estimates. To encourage collectors to circulate important artworks in the secondary market – and not with a rival auction house – financial guarantees may be offered. The guarantee is a fee, which is probably close to the reserve price, paid to the seller/collector up-front. It’s in the auction House’ interest to pressure the edge of the previous market evaluation, to tease-up prices. If the lot is ‘passed’ the auction house looses the financial guarantee, as well as the confidence of the saleroom. To recoup some of their losses, after the sale, quietly and behind the scenes, the auction house will try and broker a private sale.
The auction house ‘expert’, or collector or dealer active in the secondary market needs to be aware of which collector owns what artworks, how the collection is being developed and through which Gallerists, and what artwork is about to be ‘offered’ to the market. A prominent artwork is located, prised from a collection, offered for sale and achieves a record evaluation. It passes from one collector to another, and a window of opportunity opens. An opportunity for other collectors with similar holdings of artworks to ‘realise’ their value, a chance to ‘refresh, or ‘re-focus’ their collection. Or, for the ‘experts’ and dealers to encourage collectors to buy-into this fleeting market opportunity. This is the moment for dealers to ‘flip’ artworks or ‘churn’ the market. ‘Churn’ the secondary market, because it thrives on difference within repetition. There are endless Andy Warhol prints and each one can be narrated into difference.
The traditional slow steady circulation of artworks – with concomitant checks and balances; like a solid record of prestigious exhibitions, a range of critical reviews, citation in refereed articles and scholarly books, representation in respected private collections, museum acquisition, etc - is being replaced by the shriek of record prices, achieved in the secondary market with artworks straight from artists studios! If markets mark the things that circulate within them, then recently, the slower processes of evaluation of artworks has been overwritten by the swaggering confidence of a competitive market asset bubble. Gallerists, so powerful in the primary despise the secondary market. It’s an aggressive, volatile and parasitic environment. And yet they participate in auctions, either brazenly in person or discretely by proxy. They bid-up or buy back artworks that have temporarily spun outside their sphere of influence, to ‘protect’ the artists they represent.
ACT 4. Scene1
A cold evening in London, its November 2011. News spools from the radio, Spain has elected a centre right Government, Italy is governed by un-elected financial technocrats, Greece too, and anonymous traders in Sovereign Debt markets are driving European public policy. As John Ruskin suggests in his Art Treasures lectures, organisational, financial and exhibitionary practices are not imposed on spontaneous modes of creativity. Rather, organisational, financial and exhibitionary practices produce forms of creativity, and a political economy for their management.
By enabling competitive markets to dominate the political economy of creativity, the kind of creativities produced and distributed is limited, severly limited. We know Its Price in the Market but have obscured the Joy Forever.
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I contributed a presentation to the international conference Labour of the Multitudes: Political Economy of Social Creativity which took place at the Free/SlowUniversity of Warsaw Warsaw, Poland, October 2011. Here is a written draft for publication, without footnotes. Polish print version here, and English in print available in A Rate Of Exchange