Art and Capital Have Become Nearly Indistinguishable

From brands commissioning immersive installations at prestigious art fairs to hedge funds transforming artworks into stock-like financial instruments, the line between art and capital is blurrier than ever.

A KAWS statue stands at the Rockefeller Center Plaza in Midtown in New York City. (John Lamparski / Getty Images)

The art world, which went partially dormant last year, has reanimated. In the first half of 2021, Christie’s reported $3.5 billion in sales, up 75 percent from 2020. Art fairs are back as well: Frieze New York was held in May, Art Basel went off in September, and Art Basel Miami Beach is set to return next month.

But for art lovers on the Left, there is little to celebrate.

Capitalism, of course, has always been in the process of absorbing art. For the most part, art has historically functioned as a site of patronage, an asset class, and a marker of social stratification — with some crucial exceptions in craft and design as well as folk, socialist, and outsider traditions and figures. But some daylight, at times just a sliver, always seemed to stand between art and commerce. Prominent works from just a few decades ago like Jeff Koons’s series Made in Heaven or Marina Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces, while rather transparently intended to burnish the stardom of their creators, were not just a means of printing money. But the art world of today, dominated by the blockchain and an increasingly select group of billionaires, is something different.

In recent years, bankers, financiers, hedge fund managers, crypto bros, promoters, collectors, and at times artists themselves have aggressively vacated art’s political projects, abstracted it from labor, and transmogrified it into a format ideal for trading and speculation. Even when it entertains political activism and critique, contemporary art is stifled by greed.

For some time, news out of the art world has mainly concerned the escalating sums collectors are willing to pay for work. In 2007, Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, a diamond-encrusted human skull, was bought by a private consortium (of which Hirst himself, incidentally, was a member) for $100 million, what was then the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. The record would be broken just three years later by Jasper Johns’s Flag, purchased by billionaire hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen for a reported $110 million. In March, digital artist Beeple sold a non-fungible token, or NFT, for $69 million, the highest price ever paid for a piece of digital art. Even Hunter Biden has gotten in on the action, recently listing paintings for up to half a million dollars.

Artists themselves still manage to pull off occasional provocations drawing attention to the art market’s senseless valuation schemes. In 2018, a copy of Banksy’s Girl with Balloon notoriously self-shredded at the moment of its sale for $1.4 million. Last year, Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian, a work that had been purchased for $120,000, became the most famous banana in the world when it was eaten by performance and mixed-media artist David Datuna at Art Basel Miami Beach. In September, in perhaps the most ham-fisted send-up in recent memory, conceptual artist Jens Haaning delivered a piece titled Take the Money and Run, consisting of two blank canvases, to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark, for which he was paid $84,000.

While none of these stunts should be understood as overt critiques of capitalism, they have nevertheless functioned to lift the veil, however fleetingly, on the self-indulgence and stupid money that animates the contemporary art scene. Unfortunately, exposure does not equal resistance.

As prices continue to rise and buyers scramble to invest, art now finds itself in an age of superlatives. Still topping over $50 billion in sales despite experiencing a downturn during COVID, the art market has grown significantly over the past decade and is expected to continue on its current trajectory. Like any luxury market, it’s flush with cash, feted across a vast archipelago of extravagant fairs, and aggressively financialized. As Martin Herbert writes, art has become nothing more than “a financial instrument with a pretty face.”

“Bigger Budgets, Greater Ambition”

While criticism of the industry’s excesses, pretensions, and moral turpitude certainly continues, art today is less frequently caricatured as the incomprehensible site of class pretension that it was in the 1980s. Instead, contemporary art now enjoys something verging on mass appeal. Prior to COVID, New York’s Museum of Modern Art drew over seven hundred thousand visitors annually, while the scandal-plagued Whitney pulled in over two hundred thousand. In 2019, tens of thousands of visitors lined up outside the David Zwirner Gallery to stand in the infinity room at Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition Every Day I Pray for Love. Yet while contemporary art has become more available to the masses, this democratization has been little more than a cash grab.As art business reporter Tim Schneider contends, the dawn of contemporary art’s popularization can arguably be traced to the 1980s, when figures like painter Julian Schnabel produced striking works legible to the general public. As the fortunes of high-net-worth individuals ballooned in the decades hence, so too has an appetite for the work of such hip, young, and living artists. Schneider likewise credits the infusion of cash pumped into the scene for enhancing art’s cool factor, citing “bigger budgets, greater ambition, and more robust marketing for successful galleries and artists.”

Jeff Koons’s stainless steel Rabbit, which sold for $91 million, briefly set a record. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Many of the figures who reached superstardom around the turn of the century — Koons, Abramović, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Matthew Barney, Ólafur Elíasson — have similarly favored spectacular works of massive scale that could provide visceral thrills and draw significant crowds. As a result, art began to migrate into middle culture. The average middle-class person could appreciate, or at least enjoy, the immersive grandeur of high-budget works like Elíasson’s The Weather Project without feeling like they were missing something. And, of course, art so rendered could be more easily commodified. Moreover, it could better tessellate with mass conceptions of celebrity and luxury, belonging more to the realm of pop style icons than eccentric esthetes.

One consequence of this shift is that art has become more central in advertising, particularly for luxury goods. In a 2016 campaign for Louis Vuitton, actor Léa Seydoux was photographed at Cuadra San Cristóbal, the iconic modernist estate north of Mexico City built by architect Luis Barragán in 1968. In another of the company’s ads from this year, Seydoux strolls in front of some Gerhard Richter paintings clutching a Capucines bag. The company, it should be noted, has done much to suture itself to the art scene — in 2014, it opened the Louis Vuitton Foundation, a contemporary art museum and cultural center in Paris designed by Frank Gehry.

In one of the most controversial and transparent attempts to harness the cachet of art, Tiffany & Co., owned by Louis Vuitton as of this year, produced an ad featuring Jay-Z and Beyoncé posing with the rarely seen Equals Pi, a Basquiat painting owned by the company. Alexandre Arnault, the company’s executive vice president of product and communications, suggested that the painting’s background color must have been a deliberate homage to the robin egg blue of the Tiffany brand. Many intimately associated with Basquiat and the painting’s production vehemently disagreed.

Such examples not only suggest that luxury brands are actively seeking to associate themselves with the prestige that art carries but, in the case of Arnault, striving to impute an anachronistic brand awareness and loyalty onto art itself. With delusions similar to those harbored by Justin Bieber as he hoped that Anne Frank “would have been a belieber,” Arnault fantasizes that brand embellishment is what art has always been for.

This association runs the other way too. Brands increasingly commission artworks as de facto commercials, employing the prestige of artists and art fairs to refine their image. At Art Basel and Frieze London earlier this year, luxury skin-care brand La Prairie commissioned an installation by French artist Maotik to mark the launch of the company’s Skin Caviar Nighttime Oil, a “generous and silky” product going for $530 a bottle.

As the company described the installation, Sense of Blue “plunges the viewer gradually into the depths of the night.” Spectators wander around a large, mostly vacant room awash in cobalt blue light, the same color as the product bottles. Motion sensors track visitors’ movements and respond with algorithmic light effects and digital projections. The gestalt, one imagines, is that of getting lost in an empty nightclub.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Part of contemporary art’s public reassessment can also be tracked to the massive investments in museums and art fairs. Costly and grandiose contemporary art museums designed by celebrity architects are crucial to art’s renovated image. Regarding these structures, critic Hal Foster refers to our time as “a new Gilded Age of cultural ostentation” and reports bafflement at how “progressive architects leapt to design these monuments to neoliberal magnificence, and that otherwise progressive artists agreed to fill them.”

Renzo Piano’s $422 million Whitney Museum, which opened in the Meatpacking District in 2015, is a typical example of such excess. A key draw of the Disneyfied — or what Michael Kimmelman calls “deracinated” — neighborhood (which also includes the High Line, the troubled nightlife favorite the Standard Hotel, a Tesla dealership, and, as of this year, Heatherwick Studio’s Little Island — a park apparently designed for self-display), the Whitney seems built more for Instagram than for housing art. As Matt Shaw noted in 2016, the museum is an “architectural tourist trap. . . . the conceptual built equivalent of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar (GAKB) in Times Square,” a “washed-out and soulless” vanity project of a celebrity architect.

Surprising no one, these gilded museums have been marked by significant pay disparities between workers and museum officials as well as by precarious working conditions. It is these grievances that have spurred union drives at art museums across the country. In 2019, employees at the Guggenheim, the New Museum, the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and others voted to unionize. Earlier this year, employees at the Shed, the arts center at Hudson Yards, voted to unionize, and staff at the Whitney, in response to poor job security, substandard pay, and job cuts in 2020, voted to join the Local 2110 UAW.

The gilded approach also applies to art fairs, which have multiplied like tribbles over the past two decades. Art Basel Miami Beach began in 2002. Art Basel Hong Kong followed in 2008. Frieze Art Fair began in London in 2002 and later expanded to New York and Los Angeles in 2012 and 2019, respectively. Zona Maco, which started in 2002, holds two yearly events in Mexico City. Art Dubai, which began in 2007, is the premier art fair in the Middle East. ArtBo has been held annually in Bogotá, Colombia, since 2005. The list goes on.

Art remains the ostensive raison d’être of these events, but lavish parties catering to a jet-setting elite are the real draw. While there are many contenders for the most extravagant, Art Basel Miami Beach, offering a syncretic blend of South Florida sex appeal and high art, has long been the clear victor with lush, celebrity-packed events at places like Soho Beach House. As artist Nikita Gale said of Art Basel Miami Beach in an interview in 2018, “It’s like being inside of Instagram. . . . It feels like everything’s compressed in a bizarre way. Art, commerce, capitalism, celebrity culture, beach culture, party culture. It’s pretty surreal.”

It is no wonder, then, that entertainment industry heavyweights are looking for a piece of the action. In 2020, amid the economic turmoil of COVID, James Murdoch, scion of Rupert Murdoch, acquired a controlling stake in MCH Group, the parent company of Art Basel.

Day Trader

Beyond the optics, ads, and parties, the most significant site of art’s twenty-first-century shift is the new role that it has taken on in the financial industry.

In recent years, industry leaders have worked to overcome many of the intrinsic impediments that long prevented art from becoming just another commodity. Art’s notorious liquidity problem, its volatility, its fragility, the steep price of individual works, and the cost and hassle of transporting it have historically all been hindrances that have rendered artwork more risky and comparatively less attractive to traditional investors. All of this, however, is beginning to change.

One of the ways around this problem has been the transformation of individual artworks into stock-like instruments. One company that has sought to position itself in this space is Masterworks, a private art investment firm seeking to “democratize” the art market and to sell everyday investors on the idea of art as an uncorrelated asset class.

The company’s intervention has been to sell shares of artwork the company owns, thereby allowing individual investors of modest means to reap fractional interest on works they can partially own. Selling shares in its collection of blue-chip works by Banksy, Basquiat, Warhol, and KAWS, Masterworks promotes art as “a physical, tangible asset that is globally transportable, marketable, and can be transacted in any currency.” Through such investments, regular people can nominally participate in the art market, gathering shards of expensive works and, presumably, feeling like they’ve joined the club.

Another workaround, one that has captured extensive global interest this year, is blockchain-enabled art transactions, or NFTs. Secured by the Ethereum blockchain, NFTs offer a reliable means of selling works and establishing both provenance and proof of ownership of digital artifacts. Creators mint unique ERC-721 tokens that can then be sold to buyers on marketplaces like OpenSea. Far more liquid than physical artwork, NFTs enable quick, frictionless sales and, unlike traditional sales, allow creators to retain ownership of works and collect royalties.

Many proponents of the technology notably suggest that it offers something valuable to artists as well as collectors. Berlin-based artist and musician Holly Herndon defends NFTs for helping to actualize the democratic and creative potential of artists in the Web 3.0. She argues that NFTs offer to further promote art and artists by making issues of aesthetics and provenance central to the crypto community.

Yet despite the possibilities these technologies offer, their effect has been to render artwork markedly more available to capitalist appropriation. Herndon in fact acknowledges that NFTs are passed around by “day traders” and function as “their own currency.” In such contexts, art is abstracted from any intrinsic connection to artistry, commentary, or labor.

Indeed, many NFTs are algorithmically generated, shifting the role of the artist from a creator to something more like an asset manager. This is as much the case for Bored Ape Yacht Club as it is for works with actual aesthetic ambition. Likewise, any sense of the political is vitiated as art is reduced to mere value. NFTs, while retaining the positive associations of class and style associated with art, are really nothing more than assets with an associated JPEG, transformed into the frictionless commodity that capitalists have always wanted.

Conditions for NFTs, however, may be changing. With the passage of H.R.3684, NFTs will henceforth be regarded as cash and will be taxed accordingly. While this may dampen the free-for-all that the community has become, there is only nominal hope that such a policy will slay the beast.

The Dull Edge

Regarding the extensive capitalization of art, a hotly debated question remains concerning whether artists themselves are able to offer meaningful resistance and critique. As artists increasingly turn toward anti-capitalist criticism, often openly excoriating the conditions of financialization and overvaluation dominant in the contemporary art world, it is an open question whether art has the capacity to resist its own commodification and capitalism writ large.

For decades, in works like untitled (pad thai) and untitled (free), Rirkrit Tiravanija has strived to cultivate “collective ‘micro utopias’ . . . meant to oppose capitalism’s ongoing alienation of the individual.” In Eurropa, a video installation currently at CRAC Alsace, Argentine multidisciplinary artist Liv Schulman depicts a future world in which the European Union has dissipated but European tax havens such as Guernsey and San Marino, with their “opaque tax systems” sheltering the world’s wealth, remain intact. Also this year, American artist Aria Dean has proposed three bronze sculptures to mark Sweden’s “imbrication in colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.” These are but three examples of a pronounced current in contemporary art, with newer works routinely taking up questions of exploitation and domination.

While it is certainly tempting to think that art’s reflexivity might offer something hopeful here, the virtually endless capacity of anti-capitalist art to be captured, commodified, and rendered as currency suggests serious limitations to this view. Podcaster Anna Khachiyan said as much in 2018: “As long as art remains a prestige economy of the free market — a glitzy barnacle on the side of global finance — it cannot be an effective tool for political change.”

While no doubt a stale example, Banksy remains the most illustrative standard of the diminished, barnacle-like capacity of art’s political critique in the context of capitalist dominance. The anonymous artist, mistakenly still heralded by many as an anti-capitalist critic, enjoys financial benefits and social capital that far exceed the impact of his kitschy, blunted work. Just last month, the partially shredded Girl with Balloon, hence renamed Love is in the Bin, sold for £18.5 million ($25.3 million) — a net gain of $23.9 million.

To be sure, there are far more talented, politically incisive, and relevant artists working today — Kate Cooper; LaToya Ruby Frazier; the Lithuanian “hive mind” trio of Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, and Lina Lapelytė — yet the material conditions of contemporary art mean that any social, political, or economic commentary, however sharp, must pass through the mincer of the art world’s style machine. How impactful can a piece be when it meets the world through a celebrity’s Instagram?

The way forward, then, seems unlikely to be through the medium of art itself but through widespread anti-capitalist activism. The unionization of museum workers is an important beginning. But more drastic restructuring and direct opposition to the art world’s conservatism and greed is needed. This year, activists with Strike MoMA have aggressively opposed the museum’s capitalist, racist, misogynist, and otherwise exclusionary practices with marches, teach-ins, and direct action.

In March, Angela Davis, Fred Moten, Jesse Darling, Brian Eno, and many others signed an open letter organized by Strike MoMA to the Museum of Modern Art supporting the Palestinian cause and excoriating the museum’s “entanglement with the mutually reinforcing projects of settler-colonialism, imperialism, and racial capitalism in Palestine, the U.S. and around the world.” While directed at a museum rather than the vast structure of the art world’s capitalist interpenetration, it’s nevertheless an important step toward rejecting art’s long unimpeachable status.

Actions like these come close to exposing art for what it has become: a tool of capital accumulation and social domination. For socialists, the task of distinguishing pretty but hollow forms of resistance from the actual work of anti-capitalist struggle remains crucial. Through this, perhaps another art world is possible.