ESSAY: THE SPECULATIVE ECONOMY OF CONTEMPORARY ART – From the third issue of 'Arts of the Working Class': Restless Togetherness

  • 22.10.2018

In 1971, Richard Nixon took the dollar off of the gold standard. The dollar was historically tied to material goods and the worth of real capital as a signifier for material value. It also remained almost the last currency tied to the gold standard and thus, once it was removed, capital sailed away from material reality for good. Currency, stocks, and investments were now rooted in numerical budgets and mathematical formulas that never needed to be weighed or manually counted. In 1971, Seth Siegelaub along with the lawyer Robert Projansky published “The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement” which would define a new standard for relations within the art market. Siegelaub’s concerns about the transfers of artworks were that they were evolving into an economy of speculation.

The artist was cut out from profits on their own production – alienated from the product of their labour. The three-page contract followed his development of publications that paved the way for the institutionalisation and dissemination of conceptual art to wide audiences. However, the contract was never institutionalised and groups today still advocate for similar protections to accompany the re-sale of works.

The de-materialisation of value accompanied a re-formulation of the relationship between labour and remuneration. Marina Vischmidt’s close analysis of labour relations in the art world illuminate the way in which artists determined a new class of workers who inhabit a sphere outside of traditional capital relations.

Concomitantly with the loss of definition for labor, art assumes a new economic centrality as its indeterminacy is put to work in the more “speculative” modes of accumulation. This encompasses both the market and the public institutions of art, although the socially reproductive role assumed by the latter is increasingly de-stabilized as the legitimation art supplies for speculative capital is “de-leveraged” through austerity programs.

Yet, as austerity programs de-leverage legitimation, the art economy continues to function within new matrixes of production from the private sphere. It is towards these pockets that contemporary art produces social legitimacy.

One of the early urban “renewers” of the 70’s and 80’s is none other than Donald Trump. In 1973 Trump was sued by the American government for waging economic war against African American neighbours, charging higher prices, and changing the demographics of certain areas. This social cleansing led to increased property rates and today’s commonplace trends of urban regeneration and property speculation.

The neoliberal promise is to take capital from the bottom and give it up to the top – concentrating wealth in the hands of few – while some earnings “trickle down” back to the bottom. Investors who buy and develop property operate from within the speculation economy often buying flats or entire buildings before they exist and never occupying them. The sleek and monotonous global architecture of the super-rich is often left empty as an investment, just like the paintings that are bought by the same owners only to be stored in a warehouse for a few years before selling them off for a huge profit.

The aesthetic of the empty buildings that have become so characteristic in urban centres is synonymous with the artwork which is being traded most frantically in freeports and auctions. Paintings are normally stored in tax-havens as an investment while museums need to re-work their function and budget policy in order to match a changing economy and art structure.

Claire Bishop’s book Installation Art brings us back to the 70’s and 80’s as the time in which “installation art proper” was developed as a new medium. Drawing references from minimalism, Bishop describes how performative actions, situations, and minimalist sculpture started to define space in a new way that would place the viewer in a central position within the gallery – the experience of the street. Happening at the same time as urban renewal, the gallery space in itself gave value to the self-determined creative production of the invited artist. Rather than being valued for already-produced capital (material worth) the artist themselves are redefined as a means of production alone. This moves away from physical value and into the new labour-artistic relations that were implanted at this time.

In “PALACE IN PLUNDERLAND” Bishop discusses a new venue in Manhattan called “the Shed” The argument places performance and temporary artistic activities as the next logical step to privatising the city and all remaining public space. By co-opting the culture of public assembly and spilling outside of architecture, new forms of urban curating – guarded by security agents – claim the streets for curated programmes under the guise of public activity. The space of the gallery and the museum which was at first a repository for objects, became colonised in its entirety with the installational turn, and subsequently began to spill out of the doors of the institution, into private space, and ultimately, to the commons.

Bishop recurs to an old comparison of performative contemporary art to religious ritual. This comparison is also used by Sotirios Bahtsetzis in a critique of art’s supposed autonomy. In comparison to fetish items and Byzantine icons, contemporary art is also removed from handmade production while giving the patron elite a sense of goodness for their expenditure. Patronage assigns social good and in a two-in-one might also be worth some tax credits which further accelerates the spolia of capital from the working class. Selling political art to rich collectors constitutes a pat on the back and an incentive to keep hoarding public capital.

Art in the ongoing economic crisis is a survival mechanism for “fictitious capital” and speculation.

Also argued by Bahtsetzis is the fact that art and economy borrow terms from each other and grow symbiotically. Just as the market and political apparatuses have transformed themselves through the absorption of strategies developed in conceptual art, artists also need to adapt and transform to fit into market niches lest they be swept aside and considered “irrelevant” to the contemporary. Hito Steyerl describes the contemporary artist as someone who “feeds on the crumbs of the of a massive and widespread redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, conducted by means of an ongoing class struggle from above.” The essay concludes that institutional critique politically addressed only the forms of viewership within the exhibition space, but that what happens today is enormously altered and engulfed into a global economic sphere.

The tentacular influence and provenance of the conglomerations of power that are behind the commissioning and propagation of spatially colonising temporary performances are mirrored and reproduced in the product they are buying regardless of content. The most pressing issue therefore, is that artists should develop new strategies rather than socially climbing in the current economy. Some institutional directors are questioning the money-hungry attitudes of recognised institutions and favouring more popular programmes.

Artists should think about the urban space and the significance of their presence there and maybe breakaway into self-sufficient spaces that oppose and diametrically combat the gentrified contemporary-performative exclusionary-commons of the super-elite. We should ask not only how the museum should be, but also how art should be, how curating should be, and how galleries should be if we believe in inclusion and social structures. An art world which is rife with corruption cannot claim to combat corrupt systems, likewise inequality, ecological, or democratic principles. Rather than mirroring the broken and flawed system around us, create new ones within our own circles that can compete on an equal footing.


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