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The Artful Dodgers

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What is art worth?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The amount of money paid for art works has created a market which is only about the financial value of art, robbing art of its value as a force for dissidence, say two German writers.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Markus Metz and Georg Seeßlen have published a book called “Money Devours Art – Art Devours Money” which says that art has become a fetish for the rich.
    • The authors say museums have ceded their role as arbitors of what defines modern art today to private buyers.
    • Nowadays though, more and more galleries of works owned by private collectors are opening to the public.
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Nobody who’s active in the art market escapes unscathed in a provocative book published recently in Germany.

The work, entitled “Money Devours Art – Art Devours Money,” by Markus Metz and Georg Seeßlen, pillories auctioneers and gallerists, along with artists, collectors, advisors and the media.

The authors argue that the enormous prices paid by the super-rich in the auction halls of Christie’s and Sotheby’s are the sign of a crisis between art and society.

The authors argue that the question “What is art?” has mutated into “What does art cost and who does it belong to?”

In the lively, counter-cultural jargon of the late sixties, Mr. Metz and Mr. Seeßlen argue that art has become subject to new despots: “the interests of a global oligarchy, financial capitalism, the spectacle-promoting strategies of media culture and interconnections between politics, economics and culture in post-democracy.”

The authors examine how high-priced art becomes a fetish or trophy, and how its reflection in the media turns it into a carnival for a fun-loving society. “The essence of art in neoliberalism is its increase in economic value and its social devaluation.”

Art, they suggest, is nothing more than an expensive pleasure or a form of tax-dodging.

“Without dissidence, there is no freedom. Dissidence is a criterion for the freedom of art.”

Markus Metz and Georg Seeßlen, Authors

Some of their allegations are true, such as that: “Art is something that goes beyond what market, discourse and spectacle allow through to the public.” And it is also correct that museums which lack a budget for acquisitions now cede to private collectors the role of defining what constitutes pioneering art of our times. Museums sacrifice their objectivity to the subjective taste of the collecting caste.

The authors assert that today’s art market is an instrument of capitalism to annihilate the dissident power of art. “But without dissidence, there is no freedom. Dissidence is a criterion for the freedom of art,” they write.

The authors call for a new “political economy of art.” But it remains fundamentally unclear how these socialist, anarchist and syndicalist characteristics could assert themselves against the predominance of supply and demand.

Mr. Metz and Mr. Seeßlen wish for more relevant art in public spaces, for participatory solidarity and more self-organization, it seems. In a Handelsblatt interview long ago, Mr. Seeßlen said that up to now, the ideal dialectical relationship between social movement and art has only ever once been realized during the years before the March Revolution in 1848.

The authors suggest that readers visit art libraries as a way out of the fetishization of excessively expensive masterworks. But how far is this possible? Nowadays, younger collectors tend more towards their own collections of photographic art rather than borrowing works from a communal stock of art.

Although this book brings together many interesting observations, the blatant generalizations are annoying. Artists and gallerists are largely individualists. And how can art’s claim to universitality be reconciled with the fact that they are calling on egomaniacs to organize a “democratic market”?

Nor are collectors all the same. The writers say that the great moral problem of art is no longer its contents, but its distribution. They assert that art in the hands of neoliberal elites is a means to “get rid of society.” But consider the fact that there is currently a boom in the number of private museums that are also accessible to the public. And not all collectors succumb to the sparkle of superficial art; think of exceptions such as Ingvild Goetz, Harald Falckenberg and Wilhelm Schürmann, to name a few.

This book is a stimulating read, offering interesting ideas to all kinds of readers. In Handelsblatt, we want to look at both the work of art and its price; after all, art history has long stayed silent about the equivalent value of art.

 

Susanne Schreiber heads up the art market desk for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: schreiber@handelsblatt.com

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