I’ve been getting a fair amount of stick on Twitter from Felix Salmon about how art functions as a currency. To step back, I complained that Salmon’s griping over Citibank issuing “coverage” of Gerhard Richter was not based in any real world examples of why art is purchased. Many art buyers are motivated by aesthetic, intellectual and cultural reasons. Others are buying access to an emerging social class of global capital.
At a recent dinner, a Frenchman of my acquaintance told a German he’d never met, “You have a Mike Kelley; I have a Mike Kelley.” This meant, “You have a million dollars to piss away; I have a million dollars to piss away. You got to the head of the line. I got to the head of the line. We can be friends.” It’s a secret handshake. If all it takes to get a membership in this elite club is several million dollars, for people who have tens or hundreds of millions, it’s cheap at twice the price. And the more esoteric works they buy, the better. Hanging and preserving an expensive piece no one understands provides not only the aura of wealth but also the impression that the owner is one of the rare intellectuals who really “gets it.”
Richter has emerged as an artist whose work can be used as social currency to join that class. [Update: Let me be clearer here. I do not mean that art is only a ‘social’ currency. It is in many ways a physical currency that one must purchase and spend—think donating it to a museum—to realize its value.] Because it is a widely used currency, Citibank is providing a legitimate service to its clients when it advises them on the value of that currency. In that sense, commenting on Richter’s Abstrakt paintings is no different to giving guidance on the Swiss Franc. I may buy Swiss Francs as an investment or I might be moving to Switzerland for a few years or just a few months. Each of those scenarios will require different decisions on my part but I am still informed by an report on the Swiss Franc.
Let’s shift back to Richter. If I buy an Abstrakt, there are innumerable reasons for my doing so. I might have a collection of abstract works or have bought Richter deeply. I might be interested in German art or have a collection that explores the use of color.
I might want to join a museum board or be a big shot in my city by offering my Richter to the local museum. Perhaps I want to impress my friends who also own Richters or make someone jealous by having them over to dinner so they can see that my painting is bigger or “better.”
That brings us to the question of whether the Abstrakt paintings are a commodity. They’re not fungible and they have no economic use independent of exchange. At times, many commodities have been used as currencies in certain circumstances (think about the use of cigarettes in prisons) and at certain times (oil has been used that way often.)
But Richter’s paintings are not fungible. Though the large number of Abstrakt paintings allows them to be more like a currency than say Picasso’s works. That’s why Richter’s market has come to resemble Warhol’s market. (Let’s leave it at that or we’ll be here all day.) It’s also worth noting that Richter himself has expressed real hostility toward the prices his works attract. You cannot blame him. Becaise it may be because the exchange value is beginning to overwhelm and detract from the meaning of the work.
Art is used for so many purposes that it is useless to pass judgment as Felix does on persons he has not met and cannot know their motivations. Nor do those motivations matter. The art market is a distribution market. It is not a valuation of the art itself. That requires a different scale and lies far beyond the world of exchange.
It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Another Art Fair! (GalleristNY)