What is art in a market economy?


The New York Times has a fascinating article this morning about a group of expert forgeries attributed to some very well known modern artists. Millions of dollars are at stake as art collectors and investors have been duped into purchasing works they believed to be authentic creations from Motherwell, Rothko, Pollock and others. Reading the article, one can’t help but notice the sheer panic of “art lovers” cast adrift in a sea of uncertainty around questions of authenticity. And this is the sad state of art in a capitalist society, where nothing is appreciated separately from its market value. And where the market value of something has nothing to do with intrinsic value, only what the market will bear. Although this idea is often presented as hardy and utilitarian, it is in most cases the opposite of that, and offends a common sense interpretation of things. I have long believed that art should be public, and that great ideas and works presented by artists are necessarily corrupted when produced for the private art market. Especially while the artist is alive and reaping the financial reward, it is rather like producing advertorial content in a magazine. As long as works are for sale, what guides the artist’s inner vision? Is it what sells? Is it what interests the artist? Is it social or political commentary? Maybe the artist divides between private, “not for sale” work and public “pay the bills” work. And who could blame him or her? We all need to eat.

But to the Art Market, the ideas or forms represented in the work are very much beside the point. They deal only in market value and in manipulation of levers that add to value, such as rarity or scarcity. This is especially true of art photography, printing, or sculpture moulds, which have at their very heart ideas about reproducibility and mass production. The output is intentionally limited to increase value. One can see why the same rules do not exactly apply to other art forms such as writing or film making, where they are intended to be communicative to as wide a range as possible. Those works are meant to be seen, and widely. Again this is the problem of art in the hands of private collectors, that the art is shut out from the rest of the world, unable to interact in a discourse with the culture around it.

And this is the rather amusing joke that has now been played on these collectors who claim to care about art. On the one hand, nothing at all has changed about the paintings they supposedly love and have collected. They still have them, can still look at them closely, appreciate the work in close quarters, revel in the meaning or technique or whatever. On the other hand, they have been duped. These works are not original to the artists in question. They suddenly lack authenticity, and for the collectors all value has gone out of them. Why is that? Is the form or content suddenly different? Would they have purchased these works for any reason at such exorbitant pricing (or any price) if it were only about the work, and not about the investment? Of course not.