Art's value

by Rob Horning

26 April 2006


Art critic Dave Hickey has some tonic things to say about the market for art in Air Guitar, but he comes across sounding like the Milton Friedman of the art world as he insists that “institutional” public-sponsored art is always perverted by the lack of incentives in the bureaucrats involved, who in Hickeys opinion risk nothing of their own in making the “bets” on art they make. For Hickey—and here’s where I agree with him wholeheartedly—the value of art lies not in some intrinsic quality of the work itself but in what Hickey calls the “constituencies” they generate, that is, the people who keep the work current and in discussion by investing time and money into it, into circulating it, distributing it, understanding it and so on. Artworks are “frivolous objects or entities with no intrinsic value that acquire value only through a complex process of socialization during which some are empowered by an ongoing sequence of private, mercantile, journalistic and institutional investments that are irrevocably extrinsic to them and any intention they might embody.” A work is not good because the artist loves beauty or wants to save the world or has a cutting critique of bourgeois subjectivism; a work is good because more and more people develop an interest in keeping it alive in the world. Art is a means by which a social discussion is conducted about what we value as beautiful and useless, for its own sake—a referendum on Adolf Loos’s detested ornament.

Works can thus fail they way businesses do, though not by failing to make a profit; the art world equivalent is a work’s “failing to sustain a visible level of commitment and socialization.” Hickey thinks failed works—unloved, unheralded—masquerade as successful ones thanks to the efforts of bureaucrats involved with publicly-funded art, who stifle change and recognition of failure to preserve their own power to patronize. In Hickey’s essays these “bean counters” are generally the forces of evil, the people who hate life, those who do things for phony reasons and sap the vitality from all creative endeavor to preserve the status quo. He wants it both ways really, wants to praise the democratic virtues of regular Joes, and see art’s value arbitrated by the marketplace of public opinion. But these same regular Joes are often the bureaucrats, the status-quo-loving status seekers, the “looky-loos” who have no judgment of their own and rely on institutions to tell them things are worth their time. Hickey divides the world into these spectators and “participants”—an exalted species of true artist, outsiders who truly invest themselves in making and doing things for their own sake in the face of established authority, who get by on their wits instead of taking jobs from the institutions out to tame art. In a typical inversion, Hickey suggests artists “sell out” not by becoming popular, but by aspiring to become high art, to reach museums and establishment protection and critical prestige. If not for those patronage institutions, the best artists would need to live by their wits, make the proper market-demanded adjustments, be responsive to the demands of the consumer, and truly great art would have to become commercially successful instead of becoming decadent and insular in its sheltered world of bureaucratic support. If only the state would stop interfering with art, we’d see true efficiency! Art dealers would replace curators, and museums would be replaced by art stores, and art lovers would be forced to put their money where their mouth is, and we’d see who really cared about its value. Instead we are on a Hayekian Road to Philistinism. You get the sense that if Hickey had his way, you wouldn’t be allowed to be a free rider (that perpetual free-market economic bugaboo) in the world of art appreciation anymore thanks to the largess of some government bureaucrat. You couldn’t be an aesthetic freeloader anymore, benefiting from art welfare. You’d need your own skin in the art game. People with nothing to risk—money or social reputation or cultural capital—shouldn’t be thinking about art anyway, right? That’s what democracy really means, right?

“I have gradually come to distrust the very idea of high art in a democracy,” Hickey writes. “Democracies, I fear, must content themselves with commercial popular art that informs the culture and non-commercial academic art that critiques it.” This seems a perverse notion of democracy, that expels critique and limits the dreams of the best of its number to the highest aspirations of its least ambitious member. The reason why people like Adorno denounce popular art and call it culture-industry product is not because they in their elitism hate ordinary people and have a knee-jerk revulsion for anything that the masses like; it’s because they see that least-common-denominator product as an institutional imposition that reduces democratic people to “masses”. Such art, masquerading as democratic, actually betrays democracy. It produces the looky-loos Hickey resents. It discourages participation and presumes people will always prefer passivity as the road of least resistance. Commercial art, when it organizes itself as an industry, aspires to control its consumers, manage its customers, make their demands predictable. It leverages its control over the marketplace to force choices on consumers that are to the benefit of industry and the long-term planning it relies on to maximize profit. Adorno, et. al., accept that the market has the potential to be just another institution, like the academy or the state, when its incentives are manipulated to become another instrument of oppression.

The “participants” Hickey idealizes seek to evade all those oppressive institutions; that’s why artists don’t want to become “commercial.” TWhen they enter the market, they don’t embrace the market because it’s healthy or right or inevitable—in fact they subvert the market’s rationality, its very principles, by making it purposely inefficient, small-scale, unresponsive, unprofitable or barely profitable. They try to make the art business survive in a way no other business would; this is why they remain on the outside, on the fringe, in Hickey’s “underground empire” of commerce, of little bookstores and record shops and so on. They wage their own little war against the market by trying to adapt it to principles that don’t suit it, human principles that seek to invest value in the things they love rather than the things they can control and exploit.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

NYFF 2017: 'Mudbound'

// Notes from the Road

"Dee Rees’ churning and melodramatic epic follows two families in 1940s Mississippi, one black and one white, and the wars they fight abroad and at home.

READ the article