Museums as value-chargers

I have not worked out the distinctions between value and values, or the separate spheres arguments of Zelizer as it fits more generally into economic sociology – efforts to bend her work to my frameworks don’t generally work, and it’s a failure of my frameworking. Still, this excerpt from Kopytoff seems incredibly insightful to me:

When things participate simultaneously in cognitively distinct yet effectively intermeshed exchange spheres, one is constantly confronted with seeming paradoxes of value. A Picasso, though possessing a monetary vale, is priceless in another, higher scheme. Hence, we feel uneasy, even offended, when a newspaper declares the Picasso to be worth $690,000, for one should not be pricing the priceless. But in a pluralistic society, the “objective” pricelessness of the Picasso can only be unambiguously confirmed to us by its immense market price. Yet, the pricelessness still makes the Picasso in some sense more valuable than the pile of dollars it can fetch – as will be duly pointed out by the newspapers if the Picasso is stolen. Singularity, in brief, is confirmed not by the object’s structural position in an exchange system, but by intermittent forays into the commodity sphere, quickly followed by reentries into the closed sphere of singular “art.”
– Igor Kopytoff. 1986. “The cultural biography of things”, pp. 82-83 in Appadurai, ed. The Social Life of Things

The idea here is radical in its insight that objects float into and out of commodity states. We have an old paperback copy of Anna Karenina that is clearly a mass market paperback. But it was given to my partner by her dad, who passed away a couple years back. The book, with its missing cover and folded pages, is no longer a commodity but is now an object imbued with memory. It’s specific to her though, and it would revert back to commodity if she were to give it away to Goodwill. Currently though, it has no price as we think about it.

But some things lose their value for being brought in and out of this commodity state. It can only be commoditized for the first time once. This is why social ties, once monetized, are difficult (but not impossible) to revert back. And if art is to remain valuable by virtue of its cultural value, art world participants have to be careful about how and when they manage the culture/market spheres.

This reference to Charles Saatchi’s joining the efforts of the Art Trading Fund sings to me about how the monetary sphere/cultural sphere dance works.

Damien Hirst is commissioned by Saatchi to produce “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” in 1992 for £50,000 (about $100,000). It is displayed in his gallery until 2005, when it is sold to Steve Cohen of SAC Capital for $8M. Then, just as suddenly as it was moved into the sphere of commodity, it is snatched back into the realm of culture, placed on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for three years, from 2007-2010.

I like the fact that everyone knows that the Met is recharging the cultural batteries of the shark, depleted by its run-in with the marketplace. And of course, as Roberta Smith’s article points out, the Met does not represent some culture-only venue, but a marketplace in its own right. All sides are both totally cynical and totally authentic – art needs to be displayed, and art is a commodity. After another 10 years off the market (probably less), we’ll hear of another sale, another moment of commodification. And then it will be off for another traveling show at Bilbao or somesuch. Just you wait and see.

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