Value and ArtBy Abraham San Pedro Salazar
58 million dollars.
I Like dogs.
The visitor is never surprised anymore. Never angry. Never even annoyed. His only emotions are gentle censure and perhaps smugness. But they are so subtle that only he himself is aware of them. Outwardly he displays polite indifference when on entering the exhibition room he sees on the wall facing him a thousand broccoli florets, dyed different colours.
The market system, having proved itself able to reconcile opposites – enemies, contradictions – is just as open to outright absurdity. Inhabiting, as we do, a 24-hour multimedia mantra, none of us is shocked to learn that Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (high chromium stainless steel with transparent color coating; 121 x 143 x 45 inches ; 307.3 x 363.2 x 114.3 cm, series of 5) sold for $58 million. The only questions we might wonder about now are to do with the buyer. What’s his house like? Who’s his wife? What ethnicity is he? Where does he get this money he is obviously laundering? Nobody asks whether the value of the piece is equal to its price and, if so, why is this artwork so special that it should sell for $58 million?
We should of course heed Marx’s distinction between “exchange value” and “value in use”. This means that private use value (aesthetic enjoyment, greed, onanistic pleasure, the need for mythological self-projection, or any other mental mechanism that comes into play between an individual and a work of art) exists, and is to be treated as value, but strictly within the confines of the individual and his intimacy. Beyond the individual sphere, the value of a work of art reflects the functions it performs in the various market systems of advanced capitalism. To understand art as a complex cultural phenomenon, we must first accept the insight that an artwork is a value/power device. It is an arti-fact that generates meaning.
However critical we might want to be, it would be unfair not to recognise that post-Keynesian ultra-capitalism is good at normalising situations, events and problems which at any other time in history would have given rise to serious difficulties of justification or even survival. We must acknowledge that it has a capacity for integration which Benetton’s multi-ethnic advertisements could only dream of. Because everything finds a place under the disturbingly alluring and sexy mantle of our new “fiction capitalism”.
Like any dominant ideology worth its salt, our own keeps a polite low-profile; it is relegated to an almost total “degree zero” horizontality and infinite resonance. A linguistic Trojan horse, management-speak, snuck into our lives like malware (worms, Trojans horses, ransomware, spyware, adware or scareware like, be careful about executable codes and scripts in your personal computer, laptop or iPad). Replete with the buzzwords of corporate culture (effectiveness, return, value, demand, “you must improve your employability,” “the cost of healthcare is unsustainable”, “we invite you build interpersonal synergies”), management-speak has gradually and naturally become a part of our own software, because it is, after all, consistent with the world it is intended to describe and understand. This jargon has become generic and disciplinary mainly because we all use it, and, in doing so, we inevitably accept its intrinsic neocon, pro-capitalist ideology. Language is never innocent, folk! It carries within it a way of understanding the world, its specific procedures for constructing discourse. The adoption of this new management-speak automatically and by the mere fact of its use brings forth a certain range of possible discourses about the present.
It is these concepts, these narratives, which – predicated on commerce, profit, the figure of the entrepreneur and personal success as the central axiom – have woven a “Grand Narrative” of the present (Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 1979), of its economic system and of its self-image as a society. Words as tricky mirror. The discursive should be viewed as a line of symbolic propositions about reality that issue from a given social position to appropriate collective meaning. The closely guided and effective structure of production and value of products, pleasures and subjects. To explain to a child where babies come from, or the price of Chou YuCheng´s work TOA Lighting, are both discourses of collective meaning. They are justifications of a given relationship of power over bodies and devices.
An endless stream of shiny images (in 4K quality): Fucking, money and power. This is the Holy Trinity (albeit not so virginal or coy, but holy enough from the standpoint of “Pro” and “Premium” targets) of our times. And of all times. Particularly now. When all times are “our times”. For it seems that notions of past and present have quietly vanished. Except now the system has been perfected beyond the perfection we might have expected. Just like sex, art “is not so much a single deliberate act as a nexus of power and discourse that repeats or parodies the discursive gestures of sex” (Butler, Bodies that Matter, 1993).
Do you remember when dear old Arthur Danto proclaimed “the end of art”? Do you remember that golden and bright – “through far-reaching pluralism and total tolerance for an art devoid of rules”? (After the End of Art, 1997) He did promised us an amusing and multi-faceted period of “anything goes, nothing will do”. A world of fun trifles. A world of sexy freedom. A world of quick business and orange juice. Pimped-out Goya engravings, remote-controlled inflatable dolls, Abstract Expressionism and mountains made of Post-It notes, all holding hands and on an equal footing. Great! Democratic! Easy! Certainly the seemingly self-contradictory miscellany of the innumerable elements of our visual culture could be construed as entailing an absence of criteria, the paroxysm of post-modernism, or a final anarchy (whatever you might like to call it, anything goes so…).
Despite this colourful variety of post-capitalist visual culture, however, there is one radical and essential element which is form and content at one and the same time, a principle which informs and organises everything: transparency. Total visibility as a cultural maxim (Baudrillard, Transparence of Evil, 1990) It is everywhere assumed that the starting point must be that the thing in question be both visible and available (online, on time): whether it be an ex-boss’s romantic escapades, a recipe for methamphetamine (also called meth, crystal, chalk, and ice, among other terms; ask your friends and acquaintances about it) using easy-to-find household products, or Disney classics remastered for Blu-ray release. Transparency became the undergirding principle of our lives when, in imitation of the corporate/financial/media world, everything had to be smoothed out, standardised, clarified, cleaned up and made accessible. It had to be communicated in the information society which we were then building. Any thing, person or idea, if it was to survive, had to be digestible and uniform in its identity so as to exist amid the increasing flows of communication/production/discipline.
Shazam! One day – or perhaps it was over a protracted period – images, and with them works of art, also became transparent (Byung-Chul Hang, Transparency Society, 2012). Stripped of thaumaturgy, mystery and interpretation, they had to be available as communicative goods, as news, metadata, information or price. (“Big Data”, we lov u! Best wishes from the functionally illiterate.) So we can readily see that when images slough off their hidden element (their veiled meaning, mystery or history), they become pornography (where everything is on view). Is there anything hidden from our eyes in León Ferrari’s Western-Christian Civilization (1965)? Is there anything more to see or to understand than Christ crucified on a US Air Force Starfighter? That state of visual fluidity and pornography that inhabits the alluring kitsch to be found in every Popular Art Museum, in Takashi Murakami’s Doraemon cats, Jeff Koons’ bling-bling dogs, Francois-Xavier Lalanne’s silly sheep, Damien Hirst’s shark or Maurizio Cattelan’s headless horses (“animals, artistic installation and trans-political discourse”… Hmmm, good idea for a short film… make a note on my iPad).
This transparent overexposure gives us, in an unconstrained way – or even with a brash Californian post-modernity (you know what I mean, folks) – a sense of “what you see is what you get.” This joyful recklessness and honesty about the emptiness of art contrasts with another scene, staged at night-time in the apartment of the art curator or art critic (these two characters are often confused because both adhere to a strict all-black dress code, complete with horn-rimmed glasses). Typing furiously, our hero attempts to uncover the deep and esoteric meaning harboured by the work of art, returning us to Platonic transcendence. And abruptly turning back the clock to before our liberation from the artwork/meaning tradition that has dogged us since Plato’s time, and which we thought we had left behind. Therefore, once again, the Market is capable of integrating opposites within itself without even blushing, only here it incorporates it (the idealist, transcendent justification of the work of art) into itself to use it as demystifying reasoning behind the value/price relationship. As with education, civism or human rights, everyone is aware of it being a false convention which doesn’t even pretend to want to be anything else. Even if they have been got over with thanks to History, and no one takes them seriously anymore, the “transaesthetic” explanations garnish the discourse of all those who become fascinated by the Emperor’s New Clothes in every art gallery, in every museum.
Violence towards transparency runs through all spheres of social production. There is, in fact, a coercion towards transparency. Things, people, works of art, must be exposed in order even to be, to exist. What we formerly took to be a cultural value, an intrinsic value, has now been gently but firmly replaced by exposure value. The invisible (whether it be the truth that an image may carry within itself, or its internal contradictions or silences) no longer engenders, produces or creates exposure value, or viewership share. It cannot even be retweeted.
We have been so hyper-stimulated by pornographic images that we do not realise that they are in fact univocal and unequivocal (“what you see is what you get” – California again, man) and lack any dialectical content. The capital system/art system has manufactured them previously to be digestible, uniform and fast. They are optimal for social media, cable TV and marketing drives at Tesco stores. Impactful. Serialised. The spectacle of a high-definition society that is full to the brim with visual stimuli produced by the entertainment industry (let’s be honest with ourselves and give that name also to the art system) saturates us with an absence of meaning and a noisy and bulimic promiscuity.
The undeniable sexual craving, the unacknowledged libidinous drive, which surrounds objects and their accumulation and exhibition, appears to lie behind the “commodity fetishism” of which Marx spoke. Commodity fetishism, while retaining its sex appeal among most online and off-line publics, is now coupled with “technology fetishism”, which has become ubiquitous in every city street and square. The underpinnings of the fashion-society – inherited from our past as bourgeois societies based on social differentiation and individuation – were collective organisational experiments which gave rise to the fashion system of constant renewal of tastes and inventories. What started out as a contribution to social engineering which emerged in the worldly triviality of bourgeois salons stalked by treacherous tongues, matchmakers and marriageable but lonely Jewish heiresses turned out later to form the backbone of the survival of capitalism. The “systematic ephemeral as a social duty” (Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion,1994) expanded from fashion practices to an underlying value of civilisation in the West from the 19th century to our own time.
Obviously, the power of the new as a slogan and as an aspiration explain part of the equation that lies behind the value of artworks today (pure material/notional carriers for stock renewal transactions and concealment of financial flows). Hence, value (and accordingly price) are defined by arbitrary, speculative determinants which have absolutely nothing to do with the specificity or identity of the given work of art. The work of art is obviously replaceable by any other. Whatever its size, material, theme or author. The physical (or digital) medium behaves in the same way as a transactional form of exchange that lies beyond the international monetary system and its (occasional) controls. It’s just that, sometimes, it brings with it a bit of storytelling and a bit of glamour.
To speak plainly, art (contemporary or otherwise) is a parallel financial tool of money transfer essentially used to launder capital from doubtful sources or, at least, to avoid tax, while creating – as a collateral effect – relative symbolic positions in schemes of social prestige (power). It is a functional tool combining economic effectiveness and symbolic capacity, as well as room for negotiation – in a word, haggling. Its appeal is quite understandable. How might we otherwise explain that a 12-foot steel dog is worth $58 million? Is that really its use value? Can anyone even imagine its real exchange value (how many diapers and loaves of bread you could buy for that money)? Of course not. For the fact is that the value of art under market conditions is the creature of a rule unto itself, just like the fortunes of Carlos Slim, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Those figures are notional, because nobody can convert such amounts of that magnitude to cash.
As money and as the steel dog everything seems accessible. Because everything is simultaneous and transparent. Equivalent. Interchangeable. Purchaseable. Disposable by definition. And bang up-to-date.
© Abraham San Pedro, 2015
With a degree in Political Sciences and Sociology and a Master in Political Communication from UCM and a Master in Cultural Management from Carlos III university, after working for various European and Spanish political institutions in the field of communicatiobn, in 2002 San Pedro shifted the focus of his actitvity to art and culture. As an art crititc, art editor magazine (V magaziine) ensayist, exhibition art curator (Medialabmadrid, LABoral, ZKM ) and teacher San Pedro centres his woirk on the biological political and social transformatiuon generated by the digital culture today.Website: email@example.com