James Bradburne
Franziska Nori
Piroschka Dossi
Pier Luigi Sacco
Wolfgang Ullrich
Julian Stallabrass
Boris Groys

Contemporary art and the market

Works of art, which represent the highest level of spiritual production, will find favour in the eyes of the bourgeois society only, if they are presented as being liable to directly generate material wealth.

Karl Marx, philosopher


The global triumph of capitalism in the 21st century, which is about to transform not only single societies but the whole world order, is changing contemporary art as well. Yet capitalism is nothing new. It has deep historical roots dating back to the merchant capitalism of the early 17th century when the English East India Company sent their first risky expeditions to the East Indies to buy peppers, cloves and nutmegs and sell them in Europe with huge profits. Their methods of raising money - and of today’s corporate and financial capitalism – can be traced back to Genoa and Venice of the 12th century. (1)

Capitalism is essentially about investing capital in order to make a monetary profit in the future. It is what the economist Robert Heilbroner described as „the continuous transformation of capital-as-money into capital-as-commodities, followed by a retransformation of capital-as-commodities into capital-as-money“. Its capacity to call envisioned possibilities into existence through money – which in turn seems endlessly multipliable – lends capitalism a transcendent quality. Markets are central to capitalism. They mediate all economic activities such as production and consumption, supply and demand, and constitute the central price mechanism. Since prices change, any market represents a potential playground for speculation. Speculation occurs if something is bought in the expectation of selling it, without increasing its value, at a higher price in the future. It can arise in connection with almost any commodity, may it be wheat, a currency, a derivative - or art.


Capitalism transformed not only the world but has itself been transformed as well. Presently we find ourselves in an era of its development which started with a revival of the market forces in the 1980s, based on so-called neoliberal beliefs in the freedom of the individual and the free operation of market forces. This provides more freedom and greater choice for the individual, but creates simultaneously more individual risk and greater economic inequality. It is this market system that pervades also the entire process of value creation from production to marketing to adoption of contemporary art. It influences the careers of artists, the prices for their artwork and even the language of art. In the last four decades the market for contemporary art has undergone a fundamental overhaul from a closed circle of aficionados to an industrialized market. This market is catering the tastes of a growing number of so-called High Net Worth Individuals from Europe, the USA, and the rising economic powers such as Brasil, Russia, India, China and the United Arab Emirates, who are pursuing an increasingly globalized life style. The restructuring of the art market started during the 1960s with the expansion of the major auction houses. A milestone in their policy of opening the world of art to the newly rich was the introduction of the Times-Sothebys Art Index which visualized the price movements of art objects. It was a first step towards a redefinition of art as an investment object. Meanwhile buying and selling art has become a social competition between wealthy collectors and a part of the art world has turned into a trading floor for speculation. Art Indexes and Art Rankings have become widely used instruments not only measuring attention as an indicator of success but also accelerating existing trends and reinforcing the tendency of the art market to concentrate income on a few star artists. The auction houses have enlarged their sphere of influence through acquisitions and mergers with major galleries for contemporary art and have become powerful players in the global art world. At the same time costly art fairs – the industry trade shows of the art world - have become the premier shopping malls for contemporary art and are surpassing auctions as major events for buyers. These developments have not been without consequences on how art is being marketed, perceived and consumed. The work of art has become a branded commodity, the value of which is defined increasingly in monetary terms. In an environment which is ultimately structured by purchasing power and not by perceptive sensitivity, aesthetic judgement or critical acclaim, the difference between art as a cultural good, a status symbol and an investment object, between artistic value und monetary price seems to evaporate.


The linkage between art and economy is nothing new. As an invisible undercurrent of the history of art the economy has always influenced art. Consequently any work of art may be read from an economic perspective. The art historian Michael Baxandall has shown that during the Italian Renaissance an economic factor such as the price agreement between patron and painter which included the use of expensive pigments influenced the making of the artwork. Similarly the economist Michael Montias has demonstrated that the prosperity in Holland during the Golden Age affected the art of that time. The explosion of demand forced artists to produce their paintings more rapidly which resulted in a more nonchalant style. The art historian Michael North in turn has argued that the erosion of knowledge on the side of the buyers of art led to a corresponding erosion of its content. Also economy itself was depicted in works of art throughout history. In 16th century Dutch painting moneychangers were a popular sujet. Early 20th century art thematized industrial production processes and machines. Contemporary art photographers such as Andreas Gursky aestheticize the locations of global capitalism from stock exchanges to supermarkets. Also money itself, the liquid media of the capitalistic machinery, has been a recurrent theme in the arts – from William Harnetts trompe l´oeil paintings of bank notes to Warhols screen prints of dollar bills, and those artists who designed their own currency.


Given the omnipresence of the market system and its often intransparent mechanisms, it is not surprising that today many artists thematize economic issues, which formerly would have been regarded as alien to art: of markets and money, of production and transformation, of consumption and possession, of credit and speculation, of price and value. The French art critic Paul Ardenne wrote: „The major concern of the epoch – the economy – is to today’s art what the nude, the landscape or the myth of the new had been formerly to neoclassicism, impressionism and the avantgarde ?...??.“ (2) Economy is a question of existence. For many artists it has become an issue of zeitgeist and an impulse for creativity.

The exhibition Art, Price and Value – Contemporary Art and the Market shows the manifold positions, which artists have developed in recent years between the poles of creative production and economic environment. They explore the omnipresent mechanisms of the capitalistic market as well as their impact on art and its worth. The artistic positions range from reflection, analysis and critique to appropriation, camouflage, revaluation, demontage and refusal. In developing unexpected perspectives, poetic images and alternative visions these artists deviate from the conventional ways in which economic knowledge is generated and transferred, be it academic research, media information or everyday experience. They create a subjective, playful and inspiring form of insight into the economic forces that determine our world and the world of art more than ever.


Among the artists from the 20th century who left the sphere of art „to venture into the forbidden domain of economics“ (3) are famous names such as Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys and Hans Haacke. Their objects and actions were not only playful comments on economic mechanisms but deep reflections on the ambiguous role of art in a world dominated by economic reasoning. In 1962 Yves Klein presented a conceptual work of art with the title Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity. He offered immaterial zones of his own „pictorial sensitivity“ in exchange for gold leaf. In a ceremony on the bank of the river Seine the purchaser gave Klein a gold leaf in return for a certificate. Since Klein's sensitivity was immaterial, the purchaser was then required to burn the certificate whereas Klein threw the gold leaf into the Seine. His poetic action aimed right into the heart of economic transaction and the meaning of art. Even though it showed all characteristics of a market exchange nothing material changed hands. The buyer acquired nothing but an immaterial idea. This paradoxical sale of something insaleable was the negation of art as a material object, which can be physically traded, owned and kept as a fetish. At the same time Andy Warhol, previously in the advertising business, embraced the idea of art as a commodity produced for a market. With his famous sentence „Good business is the best art“ he negated any difference between artist and entrepreneur, between works of art and a consumer goods, between the art world and the capital market. His factory-like production of branded commodity art suggested that the logic of the arts and that of the market was not only compatible but deeply consistent, thereby following a genuinely American definition of the role of the artist and the function of art in society.

The present exhibition unfolds between these two lines of thought. They have flourished in diverse ways, reflecting the socio-economic developments of the recent decades.


At the beginning of the avantgarde, art and economy were supposed to be separate realms with distinct value systems - one of them focusing on producing spiritual values, the other on generating monetary wealth. These previously hostile spheres seem to have merged into the hybrid structures of an economized culture and a culturalized economy. The culturalization of the economy started in the late 19th century with the rise of consumer capitalism. Its democratization of desire, its cult of the new, its focus on fashion and design tied innovation to the production of commodities, and brought to life an own aesthetic - a commercial culture – with the goal to move and sell goods in volume. (4) Since then consumer capitalism is creating images and symbols in the interest of marketing goods and making money - and in this sense it is operating with similar means as art does. Nevertheless one should not be led astray by a confusion of means and ends: the ultimate goal of economy is generating monetary profit. The ultimate goal of art is deepening the experience of our existence. As we know from corporate mergers such cultural differences do not unite seamlessly. The majority of corporate mergers either do not work or one corporate culture is conquering the other. Is the merger between economy and culture a merger between equals? Or is it the takeover of one value system by the other? Keeping in mind their differences it will remain worthwhile to keep an eye on further developments.


Fulcher, James: Capitalism, A Very Short Introduction, Oxford 2004

Ardenne, Paul: Economics Art, l´heure du bilan, in: Ecosystèmes du monde de l´art, artpress, hors série no. 22, 2001

Velthuis, Olav: Imaginery Economics, Contemporary Artists and the World of Big Money, Rotterdam 2005

Leach, William: Land of Desire, Merchants, Power and the Rise of a New American Culture, New York 1994

(1) Fulcher, James: Capitalism, p. 29

(2) Ardenne, Paul: Economics Art, l´heure du bilan, ip. 103

(3) Velthuis, Olav: Imaginery Economics, p. 23

(4) Leach, William: Land of Desire, p. 9


Luchezar Boyadjiev (BUL)
Marco Brambilla (I/USA)
Marc Bijl (NL)
Fabio Cifariello Ciardi (I)
Claude Closky (F)
Denis Darzacq (F)
Eva Grubinger (A)
Pablo Helguera (MX)
Damien Hirst (UK)
Bethan Huws (GB)
Christian Jankowski (D)
Atelier van Lieshout (NL)
Michael Landy (UK)
Thomas Locher (D)
Aernout Mik (NL)
Antoni Muntadas (E)
Takashi Murakami (J)
Josh On (CAN)
Dan Perjovschi (RUM)
Cesare Pietroiusti (I)
Wilfredo Prieto (CUB)

Palazzo Strozzi