Are Art Auctions any Different from other Markets?

(by Sebastian B)
As far as I got acquainted to Pr. Levin’s research project, I wanted to stress the need for not overstating the singularity of art auctions relative to author forms of commodities and selling. What happens in an art auction is probably not very different from any other marketing process.

 We usually grant a very special status to art and view its commodification as problematic. On the one hand, the market is supposed to feature the ocean of commensurability. On the other, the piece of art is viewed as the unique outcome of a singular mind. Besides, auctions bear a specific aura among the different forms of commodification. As a social event, there are meant to dramatize the adjustment between scarcity in supply and multiplicity in demand. The auction, it is assumed, has the magical power of fixing a legitimate price in the realm of uncertainty as opposed to the sell of mass production at a price set before any selling agreement is made. Hence, Charles Smith’s suggests a natural connection between auctions and art. He argues that uncertainty is so high about the value of singular art pieces that a public auction is necessary to give them a value.

There is something I really don’t like about this claim. It assumes that there is such thing as a transparent market where a company sets once for all the value of its widgets. In fact, what happens in art auctions is only the display of what secretly guides the marketing process of most things. The only difference is that according to the economic ideology, commodities are produced and sold according to a transparent, straightforward process. In the course of their design and marketing, coffee mugs or any other consumer product, just as art, encounter redefinitions about their value: they all have an awkward biography.

Such is, at least, the argument of Michel Callon. In the line of Bruno Latour re-consideration of material life, this French sociologist argues that every single product is individualized. There are not two customers who define the value of a product in the same way. The final sale of a product results from the process of adjustment between the properties of the object and the “world” of the customer. The purpose of selling in the auction is not to make up for the uncertainty about the object’s value but rather to meet the demands of a particular “world”, that of the art dealers who attend auctions, and the product. The auction is a redefinition, among many others, of the nature of the art piece, just as when you buy an apple you give it a new significance.

Thus, in my view, we would miss a point if we primarily saw the appraisers work as merely turning “singularity” into “commensurability”. The way I would see the appraiser’s work is a contribution to a process of integrating singularity into a good. It could be compared to the influence of the sales manager within a company over the existence of a technically innovative product. Why not shifting to this paradigm when talking about art rather than staying in the rather dry “art vs. market” dichotomy?

Charles Smith, Auctions: The Social Construction of Value
Michel Callon, “La qualité”, Sociologie du travail, 44 (2002), p. 255-287

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