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Reports of the defacement of one of Rothko’s Seagram murals at Tate Modern have been bizarre.  The alleged attacker, a Russian artist called Vladimir Umanets, claims to have ‘added value’ to the Rothko by signing it and adding the phrase ‘a potential piece of yellowism’ – alluding to a movement that seems to consist of Umanets himself, a colleague called Marcin Lodyga, a website and a familiarly limp manifesto.

A potential piece of yellowism?

In an interview with the Guardian published today, Umanets compares himself to Marcel Duchamp and claims, “I believe that if someone restores the [Rothko] piece and removes my signature the value of the piece would be lower but after a few years the value will go higher because of what I did”.

If this is a protest against the strange construction of art prices it seems a rather confused one.  Umanets seems to disagree with the process of finding ‘value’ for art-works, and yet seems to want his own contribution to play a part in that same value system.  He’s probably correct that the ‘value’ of both this Rothko and all others will be enhanced because of his publicity-stunt, but only because he has added a touch of notoriety to them, will prompt the further securitization of collections containing them, and bumped up insurance premiums.  Attacking such a work – as has been demonstrated many times before – serves only to further legitimate its ‘special’ status in the strange construction of art prices.

More interesting and telling than Umanets’ own intervention is the way it is being reported.  The first line of the Guardian report (and that of many others) immediately alludes to the Rothko’s ‘multi-million’ (pound, dollar, euro,….delete as applicable) value.   Further down the piece, recent auction prices for similar objects are reported by way of confirmation that the Rothko really is worth that much and, therefore, that Umanets’ ‘crime’ is proportionately serious. The constant reiteration of huge sums  quantifies, in a way that appears legible, the enormity of this action.  And, of course, that’s why Ulmanets did it (allegedly).

But all this misses the point that the Rothkos in Tate Modern, indeed pretty much the whole collection, have no market value at all.  They are ‘worthless’ – at least in monetary terms.  By being included in a ‘public’ collection and sanctified as exemplars of contemporary art (and by extension of ‘culture’ more generally) such objects enter the domain of the ‘priceless’.  This is because they are considered to be so important that they move beyond the domain of money and will never again be put through the market.  Ascribing a monetary value to something that will never be bought or sold  is completely meaningless because money as a metric and intermediary only has a function in the market.  Remove the object from the market and you also strip it of all monetary value.

In an ideal world this should mean that objects such as the Seagram Murals lose any connection they ever had with the world of money.  That they don’t is because of the deeply problematic relationship between critics, experts, collectors, auction-houses, bankers, galleries, the media, insurance companies, tax authorities and the art market more generally, all of whom contribute to the valuation of ‘art’.

A recent essay by Olav Velthuis in a report on the contemporary art market he co-edited with curator Maria Lind, Contemporary Art and Its Commercial Markets: a Report of Current Conditions and Future Scenarios (2012, Sternberg Press), argues strongly that although art markets do not function like any other, they have in recent years been increasingly ‘financialized’.  Although still a very risky investment, modern and contemporary art is increasingly being recognised as an ‘asset class’, complete with systematized actuarial analysis, market databases and increasingly powerful collectors and art fairs.  In place of, or rather in addition to, the prevailing “expert-opinion regime”, Velthuis and others see the rise of a “dealer-collector regime” of value construction.  In practice, dealer-collectors were always part of the elaborate process of valuing art works (the ‘Tate’ in Tate Modern was the sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate of Tate and Lyle whose personal collection formed the core of the original Tate Gallery), but their power has lately reasserted itself due to the huge influx of private money into art markets.  As a consequence the art-world’s ‘experts’ increasingly serve both the ‘public’ institutions and the ‘private’ markets.  Again, this is nothing new, but it has become increasingly obvious and problematic as investment has gone in not just to the objects themselves, but, as Velthuis argues, to the market infrastructures designed to make them ‘safe’.

Umanets’ action may have been intended to draw attention to some of this, but is ultimately utterly self-defeating.  This is because the only terms in which both he and the media seem to be able to explain his attack is precisely in terms of an entirely fictitious and massively inflated market value.  In the process, the possibility that the Rothko might have a value beyond the market has been completely obscured.  Business as usual.