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Why The Big Basquiat Sale Is Art’s Capitalist Apocalypse

An untitled painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold on May 15th for $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction. To which the only sensible response is – so what? Imagine for a moment that it was not a painting that had been purchased, but rather a yacht. Suddenly the interest, for most people, is gone – “billionaire purchases expensive yacht” is not an exciting or novel headline. And yet, most major publications covered the sale, and the headlines read more as salacious than boring – suggesting that people do truly find something interesting about the price of art (or editors believe that their readers care). In any event, the question at hand becomes – why is the price of art in itself a newsworthy item?

Art is an interesting commodity. It simultaneously reinforces and reacts against the pull of market ideology. A month ago, I wrote about the idea that art’s public purpose is that is has no purpose. That art, as opposed to “soy beans,” is a fundamentally useless product – it cannot be worn, eaten, used to kill, etc… but it is precisely because of this purposelessness, because of this opposition to social use, that autonomous art is so vital to a healthy society. In its uselessness it represents an alternative mode of living, an alternative to market ideology. Art shows us that not everything can be bought and sold, that not everything can be debased by a price tag, which is to say that there are some human experiences that retain their value outside of the domination of “productivity” and “use,” that the dignity of life extends beyond the workplace (which is unfortunately, now, everywhere).

But I must confess, I was perhaps being a bit glib – or rather, I was speaking in more idealistic terms. Yes, in an ideal world art becomes, and stays social by virtue of its remove from society, but we must acknowledge that ultimately, no matter how deeply art affects us, no matter the anti-capitalist stance of significant portions of the art world, art is still a commodity and therefore fulfills certain functions in the marketplace and in the reinforcement of market ideology. And so here, instead of examining art’s ideal function as a functionless object, we must look to art’s social use and context (that is, we must look at the way art has a positive use as opposed to the idea of uselessness-as-use).

In his essay “Art and Property Now,” John Berger writes of art dealers that “Everything they say is said to disguise and hide their proper purpose. If you could f—k works of art as well as buy them, they would be pimps: but, if that were the case, one might assume a kind of love; as it is they dream of money and honour.” When auctioneer Olivia Barker said of Basquiat after the sale, “Now he goes into the pantheon” or when “longtime Basquiat collector” Larry Walsh says that the sale “does cement this artist once again,” there is a kind of sleight of hand trick going on. The painting sold for $110.5 million, therefore it must be important, it must be in “the pantheon,” it must be significant as art – this is the cruel trick of the American capital-as-culture ethos. This reasoning exposes the Euthyphro Problem (a problem of circular logic which gets its name from the Socratic dialogue “Euthyphro”) at the heart of the issue: Basquiat’s work is good because it is expensive. Why is it expensive? Because it is good.

But the price of a work of art has nothing to do with its aesthetic value (and here I don’t mean to knock Basquiat’s work), it has only to do with its exchange value – a Basquiat is a Basquiat regardless of the price. One might say that if people are willing to pay for it, there must be a reason – and surely that reason must be its aesthetic value. But I would, again, say that the price of Basquiat’s painting, and indeed, the exorbitant price of any work of art, has very little to do with its value as art and has much more to do with art’s social functions and social reception – thoughts on which I have sketched below:

Buying Shares In Basquiat

A recent post on the Nasdaq website speculates whether “buy and hold” has become the ideal strategy for art market investment. As an example, Duncan MacDonald-Korth, the post’s author, states that the Basquiat painting in question was initially purchased for a mere $19,000 in 1984, and then sold, only 33 years later, for the much vaunted $110.5 million. All of this is to suggest that certain segments of the population view a work of art not as an aesthetic object, but as an asset, or more accurately, like a stock. Unlike stocks, part of a work of art’s price does have to do with its scarcity value – there is only one of these Basquiat paintings, and its price tag reflects its uniqueness – but, we still must question why certain unique works sell for $110.5 million, and some for nothing. Clearly there is more than scarcity at play.

Just like stocks, it matters less if a work of art has any intrinsic value (how such value would be measured is beyond me), than if investors can agree on a value, and further, if investors can anticipate future value and future agreement. Because a work of art fulfills no material purpose, it can potentially be devalued overnight simply by a disavowal from the artist (as in the recent attempts of Richard Prince) or from an influential critic or two. In the case of Basquiat, the painting is expensive quite simply because a group of investors and critics have agreed that this painting will be expensive.

(Still, unlike stocks, there is a physical work for sale here – but there need not be. I’ve often wondered whether we will ever reach a point in which art, like stocks, will be traded on a purely speculative basis. Whether there will come a time when we will buy and sell ideas for artworks – say, a hypothetical work by Anselm Kiefer on such and such a theme with such and such dimensions, traded back and forth between dealers, its price rising and falling based on hypothetical demand. All without the work ever being made. Collectors would simply be buying the right to possibly own the work – actually seeing it or displaying it is irrelevant. We are approaching this possibility – the work is subordinate to the price, and eventually it is possible that it will be phased out altogether.)

Money Is Magic

One of art’s primary early functions was as a religious or mystical fetish object. The idol worshippers of biblical times, for instance, created what we would today consider art objects for the purpose of worship – they were, like the Eastern Orthodox Icons that came after them, inhabited with a spirit; they were more than just objects. After the Enlightenment, and then the “death of god,” art began to lose its religious and mystical function. We in the “West” both began to create non-religious works and also to strip formerly religious objects of their religious content by turning them into art.

In the 21st century, we’ve largely moved beyond the mystical function of art. Absent the mystical and religious appeal and function of art, we are left with a void at the center of the work. Some artists fill the void with politics, or with theory, or even vague appeals to a degraded, neutered mystical (e.g. Mark Rothko), but I would also contend that a number of artists (e.g. Jeff Koons) and art collectors have filled this void with the fetish of capital, of money for money’s sake. In a secularized world, money becomes one of our last means of conferring meaning, of conferring importance.The Basquiat painting then, like all expensive art, retains its status as a fetish object by virtue of becoming expensive – its exorbitant price filling the hole of its lost mystic function. After an artwork has been successfully given an enormous price tag, it takes on a new importance in the public eye. It is possessed – not by spirits, but capital – and holds an awesome (in the original sense of the word) significance in the amorphous “cultural institution” that has replaced religious ones in secular society.

Price In, Aesthetics Out

Just as art has largely lost its mystical-religious function, it has also largely lost its mimetic function – again, capital has filled this void. Whereas likeness to life was previously the supreme aesthetic criterion, in the 19th century, art’s mimetic function was superseded by the invention of the camera, which was much better equipped to “accurately” record reality. Thus, art embarked on the project of abstraction (of course, other reasons contributed to this turn as well). The aesthetic criteria for judging these new abstract works began to become, in turn, increasingly abstract as well. Consequently, discussions of a work’s aesthetic value began to require more and more background knowledge and the knowledge of a specialized vocabulary – as time has passed, art, like the academic disciplines, has fractured and specialized, making access to critical discussion even more difficult. Most people, of course, do not have access to the necessary vocabulary or the scholarship to participate in art evaluation, and so another means was needed for the layman to pass judgment upon the value of art. Now, the easiest way to decide value is to either be assured of value by a critic (a prospect most people, somewhat rightly, consider dubious), or to look at the price tag. The price tag has become the mass aesthetic criterion’ it is immediately accessible and easily quantifiable. How do we know that Basquiat is a “better” artist than, say, Norman Bluhm? Well, his works are more expensive – simple as that.


The exorbitant price of art serves a social function, and so does the expenditure of exorbitant sums: to confer legitimacy on the accumulation of wealth. Despite a certain rhetoric to the contrary, our actions seem to attest that we still place art in high esteem in this culture – even those who decry it as elitist make the implicit recognition that art belongs to “high culture” or otherwise on the top of an imagined cultural hierarchy.

If we believe the intense stratification of wealth to be fundamentally unfair, then we are also prone to scrutinize the expenditure of wealth. The purchase of another yacht seems frivolous and decadent in a way that the purchase of a work of art does not. This is because art, despite its commodification, is, for the aforementioned reasons, still a social good. So long as the purchaser of the work does not lock the work away from the public, his or her purchase is, ostensibly, in the interest of the public – the art is displayed, and the value of art is reaffirmed.

But late capitalism, as we have discussed, actively undermines the alternative mode of living that art represents, both by commodifying works of art and by creating the social conditions that commodify life in general. Thus, expensive art sales function as a sort of performative anti-capitalism on the part of capitalism’s greatest beneficiaries. In reaffirming the value of art in one of the only ways that society understands (that is, capital), the billionaire class simultaneously justifies their accumulation of wealth – when billionaires spend their money on art it is, as Berger writes, “art-as-a-cultural-alibi-for-existing-society.” Someone must patronize the artists, they seem to say, and we must be those patrons. This formulation seems prima-facie legitimate, but we must remember that the conditions that necessitate patronage of this kind are the direct result of the institutions and ideologies that enable a patron-class.

The other problem with the aristocrat-as-patron is that their patronage is largely doled out to those who no longer need it. Basquiat is dead – and it is only in his death that he became safe (that is, neutered), and, more importantly, expensive. The collectors at Sotheby’s auctions primarily patronize Sotheby’s itself, their secondary patrons are each other (by continually agreeing to such excessive price tags, they allow the art-as-stock market, with all its economic and ideological importance, to continue to thrive).


Umberto Eco wrote in “A Theory of Expositions,” that the drive to create expositions seems “to be a final recapitulation in the face of a hypothetical end of the world…apocalyptic insecurity and hope for the future.” Here he is writing about the World’s Fair, but we might just as easily apply his thoughts to art collection. The art gallery, like the exposition, is an accumulation of objects arranged for display. But whereas in the exposition we are not meant to purchase, or even desire the objects on display, in the art gallery the experience is just as much an exercise in pure aesthetics as it is in social and economic posturing. We do not regard the objects “for their own sake” as in the case of the exposition, but rather simultaneously for their own sake and as repositories for capital. We wonder if we might ever belong to the class that could, and does, own these works. We use cheap facsimiles to establish a sort of cultural capital (which is always class-capital as well), to ape the accumulative habits of the upper class. We wonder how a Pollock would look in our homes – better above the couch or the bed?

In short, we experience the gallery as a display of commodities. Art is now, above all, purchasable – and this commodification is apocalyptic in precisely the opposite way of the exposition. In the classic exposition we displayed objects as a means to celebrate the possible future or the material potential of the present. In the gallery, as in the auction house, we still celebrate exorbitant sales as an expression of apocalyptic insecurity, but the only recapitulation here is the affirmation of purchasing power – of the current and future investment prospects of Basquiat, of a world possibly without materials, of a world entirely composed of capital. There is no celebration of aesthetic or material potential, or a celebration of possible advance, only the grotesque spectacle of meaningless wealth reinforcing itself – the market hollowing out and infecting one of our last bastions against the market’s pull.

The idea of Art pour l’art, Walter Benjamin argued, was ultimately satisfied in the aestheticization of death, in the denial of humanity. When our last value is capital, when art is primarily celebrated because of its price, then we have again realized, by other means, the denial of humanity that Benjamin foresaw in the Futurists. Art pour l’argent is apocalyptic too.

Jake Romm is a Contributing Editor for The Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter, @JakeRomm

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