down the amazon: art jungle

Aesthetics is a very complex issue. But is insolubly linked to economics, taste and design. More profoundly, are aesthetic considerations merely another marker, another sign of decadence. Donald Kuspit’s controversial article on the art market several years ago , written as only he can, on money contaminating the art world, is a notable solid thesis where these cultural commodities, or even national treasures, have become a form of species of money, an estheticized equity, where money is the only raison d’etre or meaning that art needs. Money is the ultimate value of cultural capital. Much of the near hysterical appearing prices for art are probably best looked at within the context of Veblen.

---Francis Bacon Version No. 2 of Lying Figure 1968 $15,416,000--- Read More:

That is, status and distinction. On the pecking order, the hierarchy, everyone can chug down a coke, the supply is endless, but the number of Caravaggios or Rembrandt’s is limited. So, consumption is clearly not democratic.  But then , does art have intrinsic value? From the point of view of conspicuous consumption, the less inherent value the more wasteful it can appear, outrageous, etc. conferring status not only on the buyer, but the entire institutional bureaucracy surrounding the art world.

---Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Berliner Strassenszene 1913 $38,096,000--- Read More:

However, certain critics  have asserted that if a work of art has appropriate aesthetic qualities, it is not significant who painted or performed it.  Beauty and depth are all that matter. Arthur Koestler’s theory was that most of our preference for original works, the authentic, the real, was mere snobbery. Theoretically, he was correct in implying  there is no meaningful difference in esthetic value between a copy and an original work of art. The idea is that a copy possesses certain minor attributes that make it vary from a genuine art work this does not mean that it has  more or less aesthetic value. Or, more contentiously, that there is a difference between an art work and an imitation that involves the concept of creativity and originality. Evidently, there are aspects, partly contextual, absent in copies, event copies better than the originals, but, it does indicate the art industry, and the money behind it to regulate prices for essentially intangible goods as a quantified commodity.

Alfred Lessing makes the claim that it is only the fact that the forgery lacks a certain kind of originality that makes any difference at all between a fake and a genuine work of art. Even then this will not necessarily be the case. Any distinction of aesthetic value between identical works is seen by him as snobbery. This kind of originality which is lacking in a forgery is against the “spirit of art” and is what makes a forgery lack integrity… ( Jennifer Jenkins )

Jenkins:Arthur Koestler gives an example of a lady called Catherine who hangs a Picasso print on her staircase, but when she finds out it is a genuine Picasso line drawing and not a print she then hangs it in her drawing room. She is confused Koestler says, because although her definitions of what counts as aesthetically important are the usual qualities such as colour, form and line, the fact that she has displayed her picture where it can now be seen more easily indicates this is done from snobbery. But Catherine's defence of this is simply that now she knows it is a Picasso, she says she sees it differently, although the colour, line and form have not actually changed. Koestler cannot understand how this can be so. How can she see it differently when in fact it "looks" exactly the same? According to Koestler, Catherine is confused because she mixes up what she thinks are aesthetically important characteristics, colour, shape and form, with the status and prestige of the artist. That is characteristics that are intrinsic to the work are confused with characteristics that come from outside the work. So Koestler thinks that when Catherine says she views it differently, because the things she counts as aesthetic questions, colour, form, line etc., have not changed it must be something else that has changed her mind: ie the external characteristics the status of the artist. I will try to show that although Catherine is confused, she is perfectly entitled to feel as she does without being labelled a snob. Read More:

The Catharine story by Koestler where she realizes she owns an “authentic” line drawing of Picasso instead of a copy is a brilliant story- see caption photo above- her entire attitude to the work changes. The implications are profound. If your spouse announces that he received a letter with a certified cheque inside for say $50 million as an unexpected inheritance, how would your objective/subjective gaze change. Same spouse, aesthetically identical.

But back to Veblen, and reflecting on the issue of status and value. He pointed out the concept  that social elites were identifiable by a capacity, a willingness,  to disregard commerce and pursue connoisseurship; things like dog breeding, ownership of sports teams, charitable fraternities. A retention of what Veblen called “useless’ commodities”, such as comic book collecting,  in comparison to useful assets such as  and urban lland and resources that create ongoing revenue streams. This was the distinguishing mark of gentlemen, a David Geffen  far superior to a mere trader like Warren Buffett inured to grubby commerce and a quick if patient  buck.

Donald Kuspit:Today art’s importance is that it creates money. It is not clear that money creates art, however much it may “patronize” it. Art’s value is guaranteed by money, which doesn’t mean that without money it has no value, but that money value overrides art value while appearing to confer it. Both art and criticism have been defeated by money, even though money gives art critical cachet, thus validating it as art. Even more insidiously, money has become more existentially meaningful than art….

---Edward Hopper Hotel Window 1955 $26,896,000---the art produced in the United States will lose economic and artistic value while the art produced in China will gain economic and artistic value, with a few art adm

tratively enforced exceptions. The market goes where there is growth rather than stagnancy. The fact that Zhang Xiaogang's Tiananmen Square sold for $2,318,766, placing it number 33, and Eric Fischl's Daddy's Girl sold for $1,920,00, placing it number 39, suggests as much. Read More:

…Indeed, I am prepared to argue that money rushes in to full the vacuum of existential meaningfulness left by art that has lost spiritual purpose. To put this another way, speculative investors in art, that is, those who buy it as a material investment rather than for its spiritual qualities, and thus in effect deny them, and in general show their spiritual indifference and existential backwardness, are comparable to the “locusts” that Franz Münterfering, former chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic party, called hedge fund investors who make hostile bids for companies. “Locusts. . . move into a field, eat it to the ground, and move on to the next without looking back.” (FT, 2/15/07, p. 3.)…

---Similarly, Henri Eugène Le Sidaner's La table aux Lanternes, Gerberoy, Anselm Kiefer's Balder's Triume, and Grandma Moses' Sugaring Off all tied for 52nd place (listed as 52, 53, and 54), at $1,360,000. This raises an interesting critical as well as commercial question: why does a work by a minor French Impressionist, a work by a major German Neo-Expressionist and a work by a celebrated American Folk Artist sell for the same price? Are they equal in artistic value? --- Read More: image:

…Let me conclude with a suggestive anecdote from Paul Raffaele’s account of his visit to the Korowai, a New Guinea tribe of cannibals (Smithsonian, 9/06). Once a human being becomes a witch (khakhua) he or she becomes edible because he or she is no longer human. White men (laleo) like Raffaele “are forbidden to enter their sacred river, and [his] presence angers the spirits. KorowaI are animists, believing that powerful beings live in specific trees and parts of rivers. The tribesman demands that we give the clan a pig to absolve the sacrilege. A pig costs 350,000 rupiahs, or about $40. It’s a Stone Age shakedown. I count out the money and pass it to the man, who glances at the Indonesian currency and grants us permission to pass.

“What use is money to these people? I ask Kembaren as our boatsmen paddle to safety upriver. ‘It’s useless here,’ he answers, ‘but whenever they get money. . . the clans use it to help pay bride prices for Korowai girls living closer to Yanimura. They understand the dangers of incest, and so girls must marry into unrelated clans’” ….

---Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of the list is the nearly equal commercial value accorded Warhol, Rockwell and Bacon. It conveys the breakdown of difference between popular commercial and fine art, which in fact occurred almost simultaneously in the work of all three artists. This is evident if one looks at their iconographic sources, implied public and even handling, which is relatively unnuanced -- even simplistic -- from a fine art point of view. --- Read More:

…I suggest that money has entered the sacred river of art and muddied it, even as it attempts to undo its sacrilege by paying artists off. But it looks like the relationship between art and money has become incestuous, suggesting that the marriage between money and art will produce defective artists. It already has, in the form of anti-artists. Read More:


…Paying a certain amount of money for a work of art can be compared to placing a bet on a number in roulette. It is in fact less of a gamble, for the more money one places on the art number the more one guarantees that it will win the art game. Big money guarantees big art historical returns — good art historical fortune as well as a very good economic future. It is a way of controlling the game. It is a way of fixing the spin of fortune’s wheel so that it is always in one’s favor. It only stops on the most money.

Gamblers such as art dealer Jeffrey Deitch and collectors Donald and Mera Rubells, recently installed on a College Art Association panel with Jerry Saltz and Peter Plagens, two art critics, confirm that big money has taken over art. Deitch and the Rubells never lose, while art critics are the intellectual losers (the profession has declined since the days of Greenberg and Ruskin). It is nouveau riche money that finds new meaning in old art and old meaning in new art — that has perverse insights — not the self-styled critical establishment. Read More:

…Many years ago Meyer Schapiro argued that there was a radical difference between art’s spiritual value and its commercial value. He warned against the nihilistic effect of collapsing their difference. I will argue that today, in the public mind, and perhaps in the unconscious of many artists, there is no difference. The commercial value of art has usurped its spiritual value, indeed, seems to determine it. Art’s esthetic, cognitive, emotional and moral value — its value for the dialectical varieties of critical consciousness — has been subsumed by the value of money. …Inevitably, one must recall Andy Warhol’s prescient idea of business art, that is, his recognition that art has become a business and making money in business is an art, implying that the making of money and the making of art involve the same motivation. A new hierarchy of value has in fact been established: money has come to have a higher value than art. ( ibid. )
Martin Gough:There is an alternative solution, which avoids total capitulation to Koestler and Lessing’s position. That is to distinguish the aesthetically valuable from the artistically valuable. This would involve adopting a position inspired by Timothy Binkley that the concept of the aesthetic, embodying all matters perceptual, is logically distinct from the concept of art. For instance, a sunset is often viewed as possessing aesthetically pleasing aspects without being treated as an artwork. And, although there are objectors to Pop Art and conceptual “art” as having the status of being “art proper”, such genres are regarded as art, whilst not necessarily being regarded as aesthetically pleasing. Read More:

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One Response to down the amazon: art jungle

  1. John Bedford says:

    As usual, Koestlers position seems to me unassailable unless one lacks the courage to accept its truth and face the consequences accordingly. Maybe any hedging in acceptance is in fact only a variant form of snobbery ?
    I think your final point about Conceptual art being perceived as ‘Art’ whilst not necessarily being considered ‘aesthetic’ is a very accurate observation but, from my perspective, avoids the question of why it should ever be perceived as ‘art proper’in the first place……..from the moment Duchamps urinal became accepted as art (and therefore had a value far greater than its actual retail price)….the current ridiculous situation was inevitable and can be perhaps attributed directly to those ‘critics and teachers’ who succumbed to one of the variants of snobbery referred to earlier…they have sold aesthetic for shock value, perhaps because they lacked the courage to appear as Ludites….whilst ironically ( not even of a post modern kind) creating an establishment even more restrictive and virulant than that which they strive so hard to condemn.

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