Pricing or prizing potential in the 1990s.

Author:Pointon, Marcia
Position:Valuation of art works - Money, Power, and the History of Art

The close links between art, money and power is evident in the potential valuation of some art works in millions of dollars. Likewise, it is through this that the role of art historians as designators of the value of art pieces gains power. Still, it is important that art historians not be swayed by financial concerns. If art works are only to be understood by its viewers through their price tags,... (see full summary)


Knowledge has no price but the acquisition of knowledge, as Brecht's Galileo vividly demonstrates, takes place in the marketplace. Not only does art have a price but in some respects, at least in the late twentieth century, it is also a cypher for financial value itself. The more abstruse the world of international finance, the more compelling the idea of a single object that can command millions. To be an art historian is to deal in a knowledge field that is mapped by price tags; to this fact we may attribute the abiding strength of that citadel where the idea of art as transcendent value reigns supreme in spite of all challenges from philosophers, historiographers, theorists and intellectuals of all persuasions. The directors of national galleries who insist that paintings "speak" to viewers are the most ardent and influential protagonists of this position. Disavowing that they have a position at all is part of the exercise of power as natural, uninhibited, and benign. Protected from unwelcome philosophical dialogue by the circles of the devoted - Friends, Special Friends, Very Special Friends, Trustees in whom we trust to look after everyone's interests - the directors are monarchs in their universe, or so it seems. To them, rather than to the dealers - who never deny that money is their business - may be attributed some of the problems we experience in convincing fellow historians of science, economics, religion . . . that we are to be taken seriously. The themes of reconciliation and collaboration that pepper mission statements, the declarations of mutual cooperation that come fluttering on the winds that gust around the new lottery-financed palaces of art, have yet to prove their worth.

Contemplating twenty years of assault upon institutions of learning, the ever widening gulf between ability and entitlement to education, the cult of management that has intellectuals enslaved to trivializing and unproductive systems instead of teaching (and academics in the United Kingdom by one account now spend over half their time on administration rather than on teaching and research),(1) it is possible to steer a course between humor and the morbidly serious. For if we dare to lift our heads from the acquisition of transferrable skills and their attendant jargon, we will have to acknowledge the appearance of a daunting landscape, despite the fact that some of the most interesting work of the century within the broad discipline of art history has been accomplished during this period.(2) Why is there not a greater indignation about the erosion (indeed, the very destruction) of excellent environments for research that were built up before the 1970s with such dedication and such optimism? Could, or should, the gallery professionals have helped? Were they perhaps not unamused to see that these awkward art historians who refused to take provenance for an answer were having a difficult time, or were they too busy trying to keep the roof repaired and the rain off the Rembrandts to take very much notice? The question of why the two worlds, that of academic art history and that of public art galleries and museums, have failed to act in a concerted fashion to defend common interests remains. Either the interests are less common than we perceived or there is a different attitude to the issue of money in each place.

The three terms money, power, and art form a familiar trinity; even without having read their Bourdieu, Baudrillard, or Darbel, the least sophisticated undergraduate will now connect the idea of art with the money and, hence, the power (or is it vice versa?) of the medieval Church, the Medici court, the Chinese emperors, the Guggenheim family . . . though few will think through the consequences of this epistemological construct for our understanding of what we accept under the rubric of "art." Moreover, anxious to establish our credentials in the human sciences, keen to slough off the associations with Berensonian aesthetics, Germanic archaeology, and the kinds of formalism with which individuals like Adrian Stokes or Roger Fry were identified in the early years of the century, art historians saw in the 1970s and 1980s the linking trio as a means to salvation. After all, if challenged over the usefulness or relevance of art history (relevance to what tends not to be specified) scholars could slip into sociological mode. Our preoccupations could be justified to a wider academic audience by reference to the serious analytic of economic exchange. Art:money:power is, then, a recognized constellation. The same is not true of art history:power:money. With regard to this set of associations, art historians have been considerably more coy.

Like anthropologists, art historians are concerned to study for the most part peoples other than ourselves and their possessions, artifacts that already have meanings and are intrinsic to ritual and ceremony specific to those peoples...

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