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Uselessness, Refusal, and Money

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Beautiful Money

Once upon a time I suggested that art is just another form of money (a beautiful money) — that artists are like tiny nations each minting their own currency, and the art world is an instrument for calibrating the values of all those currencies as they move against each other [1].  Though I meant this in a somewhat flip way, I think now I was actually quite wrong.

I had wanted to point to the way in which the value of artworks was arbitrary, or to use a favorite word, imaginary. In some sense this is true of all forms of value: value is something we assign to things, something we give them, not something inherent. But it’s clear that we treat the value of a hammer in a different way than we treat the value of a work of art. The more dramatic this difference, the more it becomes a puzzle to be investigated.

Artists have fretted about their relationship to money forever, so you would think we would have long ago resolved any important questions, but the opposite seems to be happening. The anti-market experiments of the 60′s stubbornly refused to die off even as the commercial gallery system ballooned. In the 90′s and 00′s, a number of artists began new bodies of work directly addressing money and monetary structures (see Olav Velthius’ Imaginary Economics for a good survey) and the last five years have seen a growth of underground of artistic gift economies, time banks, DIY granting agencies, and other alternative ways of organizing counter to the art market (a number are collected in What we Want is Free, edited by Ted Purves).  [2] The question has been with us a while, but it isn’t losing urgency or momentum.

We can blame this situation on the now vanishing avant-garde, whose projects still have us in their grip.  At the turn of the last century art tried to extricate itself from the political and religious instrumentalities that it had long served, declaring itself autonomous and free by virtue of its uselessness.  Artists and theorists of the time were perfectly aware that art was actually useful, even at times powerful.  The declaration of uselessness was a refusal.  A worker’s strike. Art’s still out on strike, but it’s been so long that no one really remembers why.

With art on strike, others rushed in to replace its functions. Art’s main business of persuasion (the one it so wanted to leave behind) was taken over by advertising, public relations, and politics. Storytelling was done by movies and TV, representation by the snapshot (obviously this is a radical simplification, but let it stand for the moment). Like many workers in the wake of a very long strike, art had lost its job, and with it, its “relevance”–the sense that it was actually needed.

The most common strategy for counteracting that loss of relevance has been to replace persuasion with provocation. A contemporary artwork without some form of provocation, one which isn’t against something, is almost unthinkable. But with the loss of a feeling that the avant-garde is, or was. or even should be, really out in front of anything, the provocative uselessness of art has started to feel like an empty gesture. Artists and theorists have been looking for an out. There have been calls to abandon autonomy altogether–to give up the strike (see Michael Lingner’s “post-autonomy,” which sets itself against uselessness,  Stephen Wright’s  “redundancy,” a way of being useless and useful at the same time, Gregory Sholette’s “collective and critical autonomy” re-centered in radical politics, or their precursor, Alan Kaprow’s idea of the “unartist”). [3] And there have been moves to acknowledge that autonomy, like all strikes and utopian projects, had political ends in mind from the beginning (see, for instance, Jacques Rancière)[4].

It’s exactly this declaration of uselessness which is responsible for making the value of art less like the value of a hammer or even of an artisanal pot, and more like a game. But art, at the high end of the market, and within the cultural institutions that house it after death (those tombs–mausoleums!–we call museums) doesn’t want to be just a game, it wants to be something more like a treasure.

Which brings us to David Graeber, who I’ll discuss tomorrow in part two of this post.


[1] Sal Randolph, “Beautiful Money (Art as Money, Art as Experience)” , originally published as “Vakra Pengar. Konsten som Valuta, Konsten sum Upplevese,” Ord&Bild, 2-3, 2005.

[2] Olav Velthius, Imaginary Economics; Contemporary Artists and the World of Big Money, NAi Publishers, Belgium, 2005.  Ted Purves, ed. What We Want is Free, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2005.

[3] See, for instance, Michael Lingner, “Art as a System Within Society,”, Stephen Wright, “Sweet Fuck All,”,  Gregory Sholette “Some Call it Art”, Gregory Sholette, “Fidelity, Betrayal, Autonomy,”, Alan Kaprow, “The Education of the Un-Artist (parts I, II, and III) in Alan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993.

[4] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, New York, 2004, also Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, New York, 2009.

53 thoughts on “Uselessness, Refusal, and Money

  1. The Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is worth noting:

    The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and to conceal the artist is art's aim.

    The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

    The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.

    This is a fault.

    Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

    They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

    There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.

    That is all.

    The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

    The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

    The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

    No artist has ethical sympathies.

    An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

    Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.

    Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.

    From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician.

    From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.

    All art is at once surface and symbol.

    Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

    Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

    It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

    Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.

    When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.

    We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

    All art is quite useless.

  2. Pingback: Uselessness, Refusal, and Money (Why Works of Art Keep Turning into Treasures) Part 2 - Art as Money Blog

    • Hello 'Source': yes, if you want to place a part of this on your personal weblog, then please link back to this web site, and of course don't forget to give credits to Sal Randolph for writing the piece.

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