Daniel Barnes
Philosopher

The Value Industry

Chapter 1: Two Kinds of Value

The Value Industry
   
The Value Industry

It is more difficult than ever to tell the difference between important art and expensive art, real art and a mere simulation, clever art and banality. But it is possible. If we grasp with both hands the elusive concept of value, we can see clearly the difference between art which is good because it expensive and art which is expensive because it is good. The tussle between quality and price is just one way in which the value industry – the vehicle by which value is created from almost nothing of worth – makes us think that art is both nothing more than a mere commodity and anything but that.

Contemporary art is an extremely multifaceted thing, for whilst it is more than pickled sharks and unmade beds, it is also more than a romantic myth or a simple pleasure – art is an integral part of mass culture and a commodity on a market that claims to be the arbiter of value.  But although there often seems to be a mismatch between the price of art and its cultural worth, the humdrum madness of the artworld still preserves what is centrally valuable and worthwhile about art, namely that it is a source of intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure.

Nonetheless, contemporary art is in crisis: so much of what appears in galleries is fodder for the market, designed to fill space and time with confections and conceits to line the pockets of dealers and artists. This is due, in no small measure, to the operation of the value industry, which creates value so that it can sell it on for a profit, and so on, circular and maddening forever. Value is – paradoxically – what makes art valuable; it is concocted from thin air; it is just numbers in the ether and the ghost in the machine; it is reason and passion, but remains fluid, slippery and insidiously efficacious.  The art which commands such high prices is, after all, more often not made from cheap materials of at best pedestrian interest and value. And yet, when touched by the hands of an artist, this workaday matter – some household gloss paint, a dead fly, a old pair of shoes, some offcut plastic – becomes art, and becomes valuable. This book aims to unpack what this value really is and explore how it is created, central to which is an understanding of the value industry.

Arthur Danto, the singular apprehender of the philosophical nature of contemporary art, stated it perfectly when ruminating on Warhol’s Brillo boxes: ‘Is this man a kind of Midas, turning whatever he touches into the gold of pure art? And the whole world consisting of latent artworks waiting, like the bread and wine of reality, to be transfigured, through some dark mystery, into the indiscernible flesh and blood of the sacrament?’[1]. Art, he thought, is not magic or miracle, but it certainly seems that way when something that looks like a mere Brillo box suddenly becomes valuable. At the time when Danto was writing and Warhol was just becoming famous, in 1964, the world was looking at the tip of a very large iceberg that would only grow ever more ginormous as the seas of art were frozen by ever more money and fervour.

Spending a few years floating around the art market, looking at and writing about art, leads one to realise that art is all about value precisely because nobody knows what value is. With this essential gap in our knowledge, the market can trade in the conceit that value is simultaneously intrinsic to art and extrinsic to anyone’s understanding of it, so the product always comes with in-built philosophical kudos.

In order to get to grips with how and why art is valuable even when it is irreducibly locked into the framework of money and celebrity, it is necessary to see value as operating at two levels. First, there is cultural value, which is the status of art as a cultural product that stands outside market forces of exchange and is valued in and of itself as art; and second, there is economic value, which is the price an artwork must have for the purpose of exchange, since art must be exchanged[2]=. Given that these two kinds of value are real and present in contemporary art, it is necessary to investigate the links between cultural and economic value, as well as to explore the points at which they diverge. The distinction between cultural and economic value is explanatory; it is not intended to be a full-blown economic or arthistorical theory. Once we see contemporary art through this lens, we begin to make sense of things that otherwise do not make sense. How Damien Hirst can command the destruction of a spot paining, why it is important to save Emins bed, how a fake Richter can be as valuable as a genuine one. The fact is the contemporary artworld does not make sense as either an economic or cultural proposition, but once we see that it is characterised by the tension between these two things, it all begins to fall into place. Each example here is an example of something that the distinction demystifies.

The fact of culture’s entanglement with economics is obscured by an operative mythology, propagated by the art establishment. That is, the strife between culture and economics – and therefore the foibles, inconsistencies and injustices of their union – is glossed over on an industrial scale by gallerists, curators, auction houses, critics and artists who weave the complex myth that there is no difference between culture and economics. When you go to an exhibition at Gagosian or any other commercial gallery, it is just that – an exhibition – and not a sales pitch or an investment opportunity. The myth blurs the lines between cultural and economic value so assiduously that we hardly notice the tectonic plates shifting in favour of history, so when the history is written it will all be worth every penny. The reason for this is that we must believe in the market’s power to maintain a positive role in the artworld – although it is all about money, that money is sustaining the existence of art, which is a sovereign good. Thus, the myth says, the art market is eternally justified by its continued contribution to culture.

Moreover, a sufficiently complex and/or well-marketed myth, such as that of Charles Saatchi’s dominance or Julian Schnabel’s genius can compensate for, even gloss over, the fact that beyond the myth there is almost nothing of value. Nonetheless, the prevailing mythology, like the prevailing wind, carries the ship of commercial success along as if on its own steam.

Simultaneously part of this mythology and an antagonist to it, aesthetics occupies a central role, for it is the importance of aesthetics, and its singularity in human interests, that justifies the existence of art. The myth of the goodness of the market aims to preserve this, but that endeavour is fraught with tension.  Aesthetics is important because it is a central way in which we apprehend the world; it is through aesthetics that we seek and discover meaning, expression and, ultimately, pleasure. This conception of aesthetics is brilliantly summed up by Matthew Collings, who says ‘art is partly ideas and theories, but it is only anything at all because of the way it looks’[3]=. That is, the way art looks is the locus of what it means, what it makes us feel, what it makes us think, how it affects our lives, the pleasure or pain it elicits and the very reason we bother with art at all. The problem comes when we consider that, on the one hand, aesthetics transcends economic principles, and, on the other hand, must be co-opted by them if art is to be a commodity. As such, the mythology of ‘the Artist’ or something like ‘aesthetic experience’ as romantic cornerstones of humanity are weaved, sometimes incongruously, into the fabric of the art market. As Graw says, the economics of art is all about putting a price on the priceless[4]=. The great coup is that very often it works.

Collings sometimes seems to think that aesthetics is all there is to art, but, and surely this is implicit in his thought, it is the gateway to everything else, including meaning and value. Since aesthetics is the First Principle of art, ruminations on value often take it as a given, as something always already apprehended when we make any judgement at all. From this theoretical standpoint, commercial art generally looks a lot better, and as Bret Easton Ellis said, ‘the better you look, the more you see’[5]=.

Art is valuable because it is aesthetically desirable and it is worth remembering that it is this, and this alone, that the market is putting a price on. All the money, celebrity and spectacle that we see unfurled daily in the name of art is in some ways essential to it, since contemporary art can only be the product of its socio-historical epoch, but it is also a smokescreen which capitalism has developed in order to justify the madness of the market. Underneath all of that there are aesthetic ideas which are operating even where they seem so impossible – in the mind of Jeff Koons, in the pockets of Charles Saatchi and in the halls of Gagosian.

If you listen to Theodore Adorno, he will tell you that the culture industry is abominable mass deception[6]=. The ‘culture industry’ captures that moment when culture began to be mass produced: the advent of audio-visual recording, according to Walter Benjamin, hailed the mechanical reproducibility of art, which spawned a whole new industry in which culture can be produced and exchanged on a mass scale[7]. For Adorno and Horkheimer, this spelled trouble for so-called high art – music, painting, poetry – because the masses would have too easy access to so-called low culture, such as cinema and popular music so that they may fail to engage with high art altogether. The situation today is even worse than an irascible grump like Adorno could have imagined, for what we used to high-mindedly call the ‘culture industry’ has morphed under the dual powers of postmodernism and capitalism into something altogether more sinister. We now have a value industry, which displays a blithe indifference to culture and yet still manages to produce something that remarkably resembles it.

The value industry is a step beyond its forbear, the culture industry, in one crucial respect: it is the product of postmodernism, which flattened the contours of culture, blurred the lines between high and low art until this culture industry is all we have[8]=. In the culture industry, everything, from cinema to music, claimed to be culture, but it was not, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, of equal value. Rather, they said, within this mass of generic culture, there was a distinction between high and low culture, with the former being gold and the latter mere slurry. This was before postmodernism. One of the central characteristics of postmodernism is the structural flattening of the contours of culture, so that ‘low’ culture became high. For example, on the swish of Warhol’s magic whip, the gutter art of advertising illustration – practiced only by failed artists and charlatans – was elevated to the echelons of high art (fine art, as we call it) in the Brillo box and Campbell’s soup can works. The culture industry had been usurped by a value industry that now gave low culture high status.

The value industry starts to emerge at precisely the point when Warhol begins to put a high value on low culture[9]=. The main product is now not culture at all, but pure, sometimes abstract, value. It is about producing something that will be valuable to both the masses (ie cultural value to the audience) and to the elite (ie economic value to the collectors and the art market). It is, as Danto said, turning everyday materials into the gold of art. Then, suddenly, everything is (potentially, at least) valuable and there is no distinction between high and low culture because, as Pop Art, neo-expressionism and the YBAs would go on to demonstrate again and again, anything can be transfigured into high culture, and therefore into pure value. That is the value industry in which we now operate[10]=.

We can believe in contemporary art only if we understand it as a product of this capitalist machine that seeks to produce, above all else, value. It is a machine which fashions value out of dust, detritus and dreams, or anything that can be monetised and marketed under the guise of culture. The value industry says, ‘If you can dream it, it can be made. If you can make it, it can be sold!’. And so, Tracey Emin unmakes her bed and Martin Creed forgets to fix a faulty light-fitting and value is conjured from almost literally nothing.

Ever optimistic, we will see that art survives the market precisely because it is absolutely necessary to humanity, whereas the market is only ever contingent. That is, in a society where we did not have formal mechanisms of unequal exchange such as markets, we would still sing songs, draw pictures and tell stories[11]=. This is because art is an essential part of the fabric of what it is to be human, no matter what price can be put upon it and no matter how much rich critical prose can be written about it.


For the Love of Art and Money

Having approached a definition of the value industry, we can now begin to characterise the relationship between art and money. This will set the backdrop against which our investigations of value will unfold – the massive amount of money, and the inequality it breeds, will be seen to be in strife with the core purpose of art. This, however, is not new, but is entrenched in the history of art itself and does nothing to change what we centrally value, even if it sometimes moulds it.

The relationship between art and money is assiduous: money is both necessary to the very existence of art in capitalist societies; and it is a mortal threat to art’s integrity. This cannot simply be attributed to the onward march of global capitalism or the dim-wittedness of art dealers; rather, something happened in art itself that was the catalyst for it all. Let us take a moment to tell this crushing love story and to think about how we, the contemporary artworld's impoverished children, might best deal with the tricky relationship that has spawned us.

For those of us who came of age during the boom years of New Labour, 8601 diamonds[12]= signalled the moment that the romance between art and money had finally gone too far. We knew there was something seriously askew when, one evening in 2007 on BBC2’s Newsnight, an appalled Kirsty Wark pointedly challenged an obstinate, baffled Damien Hirst with the question: ‘£14 million worth of diamonds and platinum. Is there nothing in your mind that thinks there’s something obscene about that?’ That was the moment when an entire generation – Blair’s children – like those who witnessed the art booms of the 80s and 60s before them, saw art and money for what they really are. It was obscene, and yet nobody was prepared to admit it; instead, they all celebrated it as the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

But it was Warhol who cast the spell. First, he invented the value industry, as we have seen, by making high art about low culture. This new art enchanted the artworld with its sheer ordinariness, giving artworks the status, in the consumer society, of both luxury good and a reflection of society itself. And second, he contrived his studio to emulate industrial mass-production by delegating the work to assistants, speeding up the rate of production. This was art’s industrial revolution, which came to financial fruition in the 1980s when the prices of high-rollers like Basquiat, Kiefer, Schnabel and Koons began to rocket. Then, in the 90s, it happened all over again with the YBAs.

This is how the star-crossed lovers met: Warhol introduced Art to Money on a blind date over a Brillo box; they embarked on a whirlwind romance before getting married, battled in sickness and in health to spawn many wayward children along the way. And to this day, they are still very much in love.

In 1990, the global art market was worth $27 billion, and in 2007, before the global financial crisis, it was closer to $66 billion. Interestingly, after the crash the art market remained largely unharmed, with global sales totalling $60.8 billion in 2011. In 2012, that figure crept up again, signalling another year of steady growth with art outperforming equities markets, reaching $64 billion. On 12 November 2014, Christies New York set the world record for total sales in a single auction at $852,887,00, in its Post War and Contemporary evening sale[13]=. These numbers are beguiling. Even if you silence the fact that art proved perversely immune to global recession, there is the unfathomable fact that only a small handful people, out of everyone in the world, spent that $64 billion.

The blunt end of these numbers is the fact that art is just stuff: not stuff like minerals or oil which are expensive to produce, since most art is made from cheap, readily available materials; it is not stuff like food or construction materials where that amount of money sustains so much life; and it is not even luxury stuff like Armani suits that cost more than a Ferrari but can be put to good use daily. Art must have its kudos constructed in critical acts of convolution, and it is stuff which – for the most part – is only experienced fleetingly and by relatively few. It is not that art is inconsequential, but just that, given the grand scheme of stuff, its global market value is a baffling affectation of modern life.

These global sales figures, which cause equal measure of apoplexy and hubris, are the work of auction houses, private sales and commercial galleries. These sales involve not only a miniscule fraction of all the people living in the world today, but also a tiny portion of those people who make up the global artworld. And it is towards these people that much of the value industry’s energy is directed, since economic value is concocted and inflated precisely so that collectors pay astronomical prices. The value is created, therefore, so that the value can be realised. The artworld, as far as money is concerned, is a petulant microcosm of all the world’s inequality and injustice.

Graw characterises the art market as a form of ‘cognitive capitalism’, whereby knowledge has a value, so the price of an object is eternally justified by the intellectual acumen attached to it[14]=. So artworks have a dual nature, she says, following Bourdieu, as a cultural asset and a commodity: the two are separate and interlinked in such a way that cultural value makes the artwork priceless, but economic value ensures that it must necessarily have a price. The problem, then, is the fact that the price dominates culture – all we hear about from auctions and gallery openings is what sold and for how much, never about the meaning, aesthetics or history of the works.

Furthermore, the money is a preoccupation precisely because the artworld includes a large majority who do not make money from art; who, in fact, barely make a living. The graduate artists, the budding critics and wannabe curators work for free, if at all; sometimes they are lucky enough to complete menial tasks for Jay Jopling on a zero hours contract or they might command a miniscule fee for their talents. But overall, in art as in life, the only people making money are the ones who already have it, with no extant mechanism for redressing this imbalance.

Given that the artworld is this shining beacon of widespread inequality and that we do not want to give it up altogether in some eternally pious cultural Lent, we need a new way of thinking. A new way which does not obsess over the numbers and the inequality. We need to accept that art is just stuff, and capitalism is all about the rapturous exchange of stuff, most of which we will never be able to cradle in our wanton arms. That is, we need to accept that art as a commodity is out of our reach and the people within whose reach it is are so socially and psychologically distant from us that they are a mere irrelevance.

We need to understand that the core, unflinching value of art is cultural: it is important in and of itself because it enriches our lives despite the slings and arrows of capitalism. The money surely makes a lot of art possible, which is no bad thing, but it is not part of the real value of art as a cultural product for a mass audience. And above all, art is there for all of us, and it is eternally ours for the taking, no matter which billionaire claims they own it. It is this cultural value which should always trump that economic value.

The love story of art and money is set to run and run like a great soap opera, and although it seems toxic, it is subsidiary to the main plotline about our own magical affair with art which relieves the tedium of our crushing lives under late capitalism.


Spot the Difference

The distinction between cultural and economic value is central to understanding the value of art, since art has these two values simultaneously and necessarily. A concrete example of the distinction should help to flesh out exactly how it works in practice.

The first 1,365 of Damien Hirst’s infamous Spot Paintings are chronicled in a catalogue raisonné, The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011[15]=. It was published following an exhibition of the same name, in 2012, that occurred simultaneously in all eleven international branches of Gagosian Gallery[16]=. The exhibition featured 300 Spot Paintings of all sizes and colours, aiming to make a point about the same thing always being different. The catalogue was supposed to bolster market confidence in the series by proving that the notorious paintings are less numerous than rumoured. But the value of a Spot Painting is about so much more than how many there are: it is a matter of seeing a given Spot Painting as a unique artwork which has a place in both a series of works and an art historical narrative.

The beauty of the Spot Paintings is their conceptual economy: their entire meaning is perfectly expressed by a few simple rules of production. The gaps between spots must be equal to the size of the spots, no colour is to be repeated on a single canvas, and they are to be named, for the most part, after pharmaceuticals[17]=. This formula can be realised forever; that pure mathematical infinity expresses the immortality of the Spot Painting series and that delusion of immortality promised by the pharmaceuticals after which they are named. In other words, owing to this simple formula, different Spot Paintings can continue to be made so long as new pharmaceuticals are made and so long as death continues to occur.

How, then, do we value something so numerous? It might be thought that the sheer proliferation of Spot Paintings devalues them, as if owning one is tantamount to owning any other. But this could not be further from reality; it could only be the case if we refuse to recognise that each Spot Painting is a unique work of art, aesthetically different from all the others with which it shares a common conceptual connection. So although we may pretheoretically think that all Spot Paintings are the same, they are, in fact aesthetically different from one another, and therefore aesthetically distinct works of art. Consider Edge (1988) and Row (1988): both painted directly onto the wall, both with the same size spots, both with the same colour sequence and so both visually very similar. The devil is in the detail: in Edge, the last column of spots is cut in half on the right hand side, whereas in Row, the last row is spots is halved along the bottom. It is often in this subtlety of detail that the differences between Spot Paintings resides. The point is that no matter how similar they may look superficially, you can only get bored of them or believe them to be all the same if you refuse to see the details which differentiate one Spot Painting from another.

Now compare these to L-Leucine 15-N (2001) or even Chlorobenzene (2002), where you will witness radical departures from everything that Edge and Row, and indeed most other Spot Paintings you have ever seen, have given you to believe. Each and every one is aesthetically different from the others, no matter how great or small the difference. So when we say there are 1,365 Spot Paintings, we are making two distinct claims: one, the conceptual claim that are there so many iterations of the formula; and two, the aesthetic claim that there are individual, finitely differentiated artworks.
It should be apparent by now that the Spot Paintings depend on both the aesthetic and the conceptual claim in order to make sense. That is, the very fact that the conceptual claim holds is exactly what makes the aesthetic claim valid. Now we can see that the number of Spot Paintings plays a different role in value from that which we originally thought. Rather than the value going down due to the number of paintings in existence, we can now see that the value should be primarily determined by the fact that each painting is aesthetically different from the next. Rather than recognise this aesthetic fact, however, the market currently takes a pseudo-historical approach by attaching higher prices to older works, as if the whole of history had been sped up and an early 90s Spot Painting has the lofty status of a relic.

The better approach, however, is to explore how cultural and economic value are jointly created by the conceptual and aesthetic components of the paintings. We might thus view the Spot Paintings as unique artworks with differential cultural values, which in turn determines their economic value. Graw argues that these are distinct values which are intimately connected, since although a high price does not guarantee the work is culturally valuable, the right critical response to a work can bolster its economic value[18]=. On this model, the economic value of a given Spot Painting is determined by its cultural value, which appeals to the uniqueness of a work as situated within a conceptually rule-governed series. Here, ‘uniqueness’ will be a matter of degrees, defined by how many works in the series are more or less aesthetically similar to a given work. For example, as the majority of the works, the Pharmaceutical paintings are the least unique overall, so any given one is culturally less valuable because it aesthetically resembles many others. However, the Sedative series of paintings (with only greyscale spots) is a much smaller group, so that any given painting will be more aesthetically unique in the overall category of Spot Paintings.

The point here is to demonstrate that when we talk about ‘cultural value’, we are not talking about something abstract or theoretical. Rather, cultural value is a judgement we all make of art all the time: it is a judgement of value based on the aesthetic (that this, the things we see and experience) and conceptual (the ideas, meanings, theories we associate) content of the artwork. This is a value judgement in its purest form because we ultimately use it to decree the work good or bad or worthwhile or whatever. As such, it determines, at least in part, economic value, for what artwork is worth on the open market is – implicitly, at least – a judgement of how good or worthy it is. For example, an early or mid-career Picasso painting, which epitomises cubism, can set you back anywhere up to around $100 million, but you can get your hands on a late Picasso, from the 1970s, for between $2-4 million. The difference in price – in economic value – is simply a difference in cultural value: the later Picassos are regarded as tired, washed out and lacking in the artist’s youthful energy and signature flourish. In short, they are relatively cheap because they are thought to be not very good.

The same thing applies to the Spot Paintings: it is possible for there to be good ones and bad ones, aesthetically speaking, because each one is unique, which means they will have differing cultural values that therefore determine different economic value. Cultural and economic value are the two spirts behind the mystery of art prices, and once we see how they are interlinked and how they determine price, the whole thing begins to make more sense. Another thing that starts to emerge, which we should treat at this stage with extreme caution, is that value (insofar as it is cultural) plays a direct, positive role in price. So far, we have considered cases where higher prices are offered for works which reasonably have a higher cultural value in virtue of their superior aesthetic (and/or conceptual) qualities. Whilst this is correct for some cases, it cannot be the whole story, since we know intuitively that all the artworks sold are not sold for a fair, correct or reasonable price. Some works, we know, are overpriced, especially when we consider their aesthetic and conceptual qualities to be somewhat lacking and therefore undeserving of the price. There must be something else going on. That something else, we shall see in due course, is the power of mythologies, which artificially inflate prices where the work is otherwise deficient.
Nonetheless, in the case of the Spot Paintings, cultural and economic value coincide rather neatly and accurately. They are not bad works of art and they not derived from a bad idea: they are attractive, simple, elegant and regular enough to be conceptually coherent but varied enough to allow for surprises. Simply put, the most valuable ones will be the ones that are most different from the others because they possess an aesthetic and/or conceptual distinction from their brethren, which inspires someone to pay a higher price for that distinction.

One consequence of this is that value will be determined by extreme deviation from the rule: when everything looks so similar, the ones that stand out are the ones that brazenly flout the conceptual rule, such as Mickey Mouse (2012), a portrait of the Disney character, and Iopanoic Acid (2011), a depiction of Ronnie O’Sullivan’s fastest ever 147 break. These works have a higher cultural value because they are part of the series and they simultaneously transcend the rules about spacing and size of spots and the non-repetition of colour. As the most exceptional, they have the highest cultural, and therefore economic, value of all the series. There are others that similarly break the rules in different ways, but, out of a series of 1,365 paintings, they remain the minority.

The fact that the deviant Spot Paintings differ so markedly from their brethren is precisely what makes them desirable cultural products. Indeed, the entire series is sustained by these deviations because any respectable collection of Spot Paintings would want to include one of them. So this Mickey Mouse Spot Painting, far from being a lazy appropriation of a series, not only turns out to be one of the more overall valuable works, but also points us in the direction of understanding how economic value is underwritten by cultural value.

All Guns Blazing

Celebrity culture inspires in the many a morbid fascination with the lives of the few, as if the whole human drama is monopolised by an anointed minority. The artworld is no exception, for it manufactures gossip and speculation about celebrity artists to boost sales and inflate prices. In the last chapter, we saw how economic value is the result of cultural value, where aesthetics does all the hard work. Here we shall consider a similar example of the connection between economic and cultural value, but this time economic value will be seen to be comprised almost entirely of the conceptual content of the artwork.

In February 2014, Jeff Koons promised to make an artwork out of Sean Penn’s guns. The work in question, however, was a mere glint in Koons’ eye. It possessed an economic value long before the work itself was ever realised because the price was a function of the concept of the work, which is an element of cultural value and, in this case, was decided in advance of any making. This case demonstrates that when we talk about cultural value, we are referring to the abstract, but necessary, value placed upon an artwork in virtue of its aesthetic and conceptual content. Although economic value follows from this, it has nothing, as we shall see, intrinsically to do with it.

It began with a Hollywood love story: a blossoming romance between Sean Penn and Charlize Theron threatened to turn sour over a conscientious objection to the ownership of firearms. Penn, the devoted lover and impressionable patriot, agreed to give up his collection of 67 guns, so that Theron, haunted by the memory of her mother shooting her father, may sleep easy at night. Penn then decided to sell the guns at auction for his J/P Haitian Relief Organization, but this alone provided no more spectacle than a gushing display of love. Enter Jeff Koons, who agreed for the guns to be sold as scrap metal, which would be the raw material for a new, specially commissioned artwork. 

But what was for sale that night in LA was neither a collection of guns with one previous celebrity owner nor a work of art by a mega-artist. Instead, this particular auction lot was nothing more than an idea; perhaps not even that, but only the promise of an idea that would come to fruition at the stoke of Jeff Koons’ Midas hands. Understandably, everyone wanted a slice of the action, with a certain Piers Morgan bidding $1.3 million, eventually losing out to CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who shelled out $1.4 million for the physical impossibility of an idea in the mind of Jeff Koons.

Not only did this all occur in the name of love and charity, it reveals a brilliant artworld curiosity. At $1.4 million Cooper has got himself a cheap slice of the intensely rich Jeff Koons pie, especially considering that an existing Koons can set you back $54 million. The purchasing of ideas for sums of money beyond most people’s reach goes a long way towards strengthening the artist’s brand: not only does it confirm the collector’s seemingly unshakable faith in the reliability of products from Jeff Koons, it also boosts market confidence in the brand by confirming that the artist’s name is enough to sell the product. The brand is enough to convince someone to part with $1.4 million off plan, and that is an extremely powerful thing indeed.

The real curiosity here is not faith in the Koons brand, for we could see the same phenomenon occur as readily with Porsche or Louis Vuitton, but it is in the fact that there is a supposed link between economic value and the possibility of a good work of art. While this is a cheap Koons, the sum of money paid, plus the kudos of the romantic story and its charitable ending, is sufficient for Cooper to expect delivery of a work of some exceptional quality. Artworld speculators were divided between thinking Koons would melt the guns down to make one of his cast steel works or that he might place them in a Perspex box – the former in the manner of his balloon dog works and the latter in the manner of his earlier Hoover pieces. Either way, what was for sale that night was merely a concept – a promise of an artwork that was born out of love, charity and a powerful artist’s brand. As such, any cultural value attached to the work – as a part of the Koons cannon – was only ever an idea, which commanded an economic value before anything had happened in the studio.

In any case, before its physical inception, the work had a noble chunk of art historical interest attached to it, which will later increase its cultural value on the open market. Thus, culture and economics are once again inseparable. Anderson then becomes a player in a network of strangely interlaced games: collecting contemporary art, helping a charity, acting as Hollywood relationship councillor and investing in his pension fund. From an art market point of view, the fact that all these games can be played simultaneously only adds value to the work: it invests in the art market’s conspiracy to create value (in the cultural and economic sense) out of ethereal numbers and unrealised ideas. The value industry thus operates even when there is nothing physical to speak of; value can be created even when there is only a concept because art, as pure cognitive capitalism, places value on concepts, as well as aesthetics and, ultimately, tangible objects.

But the chances are that, after this rush of excitement, once the artwork is realised in some impossibly pristine form, speckled with Koons glitter and glistening with spectacular myths, all it’s eggs will be placed in the money basket, leaving the lofty culture basket disarmingly empty. That is, after money has exchanged hands, and guns have been transfigured into art, there is no guarantee of quality, except, of course, for the guarantee of Koons’ name alone. Giddy market speculation and gossip do not always ensure artistic merit, even if the history books will tell it differently, for even Midas occasionally drops his basket of eggs on the way to the market.


[1] Arthur C Danto, ‘The Artworld’ Journal of Philosophy LXI, p. 571-584, (1964), p. 580-581.  
[2] This distinction is derived, with some modification, from Isabelle Graw, High Price: Art between the Market and Celebrity Culture (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2009).
[3] Matthew Collings, The Rules of Abstraction (BBC Four: 4 September 2014).
[4] Reference needed.
[5] Bret Easton Ellis, Glamorama (London: Picador, 1998).
[6] See Theodore W Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry’, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997).
[7] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999).
[8] For such an account of culture, see Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in The Cultural Turn (London: Verso, 2009).
[9] The practice of taking the everyday and elevating it to the status of art begins, of course, with Duchamp, but Warhol was the first the actively and successfully monetise it. See Chapter 4 for more on this.
[10] For example, the very fact that a blog – a collection of mindless opinions written online by a nobody for no reason other than self-indulgence – can make money typifies the 21st Century stage of the value industry.
[11] This notion elucidated by Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist (London: Fourth Estate, 2011).
[12] This is the number of diamonds that comprise Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007).
[13] This remains the world record when writing in August 2017. Prior to that, the record was set by the  November evening sale a year earlier, when in 2013 Christies New York totalled $691 million, including $142 million for Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969).
[14] See Graw, High Price, Chapter 1.
[15] Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011, ed. Michael Bracewell (London and New York: Other Criteria and Gagosian, 2013).
[16] Damien Hirst, ‘The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011”, Gagosian Gallery London, New York, Paris, Athens, Geneva, Los Angeles and Rome.
[17] The Spot Paintings with which we are most familiar come from the ‘Pharmaceutical’ series, which is only one of thirteen sub-categories of Spot Paintings. The same rules about spot size and spacing apply to the other categories, but each category is differentiated by a distinct colour scheme. Furthermore, categories are denoted by titles, such as ‘Venoms’ or ‘Carbon-13 Labelled Compounds’, which dictate the names of individual works within the category.
[18] See Graw, High Price, Chapter 1.
    
The Value Industry