Saturday, October 29, 2011

Art and money

It has occurred to every one of us, 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, does it explain? I mean, if art is money, why pay money for it? Trying to salvage the idea that art is money, 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.  In other words, art is not money, it's a commodity, if you use it to make a profit.
But even the shrewdest art investor is not in it merely for the money.  Because a work of art is never merely a commodity, right?. 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 pays homage to pricelessness.   By paying too much you signal  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 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, a heaven of socio-cultural prestige 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 is an investment vehicle that pays off with the blessings of history.

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