PRINT Summer 2010


Isabelle Graw’s High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture

Isabelle Graw, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, translated by Nicholas Grindell (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2009), 248 pages.

THIS BOOK ABOUT PRICE, value, celebrity, and the merging of work and identity comes at a propitious time. Largely written at the height of the speculative bubble for contemporary art, it issues into an utterly changed scene that offers a sharp perspective on what for so long appeared to be merely business as usual. Price and fame were certainly closely tied: As the author notes, in the wake of the financial crisis, reporting on the art world in the lifestyle press has almost ceased.

Isabelle Graw is well known as an art critic and theorist, a cofounder of Texte zur Kunst, and an academic author. One of the key claims of this book is that artists are the prototypes of celebrities and that because all service-industry workers are expected to act creatively—more like artists—they must throw their entire lives as image onto the market. Graw, as an insider, makes clear that she does this herself: When, in 2007, the German Vanity Fair summoned the Frankfurt art scene to a photo shoot, “everyone (me included) turned up on time, and perfectly styled.” Graw’s author photo, in which she poses with a foxy tilt of the head and a dazzling smile, is another conscious piece of artistic self-presentation. The view from the inside has definite advantages, and the book contains a great deal of insight, along with many telling details and anecdotes. Graw has a broad theoretical range, taking in aspects of Marxism; Italian autonomism; German sociological thinking about culture, the market and networking; and French theory, notably Foucault on biopolitics. She draws on the work of Boltanski and Chiapello, Hardt and Negri, Virno, and others to describe the ways in which the lines of capitalist creative labor and artistic work converge; how artists and other workers remake themselves as stars, self-publicists, and networkers; and how the work of art becomes less and less distinguishable from branded luxury goods. The art market, she argues, has become modernized—meaning rationalized and globalized, franchised and branded. Old loyalties have eroded on both sides, as successful artists defect to more prominent galleries while the economic protection once offered by the gallery has almost vanished. Just as Warhol’s obsession with fashion and celebrity chasing damaged his reputation in days past but now seems standard behavior, Larry Gagosian, whose aggressive business practices were formerly the subject of disdain, is now “universally respected and admired.”

Sketching out this situation, Graw is unflinching. Yet it may be that insiders’ views, no matter how clear-eyed and theoretically informed, tend to exemplify as much as analyze the contradictions of their subject. A key to analyzing the relation between art and its market is to describe the distinctiveness of art as a commodity, so as to perhaps explain the extraordinary social cachet that attaches to its ownership. Graw offers three main criteria: art’s uniqueness (or at least rarity, in the case of limited editions), its durability and resistance to fashion, and its “intellectual surplus value.” The first two are plainly matters more of degree than of principle, since they are not limited to art: Monopoly through the marketing of unique or rare goods is striven for in many markets and is particularly a feature of real estate and some antiques (Fabergé eggs, for example). Considerable social distinction may be gained from the ownership of these goods. Durability is also exhibited by antiques, while art-world reputations are subject to cycles of fashion in which reputations rise or, more regularly, fall, as a survey of the covers of back issues of Artforum swiftly confirms.

Intellectual surplus value is another matter. A particularly clear case is offered by Graw in her discussion of Damien Hirst’s bringing his own works directly to auction in 2008: Through this action, Hirst seemed to be saying that it is pointless to make anything other than objects for speculation, and to be declaring his own artistic bankruptcy, but at the same time, he was also commenting on the entanglement to the point of identity of market and art and so making a conceptual point that stood outside the market. The “surplus” here is that any artistic statement may also be taken as a metastatement and so adopt a useful paradoxical status. The situation bears comparison to the foundational paradox that plagued Bertrand Russell (is the set of all sets a member of itself?) and that can only be solved by finding a way to rule out the infinite regression of metastatements. Although the idea of this surplus is taken from Marx, there are clear differences from his concept of surplus value. For Graw, the surplus is a surplus only because it stands outside the market, while for Marx it can only be realized by a sale in the market. In Graw’s formulation, moreover, whether this is an exploitative relation is unclear, whereas for Marx the concept is hardly meaningful without consideration of precisely this question. Who are the workers who labor longer than is necessary to sustain themselves, who the capitalists who profit from that extra labor? In an extraordinary passage from the Grundrisse, Marx points to a model of work set against the extraction of surplus value:

The Times of November 1857 contains an utterly delightful cry of outrage on the part of a West-Indian plantation owner. This advocate analyses with great moral indignation—as a plea for the re-introduction of Negro slavery—how the Quashees (the free blacks of Jamaica) content themselves with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this “use value,” regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good; how they do not care a damn for the sugar and the fixed capital invested in the plantations, but rather observe the planters’ impending bankruptcy with an ironic grin of malicious pleasure. . . .

An ironic grin may also greet the realization that what Marx is describing is also an ideal model of the artist’s labor, which should be free, self-fulfilling, and self-determined, a glimpse of the utopia that awaits all mankind after the final synthesis. Graw revealingly describes the demands made on artists by dealers (for example, to more regularly produce new work for art fairs), for which surplus in the Marxist sense may be an apposite term after all.

There is a decided oscillation in Graw’s thinking about the status of the intellectual surplus, an ambivalence that is also contained in art-world discourse. Sometimes the surplus is simply thought to exist in artworks themselves: This is particularly evident in the discussion of prices that are thought excessive (an example for Graw is those of Andreas Gursky’s photographs) and other market “errors” of valuation that strongly imply there is an inherent quality that can be judged independently of price. She writes, “Even insiders who should really know better cannot help discovering artistic merit in the work of commercially successful artists.” Graw even claims that is not enough to dismiss the belief system of idealist aesthetics, including the claim to autonomy, because it has “a basis in artistic praxis.” This is exactly like saying that one cannot dismiss the existence of God because the church behaves as if he exists. Yet elsewhere Graw critically examines this position, writing, “The notion that art has some inherent value is the central (and most productive) illusion of the art market”; here value is seen as a product of networking relations, in which “because the value of an artwork stands on clay feet, it must be the subject of endless communication.”

If the creation of value (market and otherwise) is a network relation, this does not mean that objective qualities of the work—condition and conservation issues, expense of materials, size, and rarity—have no bearing on people’s opinions, any more than that the price of coffee is insulated from weather patterns. The relation, though, is indirect and always mediated through opinion; in the case of that most intangible of qualities, “intellectual surplus,” it is a question of how the opinions of those who create it, mostly art critics and art historians, are viewed by those who create market value. These opinions, unlike the weather, may be manipulated and purchased.

Yet this is not the most troubling trend that Graw’s book elucidates. To the extent that High Price charts the artwork’s status as the prototypical branded commodity, and the artist’s as the prototypical celebrity and professional networker, it also records the undermining of art’s autonomy—a problematic matter, given that, as Graw rightly says, art’s main use is its apparent uselessness, its removal from vulgar instrumental realms. In its modernization, in other words, the art world threatens to undermine the core function of its product. The more the market seizes on intellectual production to bolster market value (here Graw points to galleries’ hiring of art historians to boost the reputation of commercially successful but critically neglected artists such as John Currin, and to the practice of collectors funding monographs and buying stakes in publishing houses that specialize in theory), the more the intellectual surplus appears as mere publicity, and the more skeptically it is received.

And so the principle of art’s uselessness becomes an increasingly visible anomaly. While Graw cannot entirely let go of the notion of autonomy and its correlation with inherent value, it is Warhol’s dollars and Hirst’s skull—art appearing as money—that haunt this book. The very idea of a market error, on which the distinction between market value and intellectual value is based, is an unsustainable one. If, following the financial crisis, the price of an artist’s work falls by a half, it is not that the previous price was an error, merely that buyers’ views about the market value have changed. And if the idea of an autonomous intellectual surplus is illusory, the eroding of the conditions that sustain that illusion can only be welcomed.

Julian Stallabrass is a writer, curator, photographer, lecturer, and the author of, among other books, Art Incorporated (Oxford University Press, 2004).