Response to ‘The Ethical Cost of High-Price Art’

Reading Professor Singer’s thoughtful post on Project Syndicate at 5am GMT, I felt compelled to address some of his points, and request clarification on others.  To declare my bias upfront, while I am not schooled in ethics or philosophy, I am a practicing artist, having previously spent twenty years as an emerging-markets derivatives trader, and am of Indian extraction, so feel somewhat qualified to comment.

To start with, Prof. Singer’s points on inequality, outrageous prices for art, and conspicuous consumption are excellent and timely.  It is undeniable that capitalism’s inherent tensions, and the failure of political elites to renew their legitimacy with electorates by effectively regulating the corporate (including financial) sector, threatens the post-war social democratic consensus (politically centrist, globalised, and market-orientated) that has prevented WWIII and lifted millions of people in the third-world out of poverty.  It is also the case that a significant portion of Modernist and Contemporary Art has taken as its subject matter the commenting upon, with a view presumably to correcting, various perceived social ills.  Lastly, there is also a considerable literature, including Kant, Benjamin, and Adorno, on aesthetics, the ‘special status’ of art, and the perils of commodifying aesthetic categories as if they were sacks of potatoes to be bought and sold.

My difficulty with the article, aside from the slightly moralistic tone as to what rich people should or shouldn’t do with their money, was threefold.  Firstly, I didn’t understand the bit about ‘they are not beautiful, nor do they display great artistic skill’.  This was a rather throwaway evaluation, without any persuasive backup, either on Prof. Singer’s subjective aesthetic judgement, or via reference to the copious existing literature on Barnett Newman.  Further, and strangely for an econo-geopolitical blog, was that Prof. Singer seemed to (largely) ignore the fact that art, whatever its special status or aesthetic merits, is also an asset, as pretty much everything in the world is.  That it can be bought and sold follows from it being an asset, as does the possibility that booms and busts may occur in any market for assets.  Thus, if we accept that Barnett Newman’s ‘most important’ works, say Onement I (1948), thought to be his breakthrough piece in the ‘zip’ series, have a certain market price, howsoever inflated, then a (very loosely-applied) version of arbitrage pricing should imply a price for his other works, on a relative value basis, even if they are not (apparently) as innovative.  Secondly, while uniqueness has value, other factors, such as provenance and decorative appeal, also impact valuation.  Bottom line, artworks are assets in a capitalist system, whether we like it or not, and their prices are sometimes hard to explain.

As an aside, I would also point out that Newman’s practice of doing a series of zip paintings is absolutely central to art-making, and some artists, such On Kawara, make their entire career of it – it’s not a simple failure of invention to make serial or sequential work.

A second point regards ‘the art market’s greatest strength is its ability to co-opt any radical demands that a work of art makes, and turn it into another consumer good for the super-rich’.  This, and similar comments I hear within the community of artists (the website Hyperallergic is a good reference), presupposes a monolithic, insatiable entity we call the market, which has malevolent intention.  Clearly there is no such thing, any more than there are such Cookie Monsters in the housing-market, the market for technology stocks, etc.  There are buyers, sellers, regulators, consumers, commentators, and a host of other people, including dodgy bankers and gallerists, who act within a system, and that system, in many of the cases above, is, perhaps, broadly incentivised to see prices rise.  The government, which, rightly so, taxes most transactions, is similarly incentivised.  So, if there is hypocrisy here, as Prof. Singer seems to suggest, it only has a little to do with artists, buyers, or sellers of art; rather the blame is diffusely spread indeed, and includes the critics, politicians, government exchequers, the media, a novelty-crazed public, and possibly might even implicate an art-education system that churns out ever-increasing numbers of artists, curators, and graphic designers every year.

Thirdly, the point about ‘spending time…with indigenous artists’ is vague in that it’s not obvious how buying one or a few artists’ work in, say Africa, would do anything other than give those few artists a little, or a lot of, money.  It could also, perhaps, be seen as a little patronising – many ‘developing countries’ have produced artefacts that are at least the aesthetic equals, and have often influenced more recent art (Cubism and African masks, for instance).

Fourthly, there is a sense in the Prof. Singer’s post, and in similar discourse, that the money that is spent on art, and perhaps consumption products generally, somehow is ‘wasted’, by which I understand, it ‘disappears’ and becomes unavailable for other, presumably better, uses.  Again, common sense tells us the money doesn’t disappear, it goes from buyer to seller, leaving aside any transaction taxes the government might take, which of course, become available for government sector spending in the national accounts.  So if the money doesn’t disappear, is there any a priori reason to assume that the new owner(s) of the money (the seller or sellers) is any more or less likely to spend it on worthy causes than the old owners of the money (the buyer or buyers)? I shouldn’t think so.

But my main concern is the view that artists and art collectors, or more broadly Arthur Danto’s ‘art-world’, has some obligation to correct the world’s ills.  As I’ve noted above, this is commonplace within (parts of) said art-world, but it’s not self-evident to me that social concern need be art’s only, or even main, concern.  People make, view and buy art for all kinds of reasons, and have done so since the Renaissance (or earlier); critics, gallerists, curators, and academics are also involved in art for all kinds of reasons, not least, to make a living.  Correcting social evils, such as lack of water or measles, is a laudable goal; it is something the wealthy can and do try to correct through charitable work and taxes; it is also something that can lend gravitas, relevance and urgency to artwork that would otherwise exist purely as a formal and material phenomenon.

But it does not follow that art buyers who spend their money on art are any more unethical than those who buy cars, houses, watches, and so forth, though of course the numbers, visual impact and media attention may be greater.  Art, if it’s anything at all so reducible, is a mirror of its society, and perhaps what is being registered in Prof. Singer’s post is a discomfort with contemporary consumer society and its excesses.  I’m not sure what an actionable proposal would be – roll back capitalism and globalisation, eliminate most consumer goods, get rid of the housing market, shut down most of the media, dramatically increase taxes on the wealthy, perhaps stopping just short of tarring and feathering the ‘rich bastards’ !  Most of which have less to do with art than a wholesale re-engineering of society.  May it be more successful in this century than in the last.

One thought on “Response to ‘The Ethical Cost of High-Price Art’

  1. You make a lot of strong points here; I only have a response to your last. Peter Singer’s actionable proposal seems clear: adjust our social norms by spreading the idea that spending vast sums of money on art is foolish. Social status is one of the motivations for owning such things; I agree with Singer that assigning status in this way does us no good, and it happens to be something that we can all influence.

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