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




Money for Nothing?

Financial analysts viewed the world of contemporary art with suspicion for a long time and for precise reasons. While “objective” appraisals of risk and expected yield could be carried out on the basis of known and observable variables for other financial activities, all this appeared to be impossible in the case of artworks, especially those too recent to have gone through a process of sedimentation capable of establishing their position and importance in the history of art to any real extent. As we know, however, financial analysts have hit a rough patch and, by a supreme twist of irony, on the same day as Lehman Brothers went broke and ushered in one of the most complex and dangerous spells of financial turbulence since the Great Depression, a record-breaking auction devoted exclusively to 223 “early” works by Damien Hirst netted a total of about £112 million. The positions thus seem to be reversed and contemporary art almost appears to have acquired the status of a safe haven for investment. To what do we owe this unusual financial solidity of contemporary art, something almost unimaginable until a few years ago? In a certain sense, it is due to the fact that there has been a radical change in the “fundamentals” through which an objective basis of value is established.

In order to understand how this has come about, we must take a look at a new field of study known as behavioural economics, which has seen enormous development than in the last few years, not least because of the Nobel Prize awarded to one of its founding fathers. Ironically enough once again, this is not an economist but the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Traditional economic theory suggests that in order to understand how markets work and how they produce economic value, we must imagine that the agents involved are fully rational individuals endowed with great powers of intellect and capable of making the most effective use of all the information available so as to carry out advantageous operations and undertakings. The question that immediately springs to mind is why this should be so. And the answer is because those incapable of making the most effective use of the information available and/or not endowed with sufficient powers of intellect and observation would soon make such losses as to go out of business and be forced out of the market. In other words, it is based on a sort of crude evolutionistic argument of the following type: all the animal species that we observe at a particular time in an ecosystem must be endowed with a high degree of reproductive capacity because otherwise they would have already been eliminated by natural selection.

The reality appears to be slightly more complicated. Without even going into the above-mentioned recent events in the economic and financial news, where there is indeed little trace of all this Apollonian rationality, consideration of the staggering amount of experimental data obtained over the last few years by behavioural economics is sufficient by itself to show that human beings think, decide and act in deeply irrational ways that are, however, not arbitrary but based on very precise rules and processes. Evolution appears to be far more complex and less crude than many economists would like to believe. Among the many aspects of this as yet little-known world, which may sound somewhat paradoxical given that the uncharted territory is ultimately inside our heads, there are some of particularly interest if we are to understand how and why art is becoming such a valuable commodity in our economy and our society, and why this is happening now rather than, say, twenty, thirty or fifty years ago.

Fifty years ago, the western economies were still embedded in what we can retrospectively describe today as the industrial age: a world in which well-being was still essentially linked to the availability of goods and services meeting extremely precise needs common to the vast majority of human beings, such as varied food of good quality, a home providing a minimum level of comfort, a wardrobe offering some possibility of choice and a basic level of education and health services. Though already infinitely richer and more complex as regards choices and opportunities than any previous pre-industrial or indeed industrial society, the world of the post-war period now strikes us as extremely simple and static by comparison with the present day: few products, a slower pace of life, limited and fairly unobtrusive advertising, and strongly standardized models of social behaviour. The difference with respect to our deeply and fully post-industrial society is staggering. For us today, after fifty years of very fast evolution in both economic and socio-cultural terms, the levels of well-being that were once goals aspired to by the majority of people are simply taken for granted, and failure to achieve them is quite unthinkable (even though the meaning of what is understood by “good” food or “good” education has obviously changed in the meantime). What has instead become a crucial element in our “pursuit of happiness” is something that was once not even regarded as the object of a possible decision, namely the model of identity that we endeavour to construct in order to tell ourselves and others about us.

Identity is subjected to strong constraints in an industrial society and the cost to the individual of deviation from the standards generally accepted can be very high, as documented for example by the vast body of literature and films on rebellious youth in the 1950s and 1960s. In an industrial society, economic value is generated by the efficient functioning of a system organized to produce standardized goods and services in huge amounts so as to ensure their availability and affordability for all. Models of behaviour that challenge the established order are therefore a threat to collective well-being and must be kept under control as much as possible.

In a post-industrial society, well-being is linked on the contrary to radical creativity and innovation. Forms of behaviour once considered deviant and hence dangerous are now the breeding ground for what creates value more than anything else. As a result, experimentation with new possibilities lies at the centre of a mechanism of increasingly strong social pressure and selection. Among other things, this leads in turn to ever-greater difficulty in persuading the young to embark on professional careers of the conventional type, which are considered undesirable or even disadvantageous in that the corresponding models of identity are too banal and predictable and hence reap little reward in terms of social recognition. In a post-industrial society, it is the creation of an original model of identity capable of arousing the curiosity and admiration of others the becomes the primary goal of well-being. What is most interesting is the fact that the way in which we are made – the way in which we perceive, think, decide and act – seems to be designed specifically in order to enhance these new social dynamics far more than was ever possible in the previous phases of our social, economic and cultural history.

Particular interest attaches for our purposes to recent findings in the field of behavioural economics as regards the effect of expectations and the need of identification. In the first case, a series of experiments have shown that sensory response to a given stimulus (such as the pleasure associated with a particular type of beer or soft drink) hinges crucially on whether the subject is told in advance which brand of beer or beverage it is. The cerebral areas activated differ completely in relation to whether this information is known before drinking. As a result, the sensory experience will also be completely different. If we are told that we are to be given a beer or soft drink that we like particularly, our brain reacts to the information by anticipating an enjoyable experience and therefore triggering cerebral areas in ways that will confirm the experience of pleasure. In the second case, it has been observed that when a certain number of people seated at a table in a restaurant are asked to order out loud, there is a tendency not only for choices to be influenced considerably by the orders already made but also for this to take place in line with the prevailing social orientation.

In an individualistic society like the USA, for example, the people who order last tend to opt for dishes that no one else has chosen even if they do not like them as much as dishes already ordered by others. The aim is to demonstrate the uniqueness of their personality and strengthen their position with respect to others in terms of identity. In eastern societies favouring conformist attitudes, on the contrary, people tend to choose what the others have already ordered regardless of their real personal tastes so as to avoid showing any unpleasant divergence from the common orientation. While some might observe that this was already true of the most anti-individualistic eastern societies in the past, the point is that such attitudes were not a matter of choice but the only possible option. Now they are, and to an ever-greater degree, and this is what makes conformism far more expressive and meaningful than it was in the traditional context.

In a post-industrial society, being is being perceived both by oneself and by others. The primary problem of well-being is to associate ourselves with spheres of meaning corresponding to our identity strategy. This changes not only the perception others have of us but also our self-perception, since the categories of meaning that we make our own come in turn to filter and confer meaning and value on all subsequent experiences. Our strategy of meaning construction is therefore essentially path-dependent, with each successive step acting as a complex constraint on those that follow.

Why should contemporary art have taken on so much value in post-industrial society? The reason is comparatively simple in the light of the previous considerations. Contemporary art is one of most powerful and recognized generators of meaning existing today in the modern post-industrial societies. Because of the behavioural mechanisms outlined above and many others that cannot be illustrated and discussed here – mechanisms that are deeply embedded in our nature and that function to a great extent, paradoxically enough, even if we do become aware of them – the perception of value in a society that allows individuals to shape their own models of identity ends up depending essentially on systems of meaning associated with certain experiences or choices. On the one hand, what counts is no longer what we like but what we must like if the image that others construct of us is to be in line with the identity we wish to project. On the other, the very perception of what we like largely depends on meanings that we have already interiorized and validated in defining to ourselves who we are and what we want to be. As pointed out, every new experience is “filtered” by the categories of value that we have previously constructed and assessed accordingly.

In a society of this type, being able to produce meaning in an effective and credible way means being at the very root of the social processes of value generation. Contemporary art is in precisely this position today. Unlike other forms of cultural production enabled by technology to multiply the possibilities for the reproduction, circulation and manipulation of individual products and hence opening up to increasingly participative and democratic (and hence also widespread and non-hierarchical) forms of meaning generation, the nature of the contemporary artwork as a scarce and selective object is accentuated increasingly over time. While it is open to the contemplation of many through limitless reproduction, this does not destroy its aura, contrary to what Benjamin thought, but rather amplifies it out of all proportion to the benefit of the few, fortunate owners. The artwork is exhibited in a museum, gallery or prestigious private residence, where its presence generates an atmosphere wholly comparable to the sacrality associated with places of religious worship, and in actual fact far stronger in many social environments today. The work presents itself as a source of meaning whose enigmatic character enhances its charisma enormously instead of weakening it. The detachment of the value of contemporary art from economic and financial trends witnessed in the last few months simply reflects and acknowledges the new state of affairs. The ability to generate meaning has become a crucial variable as regards the creation of value, far more so than the expectation of future dividends associated with particular shares. The markets are being culturalized, so to speak.

It is no coincidence that the boom on contemporary art markets is clearly associated with the enthusiasm of buyers who are mostly from countries and societies that are only now taking their place on the stage of the world economy and hence eager to establish their position in the post-industrial arena also in terms of identity. For such people, who enjoy practically unlimited purchasing power but come from societies where the pressures of traditional culture and the constraints on the development of an autonomous identity strategy are still very strong, the possibility of owning such a powerful and universal recognized generator of meaning as the work of one of the international superstars of contemporary art is literally something to be pursued at all costs.

The unsophisticated and down-to-earth wonder how anyone could be willing to pay millions of euros for a tank containing a shark in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, a gigantic poodle by Jeff Koons or a kneeling Hitler waxwork by Maurizio Cattelan. This ingenuous amazement is, however, the result of old mental habits. It is assumed that money establishes the value of what is seen, namely the object, but what is really being bought is what is not seen, namely the object’s capacity to reverberate endlessly – above all through extraordinarily complex channels of the unconscious – in the perceptions, choices and behaviour of millions of people. It is creative finance that dispenses money for nothing today. In the case of art, money literally makes it possible to buy the unthinkable.




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