Thursday, May 27, 2010

if that isn't aura it'll have to do

Olav Velthuis’s Talking Prices, in contrast to the reductive analyses of Thompson and Galenson, is an extremely wide-ranging and subtle guide to the way in which value is formed in contemporary art. It is superb at teasing out the intricate social and spiritual exigencies of the art-world: as Velthuis puts it at the outset: "we need to go beyond conventional understandings of markets." He records dealers’ apparent lack of interest in prices, their emphasis on being perceived as "really pure," their hostility to the mercantile auction resale process and their (no less than the artists’) orientation to history. He considers the protestant taboos on ostentation, the rituals of market exchange and the inextricable entanglement of market and culture. He stresses the importance to a contemporary art-seller of a "mastery of critical discourse." He writes of the "consecration" of artworks by the establishment (surely a more fertile and precise epithet than "branding") and contrasts the "sacred" space of the gallery to the "profane space" of the back-room where deals are cut. And he comes to the conclusion, paradoxical but in my view correct, that the rituals of the market are not camouflage or a come-on, they are of the essence; and that prices themselves are "cultural entities," that is to say, they have what Velthuis terms "symbolic meanings."

What we have is "an economy of symbolic goods" (a phrase which Velthuis takes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) in which it is not artists (or branding, or innovation) that determine prices, but rather prices that are a ranking device for artists. In passing, he makes the important comment that "buyers value artworks according to the "proximity" to their creator." In general, handmade works are more highly prized than mechanically produced multiples, for example.

Matthew Bown on Walking Man I &c

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe that the assumption of value stemming from an "economy of symbolic goods" tends to misplace the artist and the art work itself - in short the work put in by the artist to create the actual piece. If Velthui's assumption is correct then we need to rethink the artist as void of influence on issues of valuation. I myself believe that an artist has agency over his/her "style" and that reception to this style will influence future work. In this sense I believe prices and artists continuously reconstitute each other.