Valuing art, performativity style

One of the more interesting notions in the social studies of finance over the past decade has been the idea of performativity. Discussions about the concept abound, both online and off – (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)….and the list goes on. I’m only pointing at a very few of the pieces.

In art, the claim is more complicated – it is more visibly the case the confirmation of an artwork’s status by gallery owners, museums, critics, art historians, and the like create economic value, but it is also a field plagued by claims (particularly in contemporary art) that bullshit stuff gets turned into multi-million dollar stuff via elites. And really, who could blame you for that notion?

Andy Warhol's Corn Flakes: Tasty, yes - but $482,500 tasty?

Andy Warhol's Corn Flakes: Tasty, yes - but $482,500 tasty?

Of course, it’s also the case that even the most elite/respected/assumedly able to ‘create’ value gallery owners (like Jeffrey Deitch) have gone bankrupt over their careers. If Larry Gagosian’s confirmation of an artist’s worth were truly the maker of economic value, that would not happen. In addition, this is not really performativity in the strict sense that there is not a claim about a theory that is made true in the implementation of that theory.

This is all by way of pointing to a fascinating website/project that has popped up recently, the Significant Objects project. Their goal is to see if they can create economic value by imbuing valueless objects with significance:

About the Significant Objects project
A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!

People buy thrift store and garage sale objects, and then pair that object with an author. The author writes a fictional story about the object, imbuing it with significance. The object is then sold on eBay, with the story as the description for the object. Results of the sale prices are then going to be posted on their site.

It’s interesting to see how this works, but what I like about it is the attempt to try to create and measure ‘cultural’ value’s effect on price. It’s not a perfect experiment by any means either, but I’m looking forward to seeing where it heads. What I don’t look forward to, frankly, is the endpoint when they say ‘see, this is all bullshit, and we’ve proven that you can make value out of anything!’ That point is inevitable, and I think, also wrong. The nuanced point that performativity folks often make – that you can’t make just anything true, that the world is not completely socially constructed, it worth keeping in mind here.

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