about the value of the work of art is thinking above all, in 2009,
about its commercial value. That is a sign of the times, but it
hardly simplifies things, for, curiously, the community of economists
has the greatest difficulty in defining, in as general a way as
it would like, what a market is and how values are formed therein.
The reason for that is simple: markets are social constructions,
with their history and their forces of change. And in this regard,
the art market is one of the most special ones, and that is so
perhaps precisely because its objects are, more than those of
other markets, charged with noncommercial values in the full sense
of the term, i.e., that which exists outside of and beyond commercial
relations. This pronounced specificity of the so-called art object
is best grasped if one takes a moment to think of the status of
the art object in societies that have no market . . . and no history.
Despite its abusive aspects, this simplification helps us to bring
out the totemic attributes a number of objects take on in societies
where social relations of production and exchange are reproduced
in an immutable way. The distinguished status with which some
objects are invested is part of the tradition of such societies
and the young are initiated into it. If now, pursuing our thought
experiment, we imagine societies that construct for themselves
a history along which breaks occur both internally and within
their surroundings, let us note that art objects may also actively
fit into such an emergence of new values or breaks in the ancient
codes. The consecration of the art object will also intrinsically
be the consecration of fashions and revolutions.
Here we have two dimensions--that of identification and that of
rupture—which are inherent in that which acquires the status
of art object, conferring thereupon a sort of transcendental value
commercial relations will never totally domesticate, whatever
forms these relations may take on in the course of history. This
postulate can help us to keep abreast of the magnitudes and vicissitudes
of the commercial relations that have been created around art
objects, let us say from the Age of Enlightenment to the present.
I say “from the Age of Enlightenment,” for it was
during this era that a clear distinction was made between what
is of the order of the divine and what is of the order of the
profane, which thus allowed the art object’s value to be
established in a direct relation with men: those who would create
that value, those who would possess it, and those who would recognize
it or reject it. It is also starting from this period that the
artist began to gain full recognition for himself. This distinction
the creative person acquires is highly characteristic of the art
market. Recognition of the artist goes hand in hand with that
of the art work, whereas, for every other object, commercial relations
play in the first place the role of a screen. What we have here
is a transfer of property that lacks in memory: possession is
nine-tenths of the law, as the saying goes, whereas a large portion
of the value of the art object comes from the fact that the tie
with the producer himself is never broken.
But let us return to the “modern” history of these
peculiar commercial relations. The important fact, then, is the
emergence of the artist in his studio who seeks in his own way
to account for the world in a “realistic” fashion
within his works, whether they are paintings or sculptures. The
Renaissance had already restored to the artist a figure of himself,
in echo of the various statuses artists had been able to enjoy
in Antiquity. The century of the Enlightenment sanctified his
working environment while domesticating the value of the works
he produced. Well-made work, like the time spent, gives its value
to the works produced by that artisan who is the artist; his studio
becomes a site for exhibition and sales. The art market comes
closest to what the preindustrial era’s market for products
was. Yet such classicism does not cancel out all the unique characteristics
of the work of art. Something escapes the realism of these portraits
of the world, as is expressed in the statement of the seventeenth-century
philosopher Francis Bacon, “The secrets of nature reveal
themselves more readily under the vexation of art than when they
go their own way.” The value of great works would be sustained
by the hitherto unfamiliar gazes the great masters, from Velázquez
or El Greco to such late nineteenth-century French painters as
Courbet or Renoir, were able to cast upon the world.
But the industrial era, during which manufacturing would go on
to consecrate, in a definitive way, the separation between producer
and product, was to be accompanied by a real break that served
to accentuate the unique characteristics of art markets. It is
over the long haul of these industrial changes that one sees the
figure of the artist acquire a radically new form of autonomy.
The emblematic figure in this emancipatory process was to appear
during the interwar period, with the Surrealists, their Manifesto,
and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, a deliberate thumbing of
the nose at the other markets where standardization was gaining
the upper hand. But that was possible only to the extent that
a portion of the clientele of these art markets recognized themselves
in this “vexation” of art that had been raised to
a new power. The new bourgeois classes’ desire for distinction,
which Thorstein Veblen had underscored at the turn of the twentieth
century, lent itself well to this “revolution.”
The art market takes on in this way its modern characteristics,
which highly singles it out with respect to product-market structures,
and it does so especially through the status granted to artists
as well as through the differentiated postures of its clientele.
This kind of market for art thus seems to take on once again some
of the dimensions it possessed in those so-called first arts.
That is undoubtedly what one could have concluded at the end of
World War II, when totalitarian regimes had reintroduced for a
time some archaic forms of State-sponsored art that cynically
mixed commercial relations with the pillaging of works. In fact,
the final two decades of the twentieth century, which were marked
by an extensive generalization of commercial relations on a world
scale, brought out the complexity of the ties that could be woven
between this world of art, which had become indissociable from
the world of artists as well as from the world of collectors,
connoisseurs, and promoters, and the world of business.
This may be seen, first of all, in the major role granted to brokering
or “intermediation.” The art of distinction of collectors
and connoisseurs, which Pierre Bourdieu has underscored following
Veblen, is now instrumented in a whole set of apparatuses: museums,
media, and other public institutions, as well as movements of
community groups, not to mention the more classical role played
by gallery owners and other intermediaries with a direct interest
in the commercialization of the products involved. Such intermediation,
with many go-betweens, makes of the art market (taking the singular
here for this very plural set in order to underscore the interlinked
nature of these various markets) a kind of market wherein the
prescriptive function has become highly sophisticated. It can
take as its object both the product and the artist or a group
of specific collectors and connoisseurs.
One of the products of this powerful mobilization of intermediaries
and of the three-dimensional character of what is sold--that is,
works, artists, and collectors and connoisseurs or enlightened
experts, all at once--is the current overcrowding of “artistic
movements” which are sold as so many kinds of product differentiations.
This unique interlinking of commercial relations in an artistic
field is new in scope on account of the place it has acquired
in the City, playing as it does in the dimensions it has been
able to deploy during the twentieth century’s first half
(the artist’s autonomy) then its second half (autonomy of
intermediation). Nonetheless, such interlinking still follows
along with the general changes that may affect commercial relations
throughout the world (see Benhamou, 2008).
The last two decades have witnessed a great transformation of
commercial relations via developments in the area of globalized
finance. This wave of financialization has had its repercussions
on the art market (in the singular as well as in the plural).
The speculative dimension--which is already inherent in markets
that, by their essence, take positions on the future of works,
artists, collectors, and connoisseurs--has grown considerably.
The facility of credit has led to the creation of speculative
bubbles, forcing up certain quoted prices in the hope of a medium-term
resale of products that have rapidly become overvalued.
Despite the international scope of such practices, which are more
likely to affect the most contemporary forms of art (see Moreau
and Sagot-Duvauroux, 2006), the extensive social ties that have
been created around artistic fields should allow one to limit
the excesses that have been engendered by a very few wealthy traders
whose tax concerns in the matter are often quite clear cut. This
undoubtedly requires a collective learning process as well as
diligent public regulation of people’s actions. The ban
on big auction houses lending money to bidders, along with greater
oversight of the real value of gifts of art works used as offsets
for tax breaks, is heading in the right direction.
This way of hastening history’s judgment about the value
of art works is felt to be fairer, even if the time spent doing
so does not lead to the disappearance of coteries and speculative
But such oversight in this field should concern especially what
in these art markets, in the value allotted to works of art, broadly
endures of their initial, fundamentally noncommercial dimensions.
In a world that has withered on account of the general extension
of commercial relations to ever more numerous aspects of social
life, the field of art preserves a dimension of empathy, of openness,
and of willingness to listen to the problems and views of the
other that remains relatively unique and specific. Its importance
may be perceived in the place art occupies at all levels of the
City, in its most magnified forms as well as the most modest ones.
Such empathy, which is emotional, is largely conveyed by a connection
to the artists themselves; it is also cognitive, as conveyed by
all the signs of recognition registered by the numerous authoritative
structures of intermediation. All these modern arts have thereby
preserved, or rather reconstructed, fundamental dimensions recognized
in the first arts. In this sense, the best way of compensating
for the numerous excesses inevitably brought on by the partial
linkages between these connections and commercial relationships
is to favor citizen confrontations and reappropriations of artistic
creativity in all its dimensions. One way of succeeding in that
effort would be to multiply the number of noncommercial collective
forms of intervention, especially within the vast space of intermediation
established during the second half of the twentieth century. Here
we have a potential for citizen appropriation that would help
to compensate for the excesses incurred by a kind of financialization
that has been practiced to an inordinate degree and on an international
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of Art: Velázquez and Others. New Haven and London:
Yale University Press, 2005.
Benhamou, Françoise. L’économie
de la culture (1996). Paris: La Découverte, 2008.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique
of the Judgement of Taste (1979). Trans. Richard Nice. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Moureau, Nathalie and Dominique Sagot-Duvauroux.
La marché de l’art contemporain. Paris:
La Découverte, 2006.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure
Class (1899). New York: Penguin Books, 1994.