Masterpieces Without Qualities
Oleg Aronson

For some time now, art has acted as a public institution living at the expense of the public, not at the expense of royal commissions or patronage. It is the public, which pays for the spectacle and the work, that has become an important factor in the development of relations between art and the market.

In parallel with the transformation of art becoming a commodity—the price and value of which are hard to distinguish—there has been a process of sacralizing art, wherein the price of art is hardly representative (“masterpieces are priceless”). I think that the role of the market has been underestimated—with the veneration of important artists and their work having come to replace religious faith and museums having been transformed into temples of the secular world. While an icon’s source of not traded energy resides in faith, it is price that imbues a painting with energy.

In the capitalist world, price is an indicator of popularity. Price is what allows discrimination between mass and elite art. While mass art has persisted because of a continuing increase in sales, elite art has stayed afloat due to the prices of masterpieces going off the charts.

Neither the value of art nor the notion of value itself is self-apparent. Today if we ask ourselves: “When did the values appear?”, we’d have to admit that some time ago Nietzsche asked a similar question: “Who created our values?”. The latter implied these values’ transience and susceptibility to manipulation.
The domination of finance capital allows for the market for contemporary art—for art without qualities. While completely emptied artworks search for buyers, financial capital sees in them a noinflationary currency (“masterpieces are priceless”).

It is not the artwork that is important, but the speed of transaction. Contemporary art, with its immateriality, fits this perfect- ly. Money, which is no less abstract, is not that suitable, since money is incapable of assigning value or even a luxurious quality to an insignificant object.

Another important trait shared by artworks and money is trust. The economist Philip Goodchild draws attention to the close connection between art and trust-based relationships—a phenomenon, which, he believes, has replaced religious faith. We place confidence in banknotes, despite knowing that money is worthless and can quickly depreciate. No matter how much people doubt, they are still forced to engage in these relationships in which the line between deception and truth is indistinguishable. Money and contemporary art are the factors that contribute to this indiscernibility.

DI # 4-2018

September 13, 2018