Art and Economics
In recent art auctions, at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, for example, it seems that the “modern masters” have been losing large fractions of their value, as owners try to liquidate their assets to cover their losses in the financial marketplace. Larry Gagosian’s fashionable art empire (which includes such luminaries as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst) is apparently teetering on the brink of collapse. However, what Carol Vogel, the New York Times art critic, calls “pretty” paintings (the Impressionists, for instance) are selling well. Several victims of Bernard Madoff’s monster Ponzi scheme are reputedly trying to sell their Picassos.
In the previous issue of American Arts Quarterly, I pointed out how the recent crisis in credit (from the Latin word for “faith”) may be related to larger cultural issues. These included especially the postmodern overextension of artistic meanings—critical and aesthetic “derivatives”—to the point where their connection with the “fundamentals” of human life has snapped. As the value of a coin or a currency requires some kind of intrinsically valuable backing, whether the value of the coin’s metal or the productive capacity of the nation, so art requires connections with nature and our own bodies. The act of sacrifice—of whatever kind, as long as intangible meaning is cashed in terms of real content—establishes those connections. And the ancient crafts of the arts—melody, meter and rhyme, true pictorial representation, storytelling, etc.—are the shape of that sacrifice.
So what goes on in art auctions and those private conversations in the offices of celebrity art dealers is not irrelevant to the enduring questions of art and aesthetic philosophy. When hand and eye and ear are no longer engaged in artistic making, there is a danger that the spiderweb of meaning will break and tear across. The economic abstractions of the world of banking and derivatives trading seem to have infected the arts. Ezra Pound’s famous diatribe against usury—“USURA”—may find at first a sympathetic response:
With usura hath no man a house of good stone
each block cut smooth and well fitting
that delight might cover their face,
hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luthes
or where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,
seeth no man Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines
no picture is made to endure nor to live with
but it is made to sell and sell quickly
with usura, sin against nature,
is thy bread ever more of stale rags
is thy bread dry as paper,
with no mountain wheat, no strong flour
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarcation
and no man can find site for his dwelling
Stone cutter is kept from his stone
weaver is kept from his loom
came not by usura
Duccio came not by usura
nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’ not by usura
nor was “La Callunia” painted.
Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis,
No church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.
This magnificent rant could well be taken to apply to the aesthetic “isms” of the last few decades, where craft, virtuosity and loving care seem to be valued less than intellectual fashion, novelty and celebrity—neo-conceptualism, bad painting, appropriation art, postminimalism, transgressive art, etc.
Pound was not alone in discerning the intimate relation between artistic and economic values. Dante, the cathedral builders, Van Eyck, Shakespeare, Bach, Goethe and Dickens all recognized the central connections between artistic gifts and economic property. How we understand possession and the exchange of possessions is fundamental to our moral and spiritual lives. These are legitimate concerns at the highest aesthetic level. They cannot be brushed off as beneath an artist’s attention, whether the brushoff is based on Romantic idealism, Marxist critique of the marketplace, modernist state patronage or postmodern disdain for the age of mechanical reproduction.
The issue is not a simple one. Pound’s hatred of usury led him into demonic places, where he found himself giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites and supporting the Fascist government of Mussolini against his own native country and its “mobocracy” of the Common Man. There is a real debate here, and we must look at both sides: Pound’s argument that economic abstraction (the broad meaning of “usura”) destroys the existential value of life; and the argument of enterprise capitalism, that the free market liberates all human beings, making the existential value of life a matter of free choice rather than coercion by poverty, class, race and technological backwardness.
How would an apologist for the capitalist market reply to Pound’s indictment? Perhaps somewhat like this. The beautiful craftsmanship that Pound admired among the ancient Greeks is now understood by archeologists as directly consequent upon the institution of slavery. Since slaves were not paid, either for piecework or by the hour, it was not in their interest to cut corners, save time, turn out a lot of product and go for the cheap solution. It made sense rather to enjoy themselves by perfecting their craft, cutting, for instance, unnecessarily perfect mortises for the keel and ribs of merchant ships that would never be seen by human eyes (until divers brought them up intact from the floor of the Mediterranean millennia later). Aristocrats wanted their dwellings and possessions to be beautiful and to command awe and honor, and were not especially concerned with efficiency—indeed, conspicuous consumption was their duty.
Beautiful craftsmanship and mindful attention to the real substance of life can surely be achieved without slavery, aristocratic oppression and the suppression of entrepreneurial Jews. But it is a little chilling that so keen a mind as Pound’s—and so warm and inclusive a spirit—should have been seduced by an economic misunderstanding into such evil company.
Interest—our market apologist might jokingly go on—is what he pays me, usury is what I pay him. If either of us doesn’t like it, we are free to borrow from somebody else, or not borrow at all. And that freedom is in stark contrast to the orders of the feudal lord and master, the decrees of the monarch, and the commandments of religion. The miracle of European civilization—which took it from a barbaric collection of tribal warlord territories on the fringe of the great Muslim civilization to world leadership in arts, sciences, commerce, discovery and politics—maps pretty exactly onto the rise of banking. It tracks the overthrow of the Christian prohibition against the taking of interest on loans.
The great Jewish bankers of Florence, Venice, Genoa and the Rhine could well be said to be the key to the Renaissance. They enabled merchant cities to cast off the aristocratic protection rackets and tariff barriers that stifled trade and technology. They financed national bureaucracies that could enforce the rule of law, and fostered cosmopolitan views of the world that could replace the ancient evils of tribalism and holy war. They enabled monarchs like Henry the Navigator and Queen Isabella of Spain to subsidize world exploration. As banking—together with increasingly sophisticated and shared forms of insurance, actuarial risk analysis, currency, partnership and investment—spread to Paris, Amsterdam, the Hanseatic League and London, it created new kinds of patronage for the arts, literature, science and philosophy. Geniuses such as Van Eyck, Shakespeare, Erasmus, Marin Marais, Dowland, Rembrandt, Galileo and Descartes could flourish in an urban environment, finding patronage from free property-owning, middle-class citizens.
In America, the availability of regulated investment capital and paper currency fueled the westward expansion and led to the social and economic changes that freed the slaves and extended the vote to women. By the same token, it also created a vast middle class that soon became hungry for art, literature and science.
But these new arts and sciences on both sides of the Atlantic were different in kind from the old. They could look more boldly to nature as their model (rather than to military aristocratic chic or religious ideology). French thought pursued rationalism, the logic of nature; British thought pursued empiricism, the evidence of nature; American thought pursued pragmatism, the modus operandi of nature. Out of these ideas came naturalism, Impressionism, realism and transcendentalism in the arts and literature. It was precisely capitalism’s liberation from the fundamentalism of parochial and class limitations that allowed a more penetrating and universal understanding of nature’s own fundamentals.
The arts, after all (the apologist for capitalism might go on), are themselves by nature derivatives. Literature is, as it were, a paper currency—it no longer needs gold leaf illumination and divine authority and silver clasps to create its authentic value. Painting is just tinted muds on cheap fabric, of no intrinsic material value, yet it makes patterns in the eye that are sublimely beautiful and trigger profound insight into reality. Music is just vibrations in the air. All three are perfectly reproducible. Even sculpture and architecture can be recast in bronze or recreated from plans and blueprints. Art is always already dematerialized; it resembles commercial advertising in that it creates unnecessary desires, it represents the transcendent human spirit in surviving its fleshly makers and its local social homeplace.
So great art is entirely consistent with economic abstraction and financial derivatives. Corporate business, funded by banks, is part of the meaning-making that drew us up from an animal existence into a world of higher significance and set the populations of the developed world free to pursue the making of their souls. If that progress contains booms and busts, that only shows that the process of creative destruction is working as it should, testing the parameters of the phase-space within which it can healthily operate, a part of the discovery process. Mass production simply makes available to ordinary people what was once set aside for the rich and powerful alone, and there is no reason to suppose that it necessarily leads to a decline in the quality of goods. Competition will refine the excellence of manufactures until it surpasses that of handmade craft goods.
But it is time to hear another side of the debate. Perhaps the most influential theorist for the postmodern arts was Walter Benjamin, whose essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has attained biblical status in exhibition catalogues, film criticism and artists’ statements. Benjamin might well agree with the fictional market apologist of the last few paragraphs. Marxists such as he actually approve of the achievements of capitalism, as long as they are seen as a prologue and enabling technology for the proletarian revolution that will be next phase in human history. Benjamin goes on to say, though, that the mechanical reproduction of a work of art necessarily destroys its authenticity:
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.
The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.…that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.
But far from bemoaning this loss of artistic authenticity, aura and authority, Benjamin celebrates it as liberating the masses from the tyranny of tradition. The religious roots of the arts are severed, and
for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.
Art’s true value is, then, propaganda. As a Marxist, Benjamin is delighted with this. The masses are no longer to be drawn hypnotically into contemplation of the work of art and idolization of its author or subject, but instead galvanized into action. Because the artwork is cut off from any particular and unique physical reality, it can now be put to use in the continuing class struggle. What is especially eliminated is the sentimental attachment to the human personality, to the aura and authority of the artist or the artist’s human subject (an idea resembling Brecht’s notion of the Verfremdungseffekt, whereby the audience of a drama is prevented from sympathetically identifying with the actor or character, and can thus draw the correct ideological conclusions). Even the appeal of the human face cannot seduce us:
The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value.
It is, I believe, very important to show how deeply and terribly wrong Benjamin was, and by implication how evil his large influence may now be. As a German Jew, Benjamin was writing these words in 1936. Auschwitz, with its mechanical reproduction of death, its efficient elimination of all human aura and authenticity, its rejection of all sentimental bourgeois cult, was only seven years away. That “melancholy, incomparable beauty” of the personal photograph, that Benjamin dismisses with a mixture of regret and contempt, cannot and should not ever be evoked without thinking of those precious black-and-white photographs rescued from the Shoah and preserved in Holocaust museums, showing the all-too-fleeting expressions of the human face in Jewish Berlin and the Warsaw Ghetto. Nor is the appalling result of desacralizing the human aura confined to the National Socialism of the Third Reich; we have seen it too in the International Socialism of Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. And the records of those atrocities have no less genuine ritual value if they are in the form of reproducible photographic images or irreproducible human skulls and fragments of clothing. Schindler’s List, with its colorizing of the little girl and the candle, is an explicit and devastating reproach to such dehumanization.
Perhaps it was not Benjamin’s fault that he could not foresee the horrifying results of his own solution to the problem of the separation between object and meaning, value and token. Where does his logic go wrong? Perhaps the first false turn was to identify the actual physical presence, the objectness of the art object, with its aura and authenticity. Such an argument sounds plausible for paintings and patinas, perhaps, but becomes absurd when we turn to poetry, whose aura is often specifically identifiable with the pathos of its being preserved by being copied on paper and not graven in physical stone. As Shakespeare says in Sonnet 65:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
That ink is printer’s ink. The same triumphant pathos is in the Mozart Requiem, whose “melancholy and incomparable beauty” is inseparable from the fact that nothing in the concert hall needs to have been physically touched by Mozart at all. Surely, the good Marxist Benjamin could not have identified the true aura of the Requiem with the astronomical price that an undiscovered genuine manuscript of a page of it in Mozart’s own hand would fetch at Sotheby’s. But as a dialectical materialist, with what else could he identify the real authenticity of an object, except its material physicality? The deep mistake, which is endemic to the Marxist view, is to reduce content to physical matter. And here we may be on the trail of a real answer to the conundrum we began with. Perhaps the really essential bond is not between idea and matter as such, but between idea and content—content that may indeed be very much embodied in matter but is not the same thing as it. A century of formalism, structuralism and post-structuralism cannot dispense with the fundamental need for true content.
By the same token, we may now see the fallacy in Clement Greenberg’s championing of abstract art and his insistence on the art object as presented in its physicality. Certainly, he takes the opposite path from Benjamin, resisting capitalism’s mechanical prowess at reproducing images not by turning it as a weapon against traditional cult and economic class as Benjamin does, but by denying to it any power of representation and image-making over the art object in itself. As the Encyclopedia Britannica usefully paraphrases Greenberg:
What counted in a Morris Louis painting, for example, was the way the colours stained the canvas, confirming its flatness while seeming to levitate above it. The painting had presumably no other meaning than the sheer matter-of-factness of its colours and their movement on the canvas.
Though he takes a different path from Benjamin’s, he starts from the same mistaken place. Again, content is reduced to matter.
The way forward, then, after the false starts of the last century, may be to break our fetishization of matter itself, or rather to recognize matter—material—as a relative, not an absolute term. Matter reduces to content, not content to matter. Our fleshly neurons are indeed the material of our thoughts and decisions. But organic molecules are the material of our neurons, and atoms are the material of molecules, and elementary particles the material of atoms. We now know that even elementary particles are not the fundamental matter of the universe; photons—light waves—are more fundamental still. What is light but the pure medium of information, a set of information states? And is an information state so different from a thought, with which we began?
It is not that material does not exist, but that it stands in relation to what shapes it as content does to form, and what shapes it can in turn be the material, the content, of a higher-order form. The highest-order forms and shapes that we clearly know are thoughts and decisions—but they might in turn be the material of even higher-order forms and shapes, that we can dimly intuit in moments of illumination. Art may be precisely the medium of such higher shapes. And when we see art in this way, we recognize the intimate reliance of art on the whole edifice of material content upon which it stands. Such a view enjoins on us a careful piety that we do not, as so many modern movements have done, destroy or overburden the very foundations—the fundamentals—that hold up our meanings.
The destruction of economic fundamentals that happened in the recent economic crisis, together with the postmodernist overextension of derivatives, gives us a clear analogy and example of what happens when that piety is violated. The bundling of bad mortgages rotted the foundations of the economy, as did the tolerance of museum directors, art dealers, literary editors and musical directors for poorly crafted intellectual chic. The hype of the hedge funds and the vogue for leveraging overbalanced the economic superstructure, as did the substitution of catalogue copy for pictorial content and literary and music theory for literature and music.
The answer to the problem of torn meaning-connections is not fundamentalism, however. Fundamentalism is the answer that comes always first to those well-meaning people who see the world falling apart, whether the fundamentalism is religious like radical Islam, political like communism, or economic like the Gold Standard. Benjamin and Greenberg are in different ways no less believers in a Gold Standard for the arts than was Pound: matter is their gold, their religion. If in the arts Benjamin rejects that gold standard, the aura of original physical object, it is because he still believes in its magical power, but wants it for politics, not art.
It would be nice if we could keep the “original” “authentic” pool of value fixed while innovating in the signs and symbols by which we coin and stamp it; it is tempting to do as the Chinese emperor did who destroyed the great fleet of exploration his mariners had created, in order to preserve the values of the Mandate of Heaven. But the ground itself shifts under us; the pool of value grows and shifts its nature as it evolves. The aura of authenticity is real, but authentic is as authentic does. It requires a continuous effort of techné and investment, one that does not forget its own history and really wrestles with the work of reconciling piety with the shock of the new. The true backing or grounding of the arts lies in the intricate, agile, craftsmanlike consistency of the relationship between meaning and content, pattern and matrix, culture and nature. Without that effort, we come to ruin. But ruins have always been a good and useful place to build.