How does the abstract art market work?

Finally explainedIs art just a commodity today?

If one took Karl Marx as a yardstick, then art would be a good example of what Marx understood as the basic characteristic of capitalism - namely that the abstract exchange value of a thing exceeds its use value. After all, we don't really see art as a commodity: it doesn't have a clearly defined use. Thus capital is reified in it.

Alternative investment

And in fact we have been seeing for some time on the highly speculative market, especially for contemporary art, that the acquisition of high-priced art has developed into an alternative business for stocks and other traditional investments. Art is suitable for trading in symbols of prestige, economic potency, or cultural superiority. On the other hand, the art and auction market with its double and triple-digit million prices is only a small part of the art market. The vast majority of works of art go to new owners for one or two-digit thousand euros, some even for less. Here, too, money is paid for art, and in this sense, art is a commodity here too, not least because artists have to live off something.

The real commodity

Perhaps it is precisely this myth of clear criteria for artistic quality or perhaps it is the ideals of truthfulness and beauty that fuel the art business. The "product art" also contains the promise to be able to participate directly in a secret of art, a possible hidden truth through the physical possession of such a mysterious art object.

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Pointing beyond yourself

The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno did not want to give up the idea of ​​humanity and the freedom of art entirely. He speaks of the Janus-faced nature of art, which is at the same time a consumer product, dependent on consumer fashions, produced by a culture industry, but which at the same time also arises from the artist's autonomy from a distance to these mechanisms and takes humanity itself into account. But of course you can turn this argument around and say: This is precisely why art is attractive as a commodity, because it makes us believe that it is actually more than just a commodity.

Live from art

What was it like in times when it was different? In which art has thus met the high ideal of aesthetic truthfulness without any financial calculation? You don't have to go back in time to do this. For example, I've often seen the situation where visitors to actions by young artists who they may not see as art say: "And they'll get a lot of money for the nonsense!" But the nonsense is of course the suspicion that artists swim in money. Most of them cannot make a living from their art, so they certainly do not do it for the money. Incidentally, you can see that during the corona crisis everywhere very well that many are concerned with bare existence. Quite a few, even successful ones, suffer from the rather arbitrary rules of the art market. In the popular opinion, artists are identified with the art trade and the wealth of some collectors rather hastily. The role models for this are then provided by art market stars such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons.

Romantic art ideal

The idealism of art around 1800 was apparently much larger than the market calculation. But of course art was already being sold back then. At that time, the art market was even considered something that strengthens artist autonomy, because artists could market themselves - without intermediary academies or salons. In return, other dependencies arose.

The difference to today is that on the one hand these ideals of art are considered to be distant and obsolete, but on the other hand they still work secretly as criteria for art. Without these romantic criteria, the art market and speculation on the increase in the value of art would no longer function today either. And on this basic contradiction is the very speculation that sees art only as an investment. Despite all the justified criticism, this is more the game of a few, and that easily clouds the view that today there are no longer any uniform concepts of aesthetics or art.