Art, finance and the perception of value

Angela Viera Cardoso

May 13, 2015

AVC: How do we perceive value, why something is more important than the other?

The logic of the art market is very similar to the one of the financial world. Taking into consideration an economic context, it does not matter how we perceive art or finance: when art is produced by individuals and institutions subject to our economic environment, they also become subject to the constraints of the material world. In the general economy, art and finance can be close relatives. Even if there are different behaviours shaping art and finance, there are a lot of similarities between “consumers” and “producers” of art and other products.

In both art and finance, status is very important and it goes both ways. The broad definition of finance is “the monetary resources and affairs of a state, organization, or person”. Throughout history artists have been supported by individuals, states or organizations with monetary resources. They would be asked to portray important people in order to “immortalize” them, leaving a legacy. The artist itself would benefit from this, apart from the payment. Would Leonard da Vinci, Raphael, Vermeer (who was also an art dealer) and others be so important had they not be connected to rich individuals? Looking back at old masters we appreciate more their artworks than the subjects or individuals they were painting. (Who exactly is Mona Lisa by the way?)History confirmed the value of these creations, but at the moment they were being created, the artist knew it was a great opportunity to have a commissioned work from a known family, individual or organization. In terms of artistic production, artists had to comply with established canons.

Nowadays, artists are “free” to create their own art and their “signature is everything”. The “status” is a relative position towards something or someone, an immaterial length of existence; in this case the artists can benefit from important collectors who are also looking forward to be the known as the proud owner of such artwork. Status and recognition are a part of our mental reward system.

A lot of people think of Finance as something linked with status and power (maybe because our mind is driven to associate finance with money and money with power) and one could say that until the 2007-2008 crisis the sector was considered to be something only super intelligent people would do (and there are indeed a lot of them, the same way there are in other activities). Most high-new-worth individuals do collect art for passion and some to be the known collectors of a certain artist or artwork.

The value of art, just like the value of money is based on a commonly accepted belief. I believe that the way we attribute value to enterprises, countries or even to a bank note follows the same logic on how the work of contemporary artists are perceived (for which we do not have historical value confirmation). We have an irrational behaviour and we elaborate theories on how this or that country has a great education level and how it will form great individuals and on how this artist that studied at Royal Academy of Arts in the UK has way more chances than the one who studied in a small city in Spain. We work with subjective opinions of individuals and organizations, who, taking into consideration their power, visibility and exposure, are able to drive and create a common opinion. Once there are no universal and scientific formulas to attribute value, all the concepts we use are subjective: aesthetics, performance, education, poverty, success, etc.

Galleries, who appear as the economic side of art, are laboratories, organisms that test if an artist creates an audience and a set of collectors or not. Nowadays, smaller galleries have to struggle to survive, while the bigger galleries are able to invest more time, money and effort to participate at all the art fairs and in promotion and that of course makes them more dominant. It is only about 10-20 galleries in the world that dictate what happens in the art market for the established contemporary artists, some of them are present in at least three continents and some of them are merging to be more competitive.

In order to arrive to institutional support, most artists have to go through galleries. Institutions need to make sure the institution audience values a particular artist and they base themselves on the investment and efforts galleries put up on a particular artist. Institutions need to be sure they will have an audience for the artworks hung on their walls (and collectors do love having their name next to an artwork exhibited in a museum) and galleries need to know if someone would buy it. The gallerist has the role of both promoting the gallery and promoting the artists. A lot of collectors consider better to buy from a certain gallery in an art fair than buying from a smaller gallery, for the same question of status. And we may be even talking of the buying same artist (or even the same artwork in case of multiples).

The set of “isms” which appeared at the end of the XIX and XX centuries, such as the impressionism, allowed artists to become freer to create whatever they wanted, and today there is a domination of an economic logic. It is a question of time, we cannot afford doing occupations that do not pay us, because the world functions differently- for everything you need money. The lack of a viable alternative system and the need to generate money forces the artist to become an entrepreneur and a strategist. Only the artists that can perform this multifaceted role will survive (and probably thrive) today from their art.

VK: But, isn’t it a bummer that being a good, successful artist rely on how good you are in selling yourself?

AVC: It is, but I don’t think there is an alternative. Even if you can find someone to outsource the task of selling yourself, you have to get to the economic part of the art system before! So, you need at least a basic skill of good self-presentation, you have to be a good communicator and to also be good with numbers. Sometimes I think it helps to project yourself in the future, believe that you will be a successful artist and if you start acting like that, it may help to make this possible.

Some examples of contemporary artists that we consider successful: Jeff Koons was a broker and designed his plan strategically. Damien Hirst has always been very careful when setting his artwork prices, even when he was a student.  Then there are other forces, which are present in economic contexts: male artists tend to have more possibilities to sell in the art market. Historically the art market was (or still is?) male dominated. However, women artists were freer towards the structure and towards the use of traditional mediums of the art market (since they were not recognized as part of it anyway) and this gave them the impulse to experiment other formats and mediums rather than painting or sculpture. In particular, films, sounds or textiles were, for a certain period, more associated to be a medium used by women.

VK: What is the relation between Banks and Art?

AVC: Banks normally have an art collection, which is usually from famous artists and they won’t normally acquire works from an unknown artist. Some of them sponsor events that do support young artists and (yet) unknown, which are nevertheless already been recognized as someone with potential.  It is a matter of prestige and they also do it for ‘corporate social responsibility’.

Moreover, art is considered as alternative investment. We discussed the case of Miró in Portugal, where paintings have been used as a collateral (pledged as security for repayment of a loan).

Contemporary art is very hard to evaluate, there is no historical backing for something that is happening now, neither one can easily predict what will be relevant in the future.

That being said, art’s value relies almost solely to pure speculation of the market’s trendsetters, the ones who manipulate the prices and tastes, even if it is not clear to me how this happens. Pure artistic expression itself does not have to do with finance, but it becomes implicated with the world of economics and finance, when contextualized in a world that everything falls under a material logic. However, it is very hard to materialize value. Can we put a price tag in friendship or love? No. Where do we draw the limits of the material over immaterial?

At some point in the conversation, while investigating motivations for collecting art, the story of my mother and her experience with art collecting came up. She bought some paintings 20 years ago and still is in love with them. After that, she stopped going to galleries, because she has found her paintings. She never cared to investigate if the artist became more successful and if the value of his work rose in time. She just likes them. I have also started collecting art I like.

In a way, art exemplifies the construction and manipulation of belief models. If we look at the example of the discussion about the Portuguese and the Belgian debt, we will discover that at a certain moment, they were the same, but Europe speculates that Belgium is more likely to pay than Portugal. Why? And, doesn’t that belief make “immaterial” forces move that way? Speaking of belief models, why can’t we think of a real alternative capitalism? Is it because it is the only thing we know? Last but not least, does art make better people in a way that which can help to reflect and criticise their beliefs?


AVC: How do you as artists would like to see yourselves being ‘valued’ or appreciated?

VK: I feel that my work is valuable when I get to a certain level of intellectual or emotional exchange and engagement with people. Whether they are curators, other artists or people from non-artistic backgrounds that are just interested in what I do. With my work as medium for communication, sometimes I get amazing discussions with people that are very far from the art world, but other times I really enjoy talking with people that are in the field because we can reach deeper levels of analysis, since we start from a common basis. So, I already feel very much valued and appreciated by people. When I put myself in a economic context though, where success and value is measure in monetary terms, I feel very bad that I earn so little! I know that does not mean at all that I am a bad artist or that my work in not important, but I cannot help it feeling a little sad when I see other people earning so much more. So in terms of money I actually don’t want to earn too much because I have the feeling that that will compromise my criticality, but I want to earn enough to have a comfortable life and not be in constant anxiety and stress about making ends meet and questioning my decision to become a non-marketable artist! It feels like I am inventing an inexistent profession and therefore I have to create not only my ‘art’ but all structures around it that could possibly support it and make it work a little bit in a world that everything falls under a financial logic.

AVC: Why do artists create?

VK: I do not know why other artists create, but I can speak about myself. And I will say that I create in order to shape and express to others the world as I perceive it, or as I would like it to be. But also because art is a place between fiction and reality and it feels like one can change institutions and structures of the real world, on the pretext of making an artwork. Isn’t that amazing?

AVC: How do you imagine in case of the inexistence of money, the exchange of your creation for something else?

VK: I think the question would be how do we imagine economy in general if it is an economy without money. As D.Graeber explains, before the invention of money there was a credit system. Credit that was based on personal trust. I would give you something you wanted from me, let’s say a cow, and you wouldn’t have to give me anything in return right away. Not like a barter system we have in mind for pre-money economies. But then I would know that I have a credit on you, and I could ask whatever I wanted in return in the future. And that was working well in small societies that everyone knew each other and maybe third parties from the village would intervene in case somebody was treated unfairly. In a way, economic bonds are social bonds and that is not a bad thing, it is what binds society together, interdependence. Money was invented really long time ago, but it was only used extensively it times of war, where people had to do business with soldiers from far away lands. In that case, there was not enough time to built on a trust system, so an impersonal exchange of a universal equivalent seemed the only option. Today we still have both systems of exchange, but things are much more complicated. First of all none of us produces basic goods for survival. I would be happy to exchange my work, my time or my artist skills for housing and food, but that is not possible. It might happen sometimes but on a very unreliable way, because it is not an acknowledged system. And it not a coincidence, you know, that people stopped produced regular goods. Even if you go to the countryside, farmers cannot do their job anymore, cause they earn nothing from it due to the fact that all the revenue goes to big industries and corporations. Max Haiven writes, “those who actually perform useful, valuable labour (growing food, raising children, building things) are devalued while those who perform destructive work (financial banking, weapons development, advertising, etc.) are rewarded.” So, on the one hand it feels like we live in a globalised society, which is in constant war, if you judge based on the impersonal monetary transactions that take place. On the other hand, you can see that in each specific community the credit system still works. For example, we do constantly tasks or invest our thoughts and skills for the creative community we belong to. The problem is when all this human, intellectual, social and creative capital is co-opted by capitalistic structures and some people earn from it while giving nothing back. When that happens, it leaves you totally drained and in a state of constant anxiety, insecurity and precarity. To wrap up, we are experimenting in investing part of our work and ourselves in alternative economic systems, we just don’t really have a system that organises this or to address it in some way.

AVC: Are you able to put a price (money or something else) on your works?

VK: Not exactly, but we know that we are always underpaid:) I actually tend to always ask too little, people constantly advise me to ask more. Sometimes I try to think like a worker and I am counting hours plus expenses, but I think it is a very strange concept to monetize time as well as labor, not only artistic. I totally understand artists that outsource this part to someone else, like the gallerist. I think the best solution to this problem would be basic income, in a way that it would unlink money from work. But, since we are far from this very interesting social experiment, I do think it is important to learn how to deal with money as an artist or, in general, as a young professional, but not to get to the point that the means (the money) becomes the end. It is only a medium.

Text written by Angela Vieira Cardoso and Valentina Karga after a skype conversation.

Angela Viera Cardoso

Angela Vieira Cardoso comes from Portugal and she is based in Brussels, Belgium. She has worked on Asset & Liability and Liquidity Management and quit to work full-time in an art gallery. It was not possible to keep that job, so she now works as a consultant in business process and change management in the banking sector. She keeps managing art exhibitions, is passionate about art and hooked on technology.

Spondylus was used as a currency by indigenous peoples of the Andes and Gulf of Mexico.