Is the Killer Art Market Killing Art?
Sociology University of Chicago Chicago, USA
It was at a panel session organized by the Art Dealer's Association of America last year at the height of the art bubble that I heard the telling quote that gives this paper its name. Titled 'Is the Killer Art Market Killing Art?' the panel consisted of various leaders from the art world, speaking to a packed theater at the Museum of Modern Art's education extension in Manhattan. After panel members talked about both the problems and advantages of the high prices in the contemporary art market, they opened up the floor to questions, and one audience member asked what esteemed New York art dealer Betty Parsons would have done in this "Wall-Streeting of the art market?" Over the past 40 years there has been development in economic theory and numerical quantification of art, along with an increasing number of buyers who consider themselves investors, rather than collectors. (Although there have been some doubts about art as a financial investment in the economic downturn, the latest auction results have been fairly strong.) Drawing from the science and technology studies of finance perspective, my research highlights the organizational, social and technical developments that seek to transform valuable objects into rationalized investments, as well as the moral resistance to this project. This can be characterized as a conflict between the culture of finance (Abolafia) and the culture of the contemporary art market., with competing forms of expert knowledge about how to understand the market, particularly in terms of quantification. The speculative and abstracted nature of investment uses rational numerical calculations to commodify art, seeking to change the market to meet the expectations of transparency seeking, profit-minded investors. This conflicts with the relationship-based system used by galleries, dealers, museums and collectors, typified by private transactions, long time horizons, and normative views of appropriate market behavior, where the goal is to 'control the biography of the artwork' (Velthuis 2005) and advance the career of the artist. This research contributes to theories of expert knowledge, quantification, multiple markets, divergent processes of valuation, and the desire to control the meaning and biography of objects.