Devaluation

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Abstract

Over the course of the 20th century the market for contemporary art has emerged to dominate perceptions and discussions of art’s value. This is not to say that perceptions of value in the arts have not been subject to the impact of the taste-shaping and judgment exercised through commercial practices in previous centuries, but today art’s market provides a fulcrum for debate like never before. This is in part due to our ability to access limited information on art’s global trade and its mechanisms, and partly due to the industrialization of the production of art through the proliferation of art education and exhibition. The art market has become dominant in two ways: firstly by the production of a spectacular narrative of financial value in the arts, in which a very small minority of artists have their work traded for high profile sums of money; and secondly by trading in such a way as to disguise the financial exchanges of the market with a very different narrative in which trade is a word that is subsumed under a widely accepted ethos of art’s value being conceptually priceless. This contradiction between price and value is significant and unique to art inasmuch as it is the most abstracted and least industrialisable of luxury goods.

This essay will claim that core to art´s market is the condition of value itself. I will argue that, whilst transparency of political and economic transaction in the market would go some way to exposing unevenness of financial distribution and thus the production of inequality between the many actors that make the market – artists, curators, dealers, collectors, museum and gallery directors, state funders, private patrons etc., – it is the broader and historically shaped condition of value that in fact produces the habits, mythologies and rituals that in turn make the market itself. My argument will be that instead of trying to find alternative values through different aesthetic and social arrangements, we need to turn to radical forms of devaluation in order to reposition art´s work within its social context (and confront the fact that art might not have a role within any such scene). The argument will begin with an equivalence to devaluation in recent political-philosophical discussions of dispossession, it will then proceed to describe the concept of value in sociological terms, analyse the processes (and ambivalences) of art valuation mechanisms before beginning to open up the idea of devaluation and its potential impact on contemporary art.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPARSE
Volume1
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2015

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