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

Art, Price and Value

As we know, the last few decades have seen enormous expansion of the circuits devoted to contemporary art, which is increasingly taking shape as a fully-fledged economic system with its own rules and a network of different and highly specialized actors and operators. The art market is essentially defined and driven by the system of galleries, collectors and auction houses that contribute to the trade in works of art but also to their revaluation in terms of quality and hence of price. The turnover of this market at the international level is currently in the region of €20 billion a year.
As a result of entering a system of
social value and branding, contemporary art has not only acquired ever-greater importance within the sphere of the system of cultural reference but also become a real economic factor and area of investment, as shown by the exorbitant prices fetched at international auctions and the growing number of events, biennials, festivals, mega-exhibitions and extravaganzas attracting ever-larger numbers of visitors. Even the “value” attributed to a work of art is by now based almost exclusively on its economic success and hence its price. Given this situation, interest attaches to an examination of the relations between art and the economy and hence between art, price and value.

Ever since the 1980s, the power exercised by the economy in all the different political, social and cultural sectors has also involved the world of artistic production and worked increasingly to turn the relationship between the concept of value and the price of the work of art upside-down. Artists worked in the past in full awareness of a solid tradition that they sought to form part of with their creations. Recognition of the cultural (aesthetic and ethical) value and the metaphorical value attributed to the work in the cultural and social context within which it was perceived led to the determination of a possible price. The system of museums and art criticism played a central role in this relationship in that its mission was encapsulated and performed through the functions of studying, interpreting, presenting and preserving what was then defined as the “work of art”. In the same way, the creation of a collection hinged upon the importance possessed or being acquired by the individual works in a cultural context undergoing historicization. The ideal and metaphorical value of the work therefore also involved the collectivity.

As pointed out, however, the system has undergone a radical shift over the last twenty years. With its great vitality, the market has taken over from the museum, replacing its critical and cultural authority with the setting of prices and dealing directly with a variety of possible buyers eager to speculate on the possibility of a rise in the prices of works by young and not yet established artists. At this point, it is the market that creates value, which is, however, based not on parameters of cultural growth or aesthetic tradition but on the far more immediate consideration of price. A radical change has taken place in roles and functions. Museums are less able to buy works of art for their collections due to shortage of funds and thus fail to perform their fundamental role of building cultural identity and preserving historical memory for the community as a whole. Some artists have become entrepreneurs, turning out products aimed at an elite market of collectors who seem to be the key consumers, sometimes intent on buying art both as a further form of diversification in a highly volatile economy and as a cultural status symbol enabling them to enhance their social standing and prestige.

The principle of economic quantification has gradually become the yardstick used to measure every aspect of life, even interpersonal relationships. As
identified in symbolic and emblematic figures like the New York stockbroker and immortalized also in literature and film (e.g. Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, 1987), the invincible wheeler-dealer was set up about thirty years ago as sort of myth and archetype of the yuppie mentality of the 1980s. This image of success began to show the first cracks toward the end of the 1990s (as in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Les particules élémentaires, 1999) in a process leading to the complete implosion of the neo-liberalist system based on the principle of total deregulation currently taking place through lightning chain reactions on the global markets. It is legitimate at this point to ask how artists have reacted to all this, above all in relation to their public. While there has certainly been a range of different reactions, artists unquestionably continue to play the central role in the art system as a whole and to be recognized in virtue of their efforts to create works that express their vision of reality.
In addition to this, artists are also engaged in a personal struggle to obtain the funds needed in order to give their ideas concrete shape and to find both suitable institutions capable of presenting their work to the public and buyers able to set its value in financial terms. And then, as we have already pointed out, artists are also the fulcrum of a complex system made up of galleries that act as talent scouts, public and private institutions obliged by the shortage of funds to choose between niche and mass events, critics and journalists who analyze and circulate information on artistic strategies, and collectors who create market fluidity and demand enabling the artists to create new works, thus bringing the process full circle.

The expressive reaction of artists to the growth of the market thirty years ago was to challenge and violate aesthetic conventions so as to provoke the viewer’s moral sentiments and initiate a process calling into question the market system and what were regarded as false and hypocritical middle-class values.
A further break with the traditional idea of art, with the commercialization and conformism of ideas, was the introduction of the performance as a work of art. Joseph Beuys put forward the concept of the expanded work of art, in which politics and society itself were to be moulded in order to produce change, as early as the 1960s, while Andy Warhol took the opposite approach with his extreme populism and created a parallel system celebrating the principles of the consumer society, and turned himself into a brand name.

With the rapid spread of means of mass communication, the strategy of shocking and provoking the spectator became one of those used most frequently by artists, thus following the trail already blazed by the historical avant-garde movements and the initial glorification of “technical reproducibility” launched by Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists. Nothing now seems capable of causing any real scandal in the mass culture, however, because society is ready to absorb it as a novelty for transformation into product, spectacle and symbol of lifestyle.

In point of fact, many artists today find it wholly natural to work and create solid synergies with the industries of fashion, cinema and pop music as an integral part of a global jet set that has developed the habit of consuming art as an extreme and sometimes incomprehensible object of desire. In compliance with the principles of a capitalist society that recognizes monetary value as an indicator of absolute value, artists have become economic agents both of their image – the brand they represent – and of the constant stream of new products to be deftly introduced into a system of market and prices. In a society of consumption and ephemera, the value of a product must be constructed. The price and success of an artwork are created by a set of factors including the artist’s social reputation, the importance of the gallery representing him or her and, last but not least, the quality of the work itself. Even artists from completely different backgrounds are brought into competition with one another because they are obliged to use a universally comprehensible and marketable language often characterized by elements of spectacle and aesthetic conformism. Hence the proliferation of Pop-style iconographic references to consumer goods: precious stones set in skulls, gigantic and brightly coloured monsters drawn from the world of Japanese manga comics, anthropomorphic sculptures so hyper-realistic as to seem alive, and so on.

These superstars of the art system are unquestionably able to create works of undisputed technical and aesthetic quality that are intriguing and conceptually intelligent. At the same time, however, we cannot fail to note that they bear witness to complete and utter disillusionment with the traditional foundation underpinning the values of art, namely the idea of its autonomy and the myth of artist as genius. These great manipulators of the art market have assimilated the teachings of Andy
Warhol, defining the artist as a brand name and manufacturer of products aimed at a consumer society and developing a sophisticated marketing strategy that now constitutes the very core of the work itself and can no longer be separated from it.

As demonstrated also by the works of the twenty-one artists involved in the show ‘Art, Price and Value’, the expressive reactions and conceptual stances run the whole gamut from compliance with the market principles currently in force to irony and sarcasm culminating in a sort of “anti-approach” seeking to break away and escape from the commercial aspects of the process of artistic production.
Having assimilated Warhol’s approach more than most in a certain sense, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami have succeeded with their talent and intelligence in manipulating the market themselves Hirst sells works of sophisticated conceptualism for astronomical sums and managed in the 1990s to create a fashionable London restaurant called the Pharmacy, whose furnishings fetched prices far in excess of expectations when they were auctioned at a huge profit by Sotheby’s after the business went into decline. While Murakami appropriates the Louis Vuitton logo as a metaphor of the object of desire, the industry of luxury goods increases the value its products through the work of the artist, who creates limited editions that in turn attain the fetish-like status of artworks.
At the other extreme we find artists like Michael Landy and Bethan Huws, who express deep rejection of the idea of art as a consumer good while differing in terms of aesthetic and formal approach. A member of the highly successful generation of Young British Artists, Michael Landy adopts a very radical stance of opposition to market-oriented hyper-productivity. Documented on video, Break Down is an act of nihilism and destruction in which all of his material belongings, including personal objects, car and works of art, are broken down and fed into shredding and grinding machines on a conveyor belt. Bethan Huws takes a far more minimalist approach with a simple “word vetrine” or notice board with a message in white letters asking viewers what sense it has to offer them new artworks if they have not understood the ones they already have. The question is addressed not only to the general public but also to omnivorous collectors who persist in buying conceptual works that they probably do not understand. With attitudes and operative procedures ranging from irony and sarcasm to games, staged scenarios, paradox and contradiction, all the other artists featured in the exhibition can be regarded as situated between these two poles.
Dan Perjovschi’s cartoon-style wall drawings scathingly pinpoint individual aspects of the world of art, highlighting the system’s inherent contradictions. In the same ironic spirit, Pablo Helguera presents a manual of contemporary art style with rules of etiquette for those involved in the cultural system. Christian Jankowski’s farcical video Kunstmarkt TV (Art Market TV) presents authentic shopping-channel hosts selling works by famous contemporary artists. Aernout Mik’s almost theatrical video installation presents the visitor with a fictional scene representing the paper-strewn trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange at the end of the day with brokers wandering about like survivors after a meltdown of the economic process. Atelier Van Lieshout invents an entire city of the future in Slave City, an urban project with various places of work and gathering, the metaphor of a pessimistic vision of human existence entirely devoted to the maximization of production processes.
Marc Bijl addresses the word encapsulating the capitalist principle based on the idea of the freedom of the individual with great immediacy and concision. In actual fact, the work highlights the great contradiction of this word, which has to be made up of different elements in order to be read just as the sought-after “uniqueness” of the individual can only be expressed through the consumption of industrial articles that are mass produced and hence cannot deliver the promised individuality. In an again symbolic but at the same time ironic sense, Eva Grubinger presents an authentic board game with all the figures of the art system – from the museum director and curator to the art critic and collector – serving as pieces in a sort of Monopoly.
Value and the concept of money, currency and shares are the subjects addressed both by Claude Closky, whose wallpaper elevates data from NASDAQ transactions to the aesthetic and decorative plane, and by Fabio Cifariello Ciardi with his visual and sonic representation of fluctuations in NASDAQ share prices and the shares of Sotheby’s auction house. Cesare Pietroiusti also addresses the value of money and banknotes, which are manipulated and exhibited like fetishes to be picked up and taken home. Wilfredo Prieto makes the value of a dollar bill virtual by reproducing it a million times with mirrors and then setting $1 million as its real price and hence value. Antoni Muntadas instead makes the sum of $1,000 disappear through constant conversion from one currency to another, thus producing to a total transformation of the amount that creates profit only for the banks involved.
Luchezar Bojadjiev also develops a critical analysis of the all-devouring system based on personal experience, combining precise accusations against museums and various leading cultural figures with reflections on what the role of the artist is and should be in the economic system of art as a whole.
Josh On’ss website www.theyrule.net provides a glimpse of relations within the US ruling class by making it possible to create maps of the interlocking boards of directors of the country’s top private and public companies. The common interests and enormous profits existing in the world economic and political system are thus revealed. Denis Darzaq photographs urban dancers as they perform floating, acrobatic movements in the aisles of supermarkets crammed with products, their images captured and suspended in space but also in time. Marco Brambilla also addresses the supermarket aesthetic with a video shot in an American mall, seen as the modern temple of our consumer society. Subjected to post-production processing in its various elements, the video seems to recreate the atmosphere of the great Gothic cathedrals. Thomas Locher instead presents thought-provoking paintings made up of ideas formulated by Karl Marx in Capital. The phrases reflect on the relationship between the object of consumption and its ideal and attributed values, which are juxtaposed with an expressive gestural approach typical of the artist’s unique genius.

Invited by the CCCS to act as joint curator of the exhibition ‘Art, Price and Value’, the author Piroschka Dossi has played a crucial role in the identification and analysis of these different stances with respect to the complex relations between the economic system and the rules of the art market. In her book Hype! Kunst und Geld (2007), she draws on her background in law, economics and art history to examine the individual constituent elements and underlying principles of a system whereby the work of art is an object of desire and a marketable product for a niche public at the same time. The CCCS (Strozzina Centre of Contemporary Culture) and the IUAV (Venice School of Architecture) are jointly responsible for producing the Italian edition published by Silvana Editoriale and which will be introduced to the Italian public in occasion of the opening of the exhibition “Art, Price and Value”. The book examines the development of the relationship between artist, work of art and viewer since the Renaissance and provides a detailed analysis of how the present-day art system operates in financial terms.

As for all CCCS exhibition projects, “Art, Price and Value” will be accompanied by a bilingual (Italian/English) catalogue published by Silvana Editoriale in which all the art works will be documented along with essays written by experts in the field: To contribute with great depth of analysis and diversity of approach to an understanding at various levels of the phenomenon of the art market and economy the CCCS has invited Boris Groys (professor of Aesthetics, Art History, and Media Theory, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, University of Karlsruhe), Pier Luigi Sacco (professor of Economy of Culture, IUAV, Venice), Julian Stallabrass (reader in modern and contemporary art, Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and Wolfgang Ullrich (professor of art history and media theory, University of Karlsruhe). The project will also be complemented by a lecture programme to stimulate an interdisciplinary debate on the topics addressed by the show and for which the CCCS has invited Clarice Pecori Giraldi (director of Christie’s Italy), Guido Guerzoni (author, researcher in History of Economy and associate professor at the University Bocconi in Milan), Cesare Pietroiusti (artist and lecturer at the IUAV in Venice) and Michele Dantini (artist, art critic and lecturer for contemporary art history at the Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale) to engage in presentations and discussions with the public every Thursday evening. Further more the CCCS with its art mediation team has developed a large programme of workshops and dialogue based events, offering on a regular basis so called “Focus on artists” where the public is invited to actively engage in a critical debate on specific topics chosen as focus point with the art mediators.

The curatorial orientation that has already characterized the exhibitions held by the CCCS during its first year of activity and will continue to predominate in its future programmes is in fact based on the selection and presentation of a series of projects that address themes and phenomena of importance not only for the history of contemporary art but also for a deep understanding of our culture and the society in which we live. In choosing to call itself a centre of contemporary culture rather than contemporary art, the CCCS wished to highlight a specific difference in approach that can be seen as embracing a broader viewpoint of multidisciplinary character, which may indeed be the only way to attempt an interpretation of the contemporary world. The CCCS seeks in fact to offer a sort of platform open to the whole variety of approaches and practices that characterize the production of art and culture today. This openness is also to be understood in the sense that its cultural mediation will not be aimed at developing just one interpretation but at stimulating the culture of critical debate and a reading of the manifold and multiform layers making up the complex and sometimes apparently contradictory reality in which we live.


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