Art vs Money: Why Not Both?

There are few modern relationships as fraught as the one between art and money. Are they mortal enemies, secret lovers or perfect soul mates? Is the bond between them a source of pride or shame, a marriage of convenience or something tawdrier?

The relationship between art and money can be understood in at least two ways. Art can be interpreted as a sum of works circulating on the art market. In this case, when we speak about art and money, we think primarily of spectacular developments in the art market that took place in recent decades: the auctions of modern and contemporary art, the huge sums that were paid for works, and so forth—what newspapers mostly report on when they want to say something about contemporary art. It is now beyond doubt that art can be seen in the context of the art market and every work of art can function as a commodity.

The latest auctions here demonstrated how buyers have now split into two main groups: Longer-term investors who hold to more traditional notions of collecting and who tend to focus on Impressionist, modern and classic contemporary works; and short-term speculators, known as “flippers,” who busy themselves with cut-and-run deals in the red-hot market for emerging artists. These are also collectors who are here for the long term. But these long-term collectors can also be sellers, known as “super-flippers,” who buy high privately and then sell even higher at auctions. With consignors of valuable lots not having to pay any seller’s commission, and guarantees available to remove any risk of failure, wealthy speculators can play the art market with confidence, certain of making a profit.

Art and money have much in common. Both are spheres of social activity that carry symbolic values. A coin is simply a piece of metal, stamped with signs to give it symbolic meaning, to give it a value, a value that changes with the vicissitudes of its economic life, or, when no longer legal tender, with its life as a collectable. A painting is a piece of canvas, stretched on a frame to make it taut, which is then covered with pigment, brushed with an image, a sign that gives it value, a value that changes with the vicissitudes of its aesthetic and symbolic life, with its commodity value. Art and money come together whenever the values of both are exchanged within a market—in trade between artist and client/patron, between dealer and customer, between competitors for social authority.