'Prudent' pricing, the Pain Caucus, and the Protestant Ethic

In his book Talking Prices, Olav Velthuis points out that the collapse of the art market in the early 1990s resulted in a widespread shift away from the ‘superstar’ pricing of the go-go 80s, and towards a ‘prudent’ pricing in the 1990s. Art dealers saw the watershed collapse of fantastic(al) prices as a moment not of panic, but of purification. Suddenly, the come-lately collectors from Japan and elsewhere who would buy dubious quality art at dubiously high prices would be forced out of the market.

Superstar prices would ruin artists’ integrity; superstar dealers “trample the morals of the market, treating an artwork overtly as a commodity, with status as well as investment overtones” (151). These dealers potentially further destabilize the art market, resulting in negative effects on everyone else.

That artists themselves would bear the brunt of the suffering as a result of lower prices was a feature, not a bug. True, these lower, more slowly rising prices for an artist’s work benefit collectors much more than artists. Prudent pricing would make artists more responsible. Velthuis also argues that “for most artists pricing prudently means that they cannot make a living form their work” (155). But for dealers, this moment of purification allowed them to re-establish control over art prices more broadly, and to do so within a moral framework.

There are parallels to the so-called Pain Caucus, so named because in the face of massive unemployment, these policy-makers and federal reserve chairpeople think that short-term deficits are the crises on which we should focus. There is a moral element here as well: that after the profligate borrowing and spending of the early ‘aughts, workers need to suffer some. Why it is workers who need to bear the brunt of this suffering, I leave to your own political imagination.

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