Confusions of Value
Discussing the French art market of the 50s and 60s, Raymonde Moulin observed, not quite in so many words, that well-developed art markets invariably and necessarily make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for their members to distinguisheconomic from aesthetic value. In a characteristic statement, she says:
Le spéculateur fait deux paris, étroitement solidaires l’un de l’autre à court terme, l’un sur la valeur esthétique, l’autre sur la valeur économique des œuvres qu’il achète, chacune des deux valeurs devant garantir l’autre. Gagner ce double pari, c’est à la fois s’affirmer comme sujet èconomique et sujet culturel. (Moulin, 1967, p. 219.)
Although she gives us a detailed gallery of kinds of collectors—including le érudit, le découvreur, le snob, and le spéculateur—and an equally detailed list of motives for collecting—la singularité, l’amour, le jeu, la culture, le sacré, and l’argent—she eventually summarizes the latter as leading to rational or irrational conduct, the two coinciding to a great degree with economic or aesthetic motives. I don’t intend to engage in an explication du texte de Moulin, tempting as that is with a text so rich , but rather to use her remarks as the provocation for further exploration of the phenomenon she draws our attention to.
Shared Economic Values
Shared economic values form the basis of the economic activity that underlies, in one form or another, all societies. Every society constructs ways of exchanging goods and services, and most develop some sort of standard for determining what constitutes a “fair” exchange. The most common solution to this prohblem, the one that pervades all modern societies (though it is never the only one, even in such societies) is to develop a money system. By creating a standard unit, in which all objects and services can be valued, we make possible the complicated economic activities that underlie our daily lives: the purchases and sales, borrowings and lendings, and all the rest of it.
Art markets operate, in some large part, on the basis of such systems of economic value. Insofar as they are actually markets, they are arenas in which objects are bought and sold on the basis of value expressed in universal, neutral monetary units: dollars, francs, pounds, yen. The exchanges take place in institutions organized for the purpose: in stores (called galleries) and, most usefully for Moulin’s work because their operations and prices are public, auctions (cf. Smith 1989). These institutions operate on the basis of rules mutually agreed on, or at least accepted, and understood by all participants.
Shared Aesthetic Values
People create aesthetic value by collectively recognizing some works of art as having it. It is the beauty that I recognize, and simultaneously know that you and other knowledgeable people recognize, that matters in an art world. One can imagine a purely private aesthetic standard. In fact, we need not imagine it. We all have such standards and such preferences. We like things others don’t like, and they like things we don’t like. Our likes and dislikes of a quasi-aesthetic kind may stem from personal experiences not commonly shared, so that we are fond, like Roland Barthes (1980) as he contemplated the image of his mother, of a photograph of a beloved relative or friend because it reminds us of that person. Objects have all sorts of private meanings that give them great emotional and, we might say, aesthetic value—but to us alone, not to others to whom they are simply peculiar tchotchkes. (see the investigations of Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) on the meanings of household objects).
Shared aesthetic standards matter more than those which are private and idiosyncratic because, like other shared beliefs, like the economic rules just discussed, they create the basis for collective action. If we agree on standards, we can agree more easily on what to do in situations in which we have agreed to be governed by those standards.
We can act quickly, relying on others to react to our actions in ways we anticipate just because they share those aesthetic judgments. If we all agree on what criteria mark a “good painting,” then we can admire each other’s judgment as exhibited in a collection, agree to help finance work of a certain kind, and engage in all the other forms of collective action that make up the routine doings of an art world. If we operate solely with privatized aesthetic standards, we can’t act in a coherent or coordinated way with others.
Aesthetic rules operate in institutions which define themselves as “artistic,” as organizations which engage in activities that encourage art or make art possible. In such organizations, aesthetic judgments are paramount and override other considerations. Or, at least, that’s the story their participants tell about themselves. Museums say that they choose what to acquire and exhibit on the basis of aesthetic standards, choosing what is most beautiful or most expressive. Or, as Moulin points out, what most exhibits the trend of art history, what has been important to that history, what is important to it now, what will be important in the future: “Leurs [les marchands des œuvres consacrés] choix artistiques peuvent s’appuyer sur la sélection déjà opéré par l’histoire. “ (Moulin, 1967, p. 100, see also pp. 430-1)
To repeat, Moulin’s key finding is that, in a well-developed art market, none of the actors involved can accurately and consistently distinguish aesthetic from financial value when they judge works of art. I do not mean by this, nor did Moulin mean, that the two systems of value are in conflict. Things are more confused than that.
Sociologists say that value conflict occurs when the behavior recommended by one set of values is simultaneously condemned by another set of values. In the classic textbook example, the businessman goes to church on Sunday and learns the value of charity, and on Monday returns to work to practice the value of acquisition and forgets all about the charity. But that example is also one of how temporal or spatial segregation can solve a problem of value conflict. If you can keep the two injunctions in separate situations, so that you never have to obey both of them at once, the conflict is only hypothetical. The trouble starts when they operate in the same place at the same time with respect to the same actions.
Moulin meant something more complex than having to serve two masters, hoping not to get caught with both of them in the room at the same time. She alerted us to at least two further consequences of the chronic confusion of aesthetic and financial value in art worlds. The two values may not conflict. In pursuing one you may simultaneously, and without difficulty, pursue the other. Which seems like a fine thing. But it may be, further, that one set of values has a low reputation. People prefer not to be thought to be pursuing that particular goal and would rather be thought to be pursuing the second. Although one would like to appear to be pursuing just the one, that isn’t possible. One might even, and in many worlds certainly would, prefer to think about oneself that way, not just create the appearance. Because people are jealous of their self-regard.
This is the case with the market in paintings. If a painting is thought aesthetically worthwhile, it is because people who are in a position to know—connoisseurs—think it is more beautiful, more expressive, more whatever it is that their aesthetic system prizes, than most other works. Not only that, it is a unique expression. There will never be another just like it. So it is rare in the nth degree: it is unique. And it is one of a relatively small number of works that have this quality of unique expression, so it is rare, too, by belonging to a class of objects of which there are very few. Even if another is just as good, so that there are many objects with this sort of unique quality and thus substitutability is possible, the class of possible substitutions is very small and, in practice, substitutions seldom occur. (Moulin 1978; 1992, 15-18)
If something is rare or unique in this way and people want it, it is almost certain, in a market economy, that the ownership will be settled by purchase and, if it is highly valued, by competition among buyers, which will raise the price, the auction being the most visible example of this process.
Thus, aesthetic value (the process repeats itself at less rarefied levels, as Moulin explains in her discussion of “lesser” markets (Moulin 1978; 1992, 34-43)) is mirrored in market value. If an object is beautiful, and standards of beauty are shared (as they must be if there is an art world at all), then price will accurately reflect aesthetic worth. (Heinich, 1991, pp. 149-167, adds considerably to the complexity of this relationship, in her discussion of the enormous prices paid for the works of Van Gogh in recent years.)
Turn this equation around. If an art work is very valuable, it must be because knowledgeable actors in the art world think it very beautiful (or whatever they value, letting “beauty” stand for whatever is taken to be the aesthetic sine qua non). The object has to be beautiful. The aesthetic value accurately reflects the financial. It is often observed that a valuable object has a kind of aura that comes from it being worth so much. Looking at a painting that has just been sold for several million dollars inevitably produces, in people who accept the values of the world in which the transaction occured, an awareness of a special “something.” It is something, though not exactly, like looking at the money itself, as if several million dollars in banknotes lay before you. Not exactly, because the object is not only the banknotes, it is that rare something worth all those notes.
So actors in the art world in which these transactions occur are fundamentally and irremediably confused. They do not, and cannot, know whether the objects around which their world is organized are beautiful or valuable. Why should they worry? If the two coincide, so much the better. Unfortunately not, because the financial motive has a bad reputation in the art world. No one wants to be thought to be acting from such motives.
And with good reason. If I am in a position to profit from my judgment, I may be tempted to make the judgment that will profit me rather than the one toward which the standards “we” all subscribe to impel me.
The Personal Problem
I can, as an individual member of an art world, worry that this possibility will show itself in my own actions. Suppose I am a critic. Among the tasks I set myself is to find, before others do (thus demonstrating my superior connoiseurship), artists who have already or will soon produce rare works of artistic genius. Suppose further that I am successful in this, and find a few such people other knowledgeable members of the world have overlooked. At the moment, these artists, unknown and without reputation, cannot sell their work for much. No one wants it. But I see that their work is beautiful and expressive, sitting precisely on what will eventually be the main line of the history of painting. I enjoy it for just those qualities. I want these paintings for their intrinsic artistic value.
Furthermore, since these painters cannot sell their work, by buying paintings from them I help them out financially. With what I have paid them they can pay the rent, buy food and clothing, buy more supplies with which to make more paintings. Even further, if I (who am a well-known critic) buy their work, this will vouch for its value to other, more timid buyers. Seeing the work in my collection, they will be more willing to take a chance and buy from those artists too.
Just at this point, if I am a conscientious member of this world, I begin to have moral qualms. If this happens—if others buy work whose artistic value I have recognized ahead of the mob—then the value of the paintings I bought for a few francs will go up. By expressing my critical judgment in the act of buying, I have lined my own pocket. And there is no way I can do the good things I would like to do—own beautiful works, help struggling artists—without running the risk of being thought to have done them, and the feeling that perhaps I actually havedone them, for low financial motives.
The Organizational Problem
That’s the personal problem. But every personal problem, as sociologists as various as C. Wright Mills and Everett C. Hughes have noted, has an organizational counterpart. If, Mills says, I am depressed because I have no job, that personal problem is the individual version of the whole society’s problem of not being able to provide employment for all willing workers. If, Hughes says, the society has created standards for a social status which lead to a contradiction—if we expect doctors to be male and white and then allow women or blacks to become doctors—the women and blacks who have become doctors will experience this as a personal dilemma, as will the patients with whom they come in contact. (Hughes 1984, 141-150)
The organizational problem that corresponds to the personal problem of being unable to tell if I am acting from good or bad motives when I acquire works of art is one of trust. If, as members of the art world, we ordinarily assign the responsibility for judgments of aesthetic worth to experts, we expect those experts to act in a disinterested way on behalf of the standards we all share. We expect them to decide that this work is good and that one not so good because the accumulated weight of their knowledge, experience, and sensibility lead them to that judgment. We particularly want to know that they have not made those judgments because it will be financially profitable for them personally or for the institutions they represent.
This is perhaps most glaringly a problem with respect to the problem of attribution (Moulin 1992, 18-21). We often have trouble knowing with certainty who painted a particular work, and the decision about that has consequences for the price of the work. A painting by Rembrandt himself is much more valuable than one from the studio or school of Rembrandt (Alpers 1988). The great critic-connoiseurs of the 19th and early 20th centuries made their reputations by pronouncing on such questions, relying in part on their scholarly studies of details of an artist’s style and partly on a less describable sensibility, an indefinable ability to “know” that this was a “real” Titian as opposed to that one which only looks like the real thing. But such connoiseurs often worked closely with dealers, especially dealers who were selling to gullible American millionaires, and there is reason to think that the prospect of a sale would sometimes affect a critical judgment about an attribution. Nor need we prove that such things actually happened. It is enough to know that it could happen for the problem to become an organizational one.
In the speculative market for contemporary art (as opposed to the blue chip market in established Old and Modern Masters, to use Moulin’s important distinction) the problem of attribution is not relevant. But the problem of aesthetic value is. Did this curator choose to have this exhibit because it would enhance the value of his own holdings in the work of that artist or group? Did the curator collaborate with a dealer in assembling this exhibit, knowing that by thus enriching the dealer he would be arranging for the return of a similar favor another day? Collaborations between musuem staff and gallery owners in the organization of exhibits is common and is not in itself frowned on. But it raises these questions, questions to which, because of the confluence of values Moulin described, no one know the answers. The problem is so chronic and so perplexing that it has occasionally led to quixotic acts of self-denial. Thus, the story of Dennis Adrian, a well known critic and adviser to a group of affluent Chicagoans with advanced artistic tastes. (Perhaps I will be forgiven so provincial an example. It is one to which I had better access than many other well-known events.)*
The Adrian Gift
Dennis Adrian early recognized the artistic gifts of a group of Chicago artists who came to be known first as “The Hairy Who” and later, more respectably, as the Chicago Imagists. Among the artists involved were Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and others, now well-known , collected, and exhibited internationally. As a result of Adrian’s championing of their work, and of the concurrent activities of the art critic of a major Chicago newspaper (Franz Schulze of the Chicago Sun-Times), a local gallery owner (Phyliss Kind), and the collectors already mentioned (some of whom were active in the newly formed Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art), whom Adrian advised on their art acquisitions, the work of this group came to be widely exhibited and collected, and consequently rose substantially in value.
Adrian was quite poor: “I have had to form a collection with what are, not to put too fine a point on it, rather less than average means” (Adrian 1982, p. 7). He lived simply, had no steady employment (“trying to exist as a critic and teacher of art history” ibid.), did not deal in pictures privately as so many such critics and advisers do. But Adrian had a large collection of these now valuable paintings, bought at the beginnings of the artists’ careers for relatively little. It could be thought, and in fact it began to be said in some circles in Chicago’s art community, that his championing of the Chicago Imagists was a very clever way of providing for his old age. No one, of course, said this quite as bluntly as I have just put it, although the critic of the rival newspaper in Chicago, Alan Artner (1982) of the Chicago Tribune, came close to it in a malign review published when the collection was first exhibited. And here one must read between the lines and try to unravel the innuendo and metaphor; I will provide some marginal commentary to help with that work:
Adrian , perhaps stung by such talk, then made a great quixotic gesture. Though he needed the money, and could ill afford the gesture, he bequeathed his entire collection to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The collection had by then become quite valuable. In making this bequest, he assured himself but also, more importantly, the art world, that his judgment was indeed disinterested. Because he would not (unless he changed his will, always a possibility) profit from these works, his acquisition of them was solely an expression of his recognition of artistic worth. This bequest was not enough to satisfy Artner, who commented (the above is quoted from Artner’s review of the first exhibit of the works given to the Museum) that “[t]he museumization of the Adrian collection is, for some, the ultimate confirmation of his judgment.”
That is one interpretation, that the conspirators put the finishing touches on their work by having it all legitimized by an exhibition in a major museum. Another reading is that Adrian, recognizing that both good and bad motives could be read into the same actions—his collecting and promoting of the work of these artists—chose to do the one thing that would prove that he had not profited from his acquisitions and thus that he could not have acted from financial motives, only from aesthetic ones. That was to give the works away. (Pierre-Michel Menger, in a letter to me, suggests that even so grand a gesture has overtones of self-aggrandizement: “le collectioneur qui préfère garder ses toiles plûtot que les vendre pour payer ses soins médicaux fait peut-être un pari ‘symbolique’ sur la valeur future des oeuvres puisqu’il sortira personnellement grandi et réputé d’un choix artistique esthétique payant.”)
These events were so public that we cannot expect to find straightforward statements of what people intended by what they did. We must interpret what they said in the light of our knowledge of the workings of art worlds. This gives the interpretation I’m about to make a circular character: the events to be interpreted are part of the knowledge needed to create the larger understanding of the art world that makes it possible to understand such single events as Adrian’s gift. This is, of course, methodologically unsound; it is, however, necessary, because the alternative is hopeless naiveté.
Adrian signalled his intentions not by anything he said about the major gift to the Museum of Contemporary Art, but by what he says in the catalogue about an earlier event. He had begun his career as a collector, he says, with 20th century prints and drawings: Max Beckmann, Louis Corinth, Otto Dix, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso. He also developed an interest in younger contemporary artists, especially those he had met in Chicago:
[T]he increasing prices (and values) of works by modern masters precipitated a kind of unusual crisis for me. It happened that some serious and extremely expensive medical problems left me frighteningly short of money: the things on my walls started to swim in a haze of dollar signs and quite a number of colleagues and friends said “Why don’t you just sell a few of these things and solve the problem?” It was somehow impossible to explain to them that to sell a lot of things would seem like a terrible defeat and loss. I had worked very hard to get them and I wished them to remain works of art, not turn into “assets.” For this reason, after parting with two things which alleviated the immediate critical pressure, I decided to give my collection of 19th- and 20th-century prints and drawings to the Art Institute of Chicago, to which I had made an earlier gift at the request of the curator of that department. It was a step I have never regretted; these 40 or so things remain works of art—not assets—and they remain accessible to me and others interested in them. (Adrian 1982, p. 6)
Adrian here puts the point I have been making impersonally. He does not speak of his motives, only of the nature of the objects. By giving his collection to a museum—thus, as Moulin has noted, taking them out of the market more or less permanently—Adrian assured that they would not be assets, that is to say, that they would not, couldnot, be understood as objects of economic acquisition. (Not having a large income, Adrian did not have the economic incentives created by American tax laws, which give substantial tax reductions to donors of valuable objects to public museums.) By giving them away he has foregone the value critics might be accusing him of having created for his own benefit, by manipulating his position as a critic and adviser. Clearly, what was true of a small collection of minor works by well-known artists is even more true of a major collection of what may yet be late 20th-century masters (or perhaps not, since there is no guarantee that Adrian’s judgment will continue to be honored in the future).
That only such dramatic and drastic measures can provide the necessary assurance is a sign of how deeply and irremdiably embedded in the operations of art worlds and markets the confusion of values I am discussing is.
The General Problem
The phenomenon of conflicting but indistinguishable values, far from being a peculiarity of the world of art, is quite common. My grandmother always told me that it was just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl as a poor girl. I never followed that advice but, if I had, I suppose I might have experienced just this confusion over my motives—-it’s a common enough theme in 19th century fiction, even more so from the point of view of the rich spouse’s family, who always, in those books, suspected their daughters’ suitors of being fortune hunters.
The existence of such situations, especially if they are as ubiquitous as I think, poses a serious problem for sociological theorists. Typically, theorists have dealt with these situations by talking about conflicting norms or values, cultural contradictions, and the like, and noting how people in such situations of “social strain” respond.
The classic paradigm for such discussions was Robert Merton’s theory of anomie Merton, 1957), which took as the archetypal case people who learned to want certain cultural goals, which could only be achieved by certain acceptable means, but were then systematically (or systemically) deprived of those means. Under these circumstances, Merton said, people will engage in various forms of deviance, which he labeled innovation (roughly speaking, crime), ritualism (again roughly, the bureaucrat), and retreatism (the isolate).
Merton applied this scheme in its most sophisticated form in his analysis of science, where he saw the institutionally normative emphasis on originality as “potentially incompatible” with an almost equally strong emphasis on humility and modesty, stemming from the understanding that science was, after all, a communal endeavor in which one achieved results by working in concert with others. “Potentially incompatible” means that, although not truly contradictory, the two call for opposed kinds of behavior. In this case, although modesty and originality could in principle go together, as scientific institutions are actually organized, originality leads one to insist on “priority,” on having gotten a result first, while modesty forbids one to mention it.
Merton comes near to recognizing what Moulin has made central—that truly conflicting values can call for the same behavior—but says little about it. This is, I think, because he is fundamentally committed to the notion that incompatible values really are, after all, incompatible and any attempt to satisfy both must lead to conflict. An extended quotation shows how he approaches and then backs away from the idea:
For Merton, though both kinds of motives can lead to the same behavior, they are always distinguishable. Thus, science generates a need, in individual scientists, to have one’s accomplishment socially validated:
As elsewhere in his writings, Merton here explains “bad” behavior by “good” people by describing it as unusual. But what if what he finds “extreme” is not only modal but accepted. More to our point, however, what if the two categories, distinguished motivationally, cannot be told apart in practice, because the only way people can tell what they are doing is by seeing what they do, and they do the same thing whether their motives are an institutionally engendered desire for validation or a pathological excess?
Merton. a profound and influential theorist, here represents a dominant trend in contemporary academic sociology. Conventional theory requires us to be able to distinguish motives from one another, to know when people are acting from one or the other, and requires social actors themselves to be aware that they have conflicting motives and to know just what they are, and when they are doing one thing or the other. Of course, it is not usually put so crudely. But the underlying imagery of discussions of “role conflict” and the like is just this: that each action has its socially attached reasons, so that everyone, actors and analysts alike, can see when one or the other is operative. Moulin’s great contribution, modestly hidden in an analysis of the art market, is to show that the same behavior can seem to arise from quite different and conflicting motives, and that that possibility can cause a chronic and endemic confusion of values in social organizations.
Finally, Moulin’s results show that talk of values, in themselves or as explanations of conduct, is highly suspect, unless that discussion is highly nuanced and qualified. People do on occasion refer to values as they act, but they can never be sure, and thus neither can we, that they know what behavior can be attributed to what values. Not because they are confused or stupid, but because the situations they act in do not give them the resources with which to make such distinctions neatly and clearly. So values, as conventionally conceived, do not help us to understand collective action. We may, at most, understand values as shared understandings to which actors may from time to time appeal, to organize their own behavior or influence that of others. But we must understand also that this is only a beginning on the deeper explanations of collective life so wonderfully embodied in Raymonde Moulin’s profound explorations of artistic life.
Adrian, Dennis. 1982. “A Brief Personal History,” in Museum of Contemporary Art, Selections from the Dennnis Adrian Collection(Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art).
Alpers, Svetlana. 1988. Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Artner, Alan. 1982. “MCA rounds up Dennis Adrian’s ‘maverick’ herd.” Chicago Tribune, Arts and Books section, February 7.
Barthes, Roland. 1980. La chambre clair. Paris: Editions de Seuil.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly and Eugene Rochberg-Halton. 1981. The meaning of things : domestic symbols and the self. New York : Cambridge University Press.
Heinich, Natalie. 1991. La gloire de Van Gogh: Essai d’anthropologie de l’admiration. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.
Hughes, Everett. C. 1984. The Sociological Eye. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.
Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.
________. 1973. The Sociology of Science: theoretical and empirical investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Moulin, Raymonde. 1967. Le marché de la peinture en France. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
________. 1978. “La genèse de la rareté artistique.” Ethnologie françaiseVIII (2-3), 241-258.
________. 1992. L’artiste, l’institution, et le marché. Paris: Flammarion.
Smith, Charles W. 1989. Auctions: The Social Contruction of Value. The Free Press.
(1) I am grateful to Gilda Buchbinder and to Lynn Warren, of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, for helping me with the documentation of this story.
(2) Pierre- Michel Menger points out that the problem can appear in reverse; those who think of themselves as primarily economic actors may nevertheless accomplish aesthetic ends as well.: “Si vous avez acheté des toiles qui ont beaucoup augmenté, et que vous les revendez pour en acheter d’autres que vous préférez ou que vous pouvez payer plus facilement et qui correspondent à votre goût profond mais que vous ne pouviez pas satisfaire auparavant faute d’argent), comment dire si c’est un comportement spéculatif et s’il est en opposition aven l’éthique du désintéressement?”