Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Art World's Lamest Idea

We've all had it, the idea that stratospheric prices turn art into money, nothing more and nothing less. This idea certainly simplifies things. It even seems to explain things. But what, exactly? I mean, if art is money, why pay money for it? Trying to salvage the idea, you might say, well, people pay cash for more abstract kinds of money--shares of stock, options, futures, securitized mortgages. . . . so maybe at the high end of the market artworks are financial instruments of some sort. Or, at the very least, vehicles for investment, and of course some collectors--or, shall we say, buyers--do use art that way. Buy low, sell high. But that which is bought in the art market is not, after all, money, not even metaphorically. It is a commodity, and its value owes everything to our idea that a work of art is never merely a commodity. It has a value you can't quantify. It is priceless. So, whatever you pay for it, you've gotten a bargain--and often it feels that, the more you pay, the better the bargain. An outrageously high price serves as a homage to pricelessness, a sign of your devotion to transcendent greatness. And what does transcendent greatness transcend? Mere money. So the transcendently great work of art--or the work of art so pricey that it simply must be that great--functions as a sort of money laundering machine, but better, for it doesn't simply render your money clean. It lofts your money to a place far above the market, an empyrean where considerations of price are lost in the glow of art-historical significance. So, no, art is not money, not even at the high end of the market in the hottest of boom times. Art brings, for a price, the blessings of history.



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