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Interesting article in the NY Times by Adam Davidson on the relationship between the denizens of the xenospace of extreme wealth – the HNWIs and Ultra-HNWIs – and the silly end of the art market.  According to one of the experts cited, no-one has ever turned a profit on any artwork bought for over $30 million.  This news is interesting for several reasons.  First it suggests that buying art at that level as an investment is a mistake (otherwise I’d be out there with the cheque-book, obviously) and that the people buying this stuff are probably losing their silk shirts in the process.  So, second, as the article suggests, this is neither about art nor profit, it’s just about demonstrating how much money you’ve got, by chucking some of it at something pretty (or, in art world terms ‘important’) but pointless.  But, third,  and more important for my purposes, this says something about the value and meaning of money at certain scales.

The price paid recently for ‘The Scream’ – $120 million – has nothing to do with the ‘value’ of the object but is a purely symbolic metric for a particular kind of wealthy person.  Clearly, The Scream is not ‘worth’ $120m, but any actual value is not the point because with this rare class of objects we’ve entered the strange domain of the ‘priceless’.   Since objects that are deemed to be important cultural objects for mankind as a whole (a judgement made by that strange combination of gallerists, academics and museums) still end up on the market, they become a contradiction.  As an ‘iconic’ image in the history of ‘modern art’ (at least in the standard textbook narrative history appended to that term), The Scream  would be deemed ‘priceless’ if it were owned by a public collection.  But because it went through a saleroom, and because the vendor (whoever it was) clearly had no need to cut a deal with any tax authority or was simply too greedy to donate it for the public good a price is found.  $120 million, therefore, is not the price of the painting (which I personally would not give you $1.20 – look at the thing), but is the price of pricelessness.  And interestingly, because such objects are extremely hard to sell and certainly not at a profit, that brings it close also to being ‘worthless’.

In any event, the upper end of the the art market is (and has been for some time) a form of pseudo-aesthetic xenospace.  ‘Pseudo’ because the prices do not value any artistic merits of the artworks (even if, unlike the Munch, they have them), but because the artworks are being used to value to the ‘beauty’ of wealth itself.