Is Resistance Futile? The Confusing Nature of Value in the Contemporary Art Market

Alex Stursburg

image001 Fig.1 Sylvester Stallone with Jimmie Durham Sculpture (2015)


An artwork’s value is determined through an intersecting web of symbolic and economic value types. Yet in today’s globalized commercial art world, high market values are often a source of much focus, which can impact how we absorb other less quantifiable value-types. With the art market stronger than ever before, how can we reassert the other value types that shape our relationship to art? How can art remain relevant and impactful? Is resistance to the market futile? The key may lie in remaining critical, but still engaged.



While the increased gains of today’s art market have in many cases been a boon to the art world at large, its high values can distract us from equally important symbolic value types, or those values that cannot be measured by economic means. The more focused we are with an artwork’s economic value, the more we become preoccupied with its status as a fetishized object, which can negatively impact how we interpret its larger meaning. The nature of today’s art market, with its confusing pricing, veiled transactions, and shady players has the potential to spur this alienation further. But all artworks rest on a web of different symbolic value types, including social and cultural values, which the art market requires to establish economic value. With the market more impactful than ever before, it is important to recognize where we can reassert, and find a balance between these different factors. The question is not whether an artist’s work is for sale, but rather how it continues to function outside of market considerations. Echoing the arguments of Martha Rosler, “It is not the market alone, after all, with its hordes of hucksters and advisers, and bitter critics, that determines meaning and resonance; there is also the community of artists and the potential counter-publics they implicate” (Rosler, 2011: 136). While resistance to the market may often seem futile, we can find many ways to remind ourselves of the other value types that every artwork can possess. The art market can actually empower artists to accomplish this task, but criticality is a key component.

I intend to explore the topic of value in today’s art world through looking at a handful of social theorists including Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Georges Bataille, and Marcel Mauss, while also pulling from a selection of key contemporary art writers including Martha Rosler, Dave Hickey, Andrea Fraser, and Isabelle Graw. I will also conduct case studies on a number of artists whose careers, I argue, walk a line of market engagement blended with consistent criticality and create works that effectively demonstrate how symbolic and economic value types intersect. This will include looking at key works by David Hammons, Jeremy Deller, Jimmie Durham and Theaster Gates. The body of my essay will begin by describing the relationship between different value types and how this impacts our understanding of art. Second, I will assess the art market, illustrating its current state, while highlighting its unique nature and some of its inherent problems. Third, I will discuss the concept of the “Accursed Share” and how this can motivate some artists to turn their back on the market. Fourth, I will discuss how, despite its problems, today’s art market continues to offer grounds for fertile artistic exploration through a middle road approach of engagement and resistance. Lastly, I will discuss the idea of the artist as community enterprise, indicating how artists can use the mechanisms of the art market to achieve social and cultural change while reasserting the symbolic values that rest at the core every engaging artwork.

1) The Unique Nature of Value in Art

Marxist theory argues that the art object itself possesses the same qualities as any commodity that can be bought or sold. They have both a use value and an exchange value, and each object is a fetish, or has an abstract value through which we project our human desires (Wilette, 2010). While the art object’s use value may not be as clear as with many other objects, it can confer status on its owners, whereby collectors can achieve greater social clout through their holdings. Furthermore, art can easily be employed for the purpose of ideology and propaganda. For example, it is now understood that in the United States during the Cold War the CIA promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting abroad as evidence of the superiority of liberal democracy and the cultural power of the US (Saunders, 1995). On the other hand, the exchange value of the art object is usually clearer and can often take precedence. For many an artwork’s true value lies in what it can be exchanged for, or what amount of money it can fetch. But the art object is a special kind of commodity in that its exchange value operates differently than exchange value within everyday economics. Often having little to do with actual material value, it can be unclear why some works are elevated and others are not. In this sense, the art market may be more akin to the stock market in its similar tendency to ebb and flow, coded languages, and highly speculative nature (Carter, 2006: 105). For the outsider, it is a more veiled and complex market than most.

Georg Simmel contends that both an artwork’s use and exchange values are rooted in aesthetic value (Simmel, 2004: 70). But this is paradoxical as aesthetic value is often difficult to quantify, as its use value is often unclear. We may find utility in how the object makes us feel, or if it provides us with an enjoyable sensation. But the art object is particularly unique in the sense that it has an independent existence that cannot be replaced by that of another. Simmel explains that by determining value through comparison with other objects, monetary exchange removes objects from the context of their creation and allows their value to be determined independent of their possessors. Economic exchange demands that objects be evaluated in comparison to one another, which makes the independent art object particularly difficult to quantify. In the marketplace, the sellable object must have value independent of the person possessing it, but artworks are intrinsically linked to their creators, and at times their possessors (Simmel, 2004: 70-79).

Perhaps it is these factors that make the relationship between art and capital seem so insidious at times. With no alternative, we force artworks to fit within this system, which disconnects us from the reasons for their creation. With money as the ultimate calculation of value, there is no need for a relationship between the producer and consumer. The painter Richard Hamilton once described the dilemma that the market creates for the artist, stating: “There is a contradiction at the heart of the relationship between artist and dealer… the dealer’s urge is to wean the creator from the artifact” (Buck, 2004: 24). Once an artist’s dealer has helped transfer their work on to an interested collector, the work can then enter into an unchecked sales system of secondary market dealers and auction houses, over which they retain little to no control.


Fig.2 Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), David Hammons

David Hammons:

Notoriously resistant to the expectations that the art market has of him, David Hammons’ presence alone is sought after as a sort of art world commodity. Though his work is highly valued, and he is represented by London’s blue-chip White Cube Gallery, Hammons has sought to retain a great degree of control over this system, only feeding it when it suits his needs. Hammons, whose work is largely about how he functions as an artist within the world at large, has stated: “the less I do, the more of an artist I am”. Indicating an unwillingness to engage with traditional modes of art making, and preferring to spread into unquantifiable and often uncommodifiable approaches (Stern, 2009).

For example, Hammons 1983 performance piece Bliz-aard Ball Sale parodies the often times absurd nature of value within the art market. Portraying himself as an anonymous peddler, Hammons situated himself alongside other street vendors in downtown Manhattan and offered snowballs for sale to the public. Hammons arranged and priced the snowballs according to size from small to large (Stern, 2009). Through assigning value to a commonplace and short-lived object, Hammons was questioning how we determine value in the art world. It was both a commentary on the capitalist and often arbitrary nature of art market valuations, as well as a critique on the nature of class in America. Like the snowballs, many American citizens are subjected to the same arbitrary evaluations. In the case of the snowballs it is their size that matters, in America it is one’s race and class (Busch, 2014). After the sale, both Hammons and his snowballs simply melt away.

In 2004, when the Dak’Art Biennale in Dakar, Senegal, commissioned Hammons, he chose not to create a traditional installation, but instead staged a daily sheep raffle, far from the Biennale’s main events. In a project that was designed for residents of the region, rather than Dak’Art attendees, Hammons used the money from his commission to give away one dozen goats through raffle to city residents over the course of one week (Stern, 2009). It was a contextually sensitive work that again highlighted absurdities around how we value art today. While international elites congregate at Dak’Art to speculate grand art purchases, the region’s residents scramble to acquire a goat. While it may be difficult to understand why some artworks have value, there is obvious use value in a free goat and a clear communal benefit in the acquisition of a dozen goats. While Hammons employs the opportunity of the biennale commission to invoke non-economic value types, by giving back to the community it is held within, he is also demonstrating how the enterprising artist can utilize the art market to achieve social ends. In the case of the sheep raffle, he has directly translated gains made through commercial art into a community project (Stern, 2009).


Fig.3 Untitled (2000), David Hammons

One might imagine that the Dak’Art Biennale’s organizers would be frustrated at how Hammons chose to employ their commission money. But Hammons was trusted with the project for a reason. It may be that the organizers of Dak’Art appreciate artworks with social meaning. It may also be that the market needs Hammons’ symbolic capital, requiring the legitimacy that he offers, in order to sustain itself. In recent years Hammons has become extremely coveted by the art market. At a recent auction at Philips New York his untitled sculptural work featuring a basketball hoop with candelabras sold for $8 million US (Phillips, 2013). On average his paintings sell for about $750,000 US. But he is conscious of what his position in this arrangement is stating: “The way I see it, the Whitney Biennial and Documenta need me, but I don’t need them” (Boucher, 2016).

Isabelle Graw argues that the reason the market needs Hammons more than he needs the market is because its frameworks largely depend on the symbolic capital that he offers (Graw, 2009: 21). While artists need the market to provide them the capital to achieve their creative ends, the market requires that these artists possess a degree of symbolic value in order to legitimize their works monetary value. Hammon’s basketball hoop and candelabra will not fetch $8 million at auction unless he has proven he possesses the artistic symbolic values that can justify the artwork’s high price. Sociologist Pierre Bordieu defines symbolic value as that which “goes beyond what can be measured in economic terms” (Graw, 2009: 22). Meaning that while a snowball sale or sheep raffle cannot be quantified in monetary terms and thus cannot have the same cash value as a sculpture by Hammons, these performances possess the symbolic value that is needed to establish that monetary value in the first place. Running the gamut from performance to painting, Hammons career displays that all of these value types are interdependent. Some things are for sale and some are not. But they all depend on each other to achieve value.

So what’s the problem? Perhaps it comes up when we do the opposite of Hammons and become preoccupied with economic values before social and cultural values. In this scenario we can lose sight of these other value types. If we just evaluate Hammons basketball hoop through market terms we only get a small piece of the pie. But US$8 million certainly is a lot for a basketball hoop by any standards. Most folks can’t relate to that amount of money. Perhaps the more monetary value increases in the art world, the more potentially distracted we can become. If so, then that would suggest that today’s art market should confuse our value systems more than ever before.

2) The Art Market: Present Tense

            The evolution of the relationship between art and money is both vast and complex and has shaped how we understand value in the art world. Though fundamental to the development of modern art, the desire to comment on the market, or resist its influence, has been at the core of artistic dialogue since the birth of the avant-garde. While for most of modern western history artist’s careers were locked into a patronage system with the church, it is important to note that stepping outside of this patronage system only became possible with the advent of industrialization and capitalism, which occurred in tandem with the decline of the church. With the advent of free market capitalism artist’s customers became the new bourgeoisie, who had gained economic and political advantage over previous elites (Rosler, 2011: 106-108). Dave Hickey argues that the birth of modern capitalism is when we witness the greatest proliferation of exciting and captivating artworks that help “free the human imagination” (Hickey, 2010: 112). Indeed, through private capital the world received Cezanne, Monet, Mattisse, Van Gogh, and thousands of other artists that would not have existed without it. Thus a clear argument can be made that without economic value being attached to art, we would not have the great artists that we have today. To a large extent, the art world as we know it relies on capital, which demands that we prioritize economic value.

But it is also interesting to note that as artists began to emerge from under church rule, and found their practices freed in some respects by capitalism, they quickly began to expose the inadequacies of this system itself. In the early 20th century the Dadaists and Surrealists would set the stage for new modern movements of criticality and questioning of the art market bringing anti-art forms such as collage, performance, and found objects to the table. For example, in 1917 Marcel Duchamp would force the reorientation of art world value systems by suggesting that ready-mades such as his Fountain urinal were artworks. But history demonstrates that these artists were in turn embraced by the art world, which swelled to encompass the avant-gardes, whereby the market absorbed their methods of shock and transgression and anti-art became mainstream art (Rosler, 2011: 116). Duchamp became a preferred artist of famous patrons such as Peggy Guggenheim in Europe and Walter and Louise Arensberg in America, who helped fund his conceptual investigations. Collectors of this nature would embrace the new type of symbolic capital that artists such as Duchamp brought to the table.

The formalist oriented and commercially successful Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940’s and 50’s briefly pushed these ideas into the background in terms of art world public consciousness. But with the birth of postmodernism in the 1960’s, an entirely new generation would pick up these causes and push the value considerations made by the early avant-garde even further. In a classic example of market satire, in 1961 Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni canned his own faeces and attached the price of his artwork to the price of gold (Miller, 2007). It was perhaps one of the greatest parodies on art valuation in history. Similar to how Duchamp had suggested his Fountain was art because he had declared it to be so, Manzoni’s canned faeces toyed even further with the idea of the artist as a special genius.


Fig.4 Artist’s Shit (Edition of 90) Piero Manzoni

During the next two decades many artists would push critical art to its limits, relying largely on public institutions and universities to achieve their creative ends. But they would have to deal with an ethical backlash, when once again, the market shifted to absorb their works as well. As the work elevated in importance in the eyes of Art History, its symbolic value increased, which forced its market value to increase. But in return, its market value also impacted its symbolic value. For example, Manzoni’s faeces have surpassed the actual value of gold many times over. Recently a can was auctioned by Christie’s and fetched US$161,173 (Christies, 2012). This price is of course far higher than their equivalent weight in gold. Furthermore, if they were still priced according to Manzoni’s vision today they would be a bargain at around US$700. Over time the market has taken control of the work, possibly proving Manzoni’s point, but for better or worse, impacting how we understand the work. Over a half century after its creation, the market has given the work a new meaning: Today a successful artist’s faeces are actually worth far more than gold.

How did we get to the point that a can of artist’s shit could attain such incredible valuations? The answer lies in the means by which the art market has achieved growth throughout the last 4 decades. By the 1980’s the global economy would experience a political paradigm shift whereby Western neoliberal economic prescriptions helped to increase the flow of private capital through the opening up of foreign markets and the easing of government controls over banks. This movement would become known as globalization, and the art market may be one of its greatest ‘success stories’. Since this period the market has consistently expanded its sway over the art world at large. Biennales and commercial galleries proliferated and as the market boomed, a new form of art consumption would take hold with the rise of the art fair. Dave Hickey contends that in this era the market reasserted its dominance over the art world, which forced beauty and aesthetics to be re-embraced by its players (Hickey, 2010: 121). Fueled by an entirely new global bourgeois class, for Hickey the new art market is a return to the fertile 1800’s, when art was freed from its institutional shackles.

Observing the past 20 years, it is evident that the financial gains from this new art boom are unprecedented. From 1998 to 2008 worldwide auction sales of contemporary art skyrocketed from US$48 million to $1.3 billion. Making up 33% of the total art market, by 2012 this amount had more than doubled with over US$3 billion in sales (Degan, 2013: 12). Some are fearful this art bubble may burst, but at present it shows no signs of slowing down. Former Sotheby’s auctioneer Thobias Meyer argues that the market cannot slow down given present conditions, as it is a non-cyclical market that is not beholden to the rules of regular economics (Degen, 2013: 71). There are a number of reasons why this is the case, but perhaps the most important overarching factor to note is that this art boom has occurred in tandem with the rise of global income inequality. Today’s booming art market is made possible by globalization, deregulation, and privatization of the world’s economies, which has fueled the gains of the world’s top 1% income earners. From 1984 to 2001 this economic class increased their share of the world’s wealth from 6% to 11%. Today this amount has more than quadrupled, whereby the top 1% of income earners now possesses roughly 50% of the world’s wealth (Klein, 2014). As the world has become a more unequal place to live, the art world has reaped the financial benefits.

But who are the players that are fueling this new art boom? In Sylvester Stallone’s 3rd installment of his schlock filled Expendables movie franchise Mel Gibson is recruited to play an evil arms dealer who commits mass murder, and collects contemporary art. In one telling scene of comic relief his character expresses his distaste for an abstract painting proclaiming it to be “shit”, then proceeds to purchase it for US$3 million. While a humorous comment on art consumption, this moment also displays that Stallone, an avid collector himself, is aware of how today’s art market functions. Today’s prominent collectors take a variety of forms, but on average earn at least US$1,800,000 (Degen, 2013: 79). This makes for a colorful array of multimillionaires and billionaires. As Stallone hints, they may be more interested in the artwork’s economic value than anything else. As he also hints, some of these collectors have not earned their money in the most honorable ways and may choose to use art to make their money cleaner or less traceable.



Fig.5 Screenshots of Mel Gibson in The Expendables 3 (2014) Directed by Sylvester Stallone

In actuality many of todays most prominent art collectors are hedge fund managers, who are noticeably less sinister seeming than typical Hollywood bad guys but in reality wield much more power. In recent years this collector group has become intoxicated with the high stakes risk factors of the contemporary art world. Collectors such as Steve Cohen, former owner of SAC Capital (who has personally spent over US$600 million on contemporary art), and Ken Griffin of Citadel have been fundamental in driving up the value of contemporary art worldwide. For example, when this group began seeking out photographer Richard Prince’s work the value of his photographs shot up five-fold in only three years (Degen, 2013: 68). Though hedge funds operate within legal economic confines, they are frequently critiqued for being plagued by nepotism, secrecy, and insider trading. In 2014, SAC Capital portfolio manager Mathew Martoma was sentenced to 9 years in prison after being convicted of insider trading. Six other SAC employees were also convicted in the case and SAC Capital settled a related court case paying US$10 million to their investors (Raymond, 2015). In 2015, one of their former managers narrowly escaped prison time on similar charges (Hurtado, 2015). Though Cohen has never been charged, his name has been brought up frequently as a person of interest in all cases.

Then there are also the oligarchs, the high-ranking global elites that have frequently made their earnings by exploiting their economic and political powers in their home countries and abroad. Perhaps most well known is Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who is part of Vladimir Putin’s closed club of trusted allies. A UK resident and owner of the Chelsea football club, Artnet recently ranked him the world’s top art collector of 2015 (Artnet, 2015). Abramovich’s personal wealth is currently estimated to be around US$13 Billion, but may be much higher. Though it is difficult to ascertain the exact value of his collection, from his spending habits it is evident that it is vast. In 2013 Abramovich bought out an entire collection of paintings of over 40 works by Russia’s most valued living artist, Ilya Kabakov, for which he paid between US$40 to $60 million (Brooks, 2014).

A top oligarch in the Kremlin during the Yeltsin years, Abramovich largely earned his fortune by exploiting the dissolution of the USSR in the 1990’s, scooping up public resources, and paying off those that wouldn’t sell. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Abramovich admitted to paying bribes to various Russian officials for control of Russian oil and aluminum assets (Degen, 2013: 76). During the early 1990’s an underground mafia war had erupted in Russia over control of the Aluminum trade. The trail of blood ended when Abromavich took control. When Putin came to power in the early 2000’s he was sponsored by Abramovich and the other Russian oligarchs. Since this time, Putin has deconstructed much of the Russian oligarchy, with only Abramovich remaining a part of his inner circle.

Since the mid 2000’s Abramovich has become a key fixture in the contemporary art market, congregating with other world elites at important arts events such as the Venice Biennale, where his mega yacht is said to dominate the harbor. How can we come to terms with the knowledge that these questionable players with such extreme economic clout are involved in defining the art world? How can we reassert symbolic values when the economic stakes are so high?

The History of the World 1998 Jeremy Deller born 1966 Purchased 2001
The History of the World 1998 Jeremy Deller born 1966 Purchased 2001

Jeremy Deller:

British artist Jeremy Deller has stated: “The market is not my audience, though it is something that I have the occasional flirt with. I don’t make saleable work, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sell” (Buck, 2004: 22). Rather than creating easily commodifiable art objects, Deller mostly makes installation or performance based works, while selling print and photo editions of his work, as well as publications through his various commercial galleries. Often dependent on the participation and work of others, a consciousness around how modes of exchange can shape value types permeates Deller’s work. For example, Acid Brass (1998) is an artwork that couples social sculpture with social history investigation. In this work Deller facilitated performances by the Williams Fairey Brass Band to play current Acid House dance tracks to an intergenerational audience. Mixing the worlds of two musical genres previously unfamiliar to each other, Brass Band and Acid House, Deller was highlighting their historical interdependency and in essence creating a completely new genre of music. Through this new genre the artwork developed a small underground following, whereby young fans embraced its sounds, exchanging bootlegged CDs and MP3s of the recordings. By merging the past with the present through music Deller was seeking to facilitate a social value type that is unquantifiable by market measures (Purves, 2005: 103). In spawning the genre of Acid Brass, Deller was demonstrating how cultural interconnectivity operates in music and art. Breaking down time and generational divides, suddenly fans of two distinct fields of art could see the commonalities between themselves. Most likely, they also saw the opportunity for new forms of creation that these commonalities could offer.


Fig.7 English Magic (Installation Detail) (2013) Jeremy Deller

Conflating the past, present, and future is another defining factor of Deller’s work. For example his 2013 commission for British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale English Magic bridges a variety of time periods to comment on the beginning of the end of socialism, as we know it. Employing a theme of revenge and retribution, Deller’s work specifically targeted Roman Abramovich who, as mentioned, benefitted greatly from the fall of the USSR and made his wealth by privatizing state assets. Seeking to challenge the neoliberal agenda of transforming public resources into private sector gains, Deller evokes the ghost of 19th century social-activist and printmaker, William Morris. In a large scale commissioned airbrushed mural Deller depicts Morris as a colossal Poseidon who is about to plunge Abramovich’s mega-yacht into the Venice Lagoon. Pointing blatantly at the inner workings of today’s art market, Deller humorously resurrects a socialist past, to extract revenge on the new soviet capitalists. Reveling in the inherent ironies of communist-style capitalism, Deller is making a comical assault on a symbol of neoliberalism’s victorious status. Looking to the past to understand and prepare for the future, Deller’s politics are laid bare. Un-intimidated by the powers of the art market or engaging with its institutions, Deller is able to effectively bring his value system into the lion’s den itself (Deller, 2013: 7-15).

3) A Raw Deal: The Accursed Share

As Deller’s work displays, today’s booming market has brought economic value to the forefront of art world discussion once again. For some it is a thing that should be rejoiced; as more money equals more art. But for others the market brings distaste. The nature of its player’s economic backgrounds and the knowledge that it is attached to the growth of global income inequality has led many artists to take on a much more critical and combative stance. Notoriously confrontational towards the art market, conceptual artist and writer Andrea Fraser argues for critical artists to drop out of the commercial system and rely on public funding instead.


Fig 8. Art Must Hang (2001) Andrea Fraser

Andrea Fraser:

A provocative and controversial proponent of institutional critique, much of Andrea Fraser’s career as an artist has been committed to dissecting and challenging the art market. For example in her 1989 performance work Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, Fraser parodies a guided art museum talk. In it she employs confusing art jargon, at one point praising the museums water fountain as a work of artistic genius. In another video performance work Art Must Hang (2001) Fraser re-enacts a speech given by German superstar artist Martin Kippenberger in 1995 while he was intoxicated. The speech is laden with xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia. In Fraser’s version the speech takes on a new context, becoming a critique of Kippenberger, while also referring to the art world’s darker inner-workings (Armitage, 2014). Whether the viewpoints came from her, Kippenberger, or his peers, the work demonstrated that these beliefs are elements of the art world. There is sexism in the art world and the market still treats women differently. The majority of top earning artists continue to be male. This is problematic as once again it skews our understanding of art’s value. For example another uber-famous German painter, Georg Baselitz, has on numerous occasions ruffled feathers by suggesting that men naturally make better painters than women (Neuendorf, 2015). While art operates under the guise of progressiveness, these archaic views lie just below the surface. The suggestion is that the market has spoken its gospel truth. If women were better painters, they would make more money. It is of course inherently false and doesn’t recognize the preconditions that women must face to enter the art market. The observation that creative people do bad things or that the market has bad things related to it is nothing new, but should this silence Fraser from still highlighting these aspects of our world?

Perhaps the most controversial work of her career; Untitled (2003) is a one-hour performance video where Fraser has sex on screen with one of her collectors. Auctioning herself off to the highest bidder, she was paid US$20,000 by the winner for the act. Blurring the lines between art and pornography, Fraser was pointing a direct finger at the consumerist mechanisms that direct the art world. The artist can be bought and sold, in mind and in body. The work immediately caused ripples, with many critics finding it unnecessarily provocative and in poor taste. When questioned about whether the work could even be considered art, Fraser responded: “Well, yes, it’s art, and the question I’m interested in posing is whether art is prostitution – in a metaphorical sense, of course. Is it any more prostitution because I happen to be having sex with a man than it would be if I were just selling him a piece?” (Armitage, 2014). Beyond challenging art world value systems, the work also highlighted a deeply sexist contradiction lying at its heart. Surely there was no questioning of artistic merit when Yves Klein made blue paintings using naked women. Or shouldn’t Jeff Koons’ art be considered pornography as well? Perhaps it just hit too close to home.


Fig.9 Untitled (2003) Andrea Fraser

Not surprisingly, Fraser’s journey as an artist with regard to the market has been challenging. She makes few sellable objects and the controversy that surrounds her makes it difficult to find willing exhibitors. While institutions throughout Europe laud her; she had a major retrospective at Ludwig Museum in Cologne in 2013, and she has won many prestigious awards; she has been largely ignored by the American art world. The Economist notes that Fraser is well represented within public collections in Britain, France, and Germany but in her home country is mostly “considered too daring for an American retrospective” (Armitage, 2014). Perhaps this demonstrates her point that the art world is an inherently unfair place, but it must be a difficult career to navigate. Largely ignored by commercial galleries, even public institutions are resistant to her work in some contexts. This is a reminder of how despite depending on symbolic artistic value; the market can also negatively impact symbolic values. With little for sale Fraser’s lack of market value may be impacting how her symbolic value is received. Recently her experiences, matched with her reflections on the condition of today’s art market, have led her to begin advocating for abandonment of its commercial mechanisms in their entirety.

Through her writing, Fraser points out that there is a close relationship between global income equality trends and the art world. She notes that global income inequality has been rising since the early 1800’s, with the exception of the post-war period, or egalitarian revolution of the 1950’s to 1970’s. During this time period we see an increase in artist reliance on public funding, which Fraser argues fostered more critical art. As discussed, by the 1980’s this moment would largely be over and in tandem with a reduction in social funding, artists would become increasingly reliant on the market once again. From this period onwards the art market has expanded in leaps and bounds, while global income equality has reversed. Fraser notes that art booms when wealth inequality increases, but not when wealth overall increases. Why is this?

According to George Battaile’s theory of the “Accursed Share” when wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer people, we need a place to put it, rather than redistribute it. Essentially, Bataille argues that the excess of money and a mismanaged economy results in frivolous spending on luxury goods rather than reinvestment in society (Degen, 2013: 73). In other words, when individuals have too much money it skews value judgments at large. When wealth is concentrated it is spent on things such as private real estate, cars, jewelry, and art. When wealth is more evenly distributed it is spent on things that have social relevance like hospitals, roads and public welfare. Thus when the art market is doing less well, it is actually a preferable climate for income equality. These types of conclusions have led Fraser to suggest a return to public institutions just as artists did in the 1960’s during the egalitarian revolution. With the knowledge that the money that fuels art is bloodied we should reject its commercial systems. In order to force symbolic value back into the game we must refuse that which is eroding it.

This view is the polar opposite position of critics such as Dave Hickey, whose arguments suggest that the market fosters better art. If we were to abandon the market we would lose the element of beauty. So is Fraser only cutting off her nose to spite her face? Her extreme position around the issue may be a just reaction to an inherently unfair and corrupt situation. But it also stems from a career that is based around knowledge of how these systems work and direct experience with its unfairness. This may be a difficult position for other artists to achieve economically though. They may need the market, or even want to work within its confines. Fraser doesn’t advocate for them to join her, and ought to be recognized for her bravery in her stance. But as a UCLA professor who is most likely adept in grant acquisition, she may be able to make choices that other artists cannot.

Perhaps just as it is wrong to assume the market is inherently good, it is wrong to assume it is inherently bad. It can be neither of these opposites and both at the same time. Though in a sense both Hickey and Fraser are mistaken, their arguments demonstrate how powerful it all truly is. While Hickey’s view may not recognize the inequalities that are attached to the art market, Fraser’s may not reconcile the necessity of its presence. The interdependent nature of value types in the art world demands that we recognize all of these factors. We can’t have market value without symbolic value, and as history would indicate, market value significantly impacts symbolic value in return. It is a catch-22, implying that the market needs critical art just as much as critical art needs the market. They cannot exist without each other. If there were nothing to be concerned about, there would be little to be critical of. But of course, today there is actually much to be critical of and if Fraser and others have concluded that this means we should reject the market’s systems then they should be respected for their position. It may be one of the most direct ways to force symbolic values back into the conversation. But is there a more effective way?



Fig.10 Screenshots from Watter’s World – The O’Reilly Factor Fox News (2015)

4) Moving Forward: The Rocky Middle Road

At the very least, the market has offered much fertile ground for critical artists to explore and that perhaps is a fact to be celebrated. But as the example of Mel Gibson’s performance in Expendables 3 demonstrates, its absurd value system has now entered into the global lexicon. In September of 2015 Fox news’s Bill O’Reilly sent a reporting team to Art Basel Miami to mock artists and question the motives of attendees. In one section the host, Jesse Waters, is shocked at the valuation on a Jimmie Durham sculpture, questioning why anyone would spend US$1.2 million on something that looks like “poop”. Another portion features an interview with Sylvester Stallone, who they point out spent over US$2 million at the fair that day. Though humorous from many perspectives, the entire segment is based on a misunderstanding of why these objects should have value in the first place. The intensely high economic values make it difficult for O’Reilly and his audience to see the symbolic value. As O’Reilly points out in his introduction of the segment: the average American earns under US$55,000 a year and meanwhile the rich are spending their money on absurdly high priced artworks (Luhby, 2015). It’s difficult for the outsider to comprehend and causes resentment. But besides pointing out average income, there is no mention of why a system such as this would have emerged in the first place. Rather than question why things are this way, it is easier to simply mock art itself. If things continue on this course, it may become increasingly difficult to point out why symbolic value matters. Or can it matter when an ugly painting can sell to an uninterested buyer for US$3 million dollars? Meanwhile Sylvester Stallone is at Art Basel spending millions of dollars on giant painted rocks. It can all get pretty confusing.


Fig.12 Public Monument for the Birthday of Rome (1995) – Jimmie Durham

Jimmie Durham:

Jimmie Durham may not know that Sylvester Stallone is familiar with his work, but he certainly understands the value systems that would have led him to get there. Often made from inexpensive materials and ad-hoc formulation, Jimmie Durham’s artworks seem to make a consideration around the important role that value types play in art and in our lives. Anti-monumental and in defiance of the elevated art object, Durham’s works such as his Stone as Stone series remind us of the value of everyday objects, free from economic consideration. In these works Durham employs large stones to smash traditional objects employed in art preservation such as a vitrines, as well as consumer products such as new cars. In doing so, Durham is not only mounting a blatant attack on commodity culture and fetishism, but he is also highlighting the natural utility of the stone itself. For Durham, the stone tool is an example of human genius as its utility is always present. It is a fantastic hammer. There is clear use value in a stone (Durham, 2010).

In his video performance work Smashing (2004), Durham sits at a desk with a prehistoric stone tool while people bring him various consumer objects that he then smashes with the tool. In return he issues the bringer a bureaucratic certificate of authenticity. The work once again points to the stones utilitarian value, but it also hints at Durham’s political motivations. It is an attack on the culture of bureaucracy that Native Americans have experienced under the US government, while also being a reference to the smashing of the gavel after successful sales at art auctions (Durham, 2012: 142-143).

When in 1995 Durham was commissioned to create a sculpture for a large group show celebrating the founding of Rome, he presented a pile of garbage. Though only composed of found waste objects, people found it so interesting, that a security guard had to be hired to keep them from stealing it. Perhaps without intention, as he claimed he only made the pile because he liked it, Durham’s work struck at the heart of the relationship between symbolic and economic value types. By declaring the garbage to be art he had reoriented people’s relationship to these objects. Suddenly they also had economic value and suddenly they were something to be desired (Durham, 2012: 22).

Like Hammons and Deller, Durham has never had much interest in the market that empowers him to practice and recognizes that it probably needs him more than he needs it. Preferring to give away artworks when possible, a spirit of social consciousness and generosity has shaped his career. Anti-commercial and communal in his approach, Durham has stated: “I would always rather participate in a group show than in a solo show. The talk with other artists is good for me. Teaching is part of that phenomenon. The social discourse about art is a part of the practice of art” (Durham, 2012: 28). In this regard, many of Durham projects are produced without the intention of monetary gain. For example in a collaboration with his wife Maria Thereza Alvez titled Nature in the City: A Diary (2001), he produced a small but detailed booklet that was given away for free as part of an exhibition organized by BuroFriedrich in Berlin (Durham, 2012: 144).

Yet a more recent work by Durham may defy commodification completely. In 2010, in collaboration with Cujo Magazine, Durham selected 1000 different objects that he had collected over his life, described as “magic items that hold the world together”. These objects were then photographed and reproduced in a 1000 page publication. These publications, along with 10 objects, were then gifted to 100 different people including friends and peers of Durham’s such as Francis Mckee and Abraham Crucivellagas. The recipients then were allowed to gift 9 of these objects on to people of their choice without Durham’s knowledge. Each person was given one part of a whole that they must keep and care for, knowing that alongside 999 other people, they are helping to hold the world together (Durham, 2011). Durham’s Magic Items… project not only challenges the nature of economic value in art, but also reminds us that we are all interconnected through the objects that we exchange. By creating a non-sellable art object, only available through gift, Durham may even be returning us to our roots as human beings. The work reminds us of how forms of exchange have shaped our understanding of value throughout history.

Simmel explains that by determining value through comparison with other objects, monetary exchange removes objects from the context of their creation and allows their value to be determined independent of their possessors (Simmel, 2003: 76-79). Monetary exchange, and the social relationships that develop from it are just a one-time interaction. These interactions are considered to be socially alienating in the sense that they don’t oblige the participants to develop their relationship any further than the transaction itself (Carrier, 1991: 130). Exchange through gift or trade, on the other hand, can enhance social relationships, as it involves an element of obligatory reciprocity. One is morally obliged to repay what they have received. They are expected by society to reciprocate with an object of mutual value either in return, or by paying the gift forward (Carrier, 1991: 129). As described by Marcel Mauss, the objects that are exchanged then become “inalienable” as they are an extension of the self, representing the person who is giving them and connecting them directly to the recipient (Carrier, 1991: 125). Through the act of gift exchange participants become further interconnected.

Exchange practice in pre-state societies established value through a complex and “inalienable” web of social interaction that employed various forms of trade and gift. For example, much research has been invested into dissecting the Aboriginal “Potlatch”, a ceremonial feast in which gifts are exchanged through the redistribution of resources. Mauss explains that this activity created an “interlocking whole” whereby gifting cemented social dependency and interaction, while obligating participants to reciprocate gifts in an appropriate manner (Carrier, 1991: 129). The “Potlatch” is often pointed to as evidence of our natural tendency to pursue harmonious forms of exchange. Perhaps the loss of this element of our human nature has impacted how we understand value types. Perhaps artists such as Durham can help us to get back there. By allowing his work to be sold at international art fairs on one hand while giving away his work for free on the other, Durham walks a middle road that is empowered by the market, yet unbeholden by its mechanisms.

5) Approaches: The Artist as Social Enterprise

So how can critical artists be comfortable with beefing up the portfolios of rich bad guys and still sleep at night? How can the conscious artist continue to remind us of the other value types that create meaning in art? On one hand, as the Fraser example demonstrates, we can reject these systems entirely. It is a fair and just option that intelligent artists have the right to make. But as Hammons, Deller, and Durham all display, there are a variety of other methods that can also be employed, which require a fine balancing act of engagement with the market mixed with scrutiny towards it.

Indeed, throughout the 20th century artists have employed many different approaches to comment on the marketplace. The art world itself has shifted in tandem with larger global economic trends. However what is clear about the postmodern era and the art world that came after, is it established the artist as having a variety of skillsets that may or may not include making objects, but may also fulfill a useful social role that is rooted in innovative thought (Purves, 2005: 12). These skillsets are based on value types that are not quantifiable by monetary terms, yet these skillsets produce symbolic capital for the artists, which the market requires to establish legitimacy. Despite the market’s dominance, there are many artists that are equipped with the intellectual tools to balance market engagement with the achievement of social goals. Perhaps there is no greater example of how economic and symbolic value types can intersect to achieve these ends than in the career of Theaster Gates, for if anyone is sleeping well at night, it should be him.


Fig.13 Civil Tapestry #5 (2012) Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates:

            Theaster Gates has experienced intense success on many levels throughout the past few years. This year, a popular art collecting resource site, named him among the top 10 most influential artists, alongside art stars such as Yoko Ono, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons (, 2016). Displaying a range of talents Gates is also a curator, an urbanist, a facilitator of social projects, and possesses a widespread educational background that ranges from urban planning to ceramics. In terms of the commercial art market, Gates has recently become one of the worlds most sought after contemporary artists. Over the past 5 years his work has been featured in important major surveys at the Whitney Biennial, Documenta, and most recently at last years Venice Biennial. Like David Hammons, Gates is also represented by London’s high earning White Cube Gallery. Also like Hammons, he is dictating the game on his terms.

Gates’ formal works are often assembled from repurposed and salvaged items whereby Gates expresses much meaning through his materials of choice. For example, his ongoing series Civil Tapestries employs lengths of decommissioned fire hose to create large-scale fabric collage works that are reminiscent of simple geometric abstract paintings. The hoses that Gates has selected have a special significance with regard to the history of civil rights struggles in the United States (, n.d.). For example, the materials for Civil Tapestry #5 were sourced through the Compton California fire department. Possessing the marks of their history, as tools of fire fighting, some hoses read “1962” and others “Compton, Calif”. Gates’ choice of these materials points to the socio-political dynamics of America at the time, In 1962 Compton was gripped by race riots and these hoses would have been used to quell rioters (Albright Knox, 2014). Gates has created many editions of these works and feeds the market with smaller price point versions (, 2016). Some might suggest that by flooding the market, Gates is sullying the works symbolic meaning. But he has another plan up his sleeve. The money he earns from their sale will be transformed into something that is completely unquantifiable by monetary terms.


Fig.14 Stony Island Arts Bank – Library (2015) Theaster Gates

While experiencing a quickly growing career that has placed him among the world’s top earning artists, it may be that Gates’ success as an entrepreneur and facilitator of social enterprises marks his greatest achievement. Much of the financial gains that Gates makes are directed back into social causes. He has launched a number of non-profit community programs throughout Chicago including artist studios, libraries, and kitchens. In 2015, after a sold out solo exhibition at White Cube, he opened the 17,000 square-foot non-profit arts center Stony Island Arts Bank. The center is located in the Chicago neighborhood that Gates grew up in and seeks to create an accessible route to learning about art for the community. It is not only a venue for the arts, housing a massive library compiled by Gates, but it is also an artwork in itself. The selection of books and materials that Gates has provided speak of the history and culture of both the neighborhood, and how it relates to class and race issues at the macro level. For example, vintage African American magazines such as Ebony and Jet are on display for the public to read through (, 2015).


Fig.15 The Dorchester Project (2006) Theaster Gates

But perhaps his most ambitious project to date is the ongoing Dorchester Project. Motivated by his background in urban planning, in 2006 Gates purchased a derelict suburban home on Chicago’s South Side. He then began collaborating with a team of architects and designers to gut and refurbish the building from found materials transforming it inside and out. The materials he took from the building were used to make sculpture and assemblage works, which he sold in subsequent solo exhibitions. He then went on to do the same with several more adjacent buildings, transforming each house and using its contents to create artworks. These buildings have become quasi-community centers serving as a hub for cultural activities in the neighborhood. They house book and record libraries, and are a venue for various arts events, performances, and community dinners. Gates refers to the project as “real-estate art” and notes that it is part of a “circular ecological system” whereby the renovations performed on the buildings are financed entirely by the sale of works that were created using the materials salvaged from them. The market can have the sculptures and assemblage works that Gates has developed, but there is no price that can be put on the community values that Gates unveils through the project. Meanwhile, the more time Gates spends on these types of projects, the more his symbolic capital increases and the more the market will look to him to provide it with legitimacy. He will allow them this transaction, as it allows him to achieve great things for his community. Indeed, Gates’ career as an artist demonstrates very clearly how these symbolic and economic value types can interact. Keeping one foot firmly planted in the market and the other firmly planted in the community, Gates embodies the skillsets of the enterprising socially minded artist. As the Dorchester Project displays, both parts of his career are interdependent and need each other to thrive.


            So is resistance to the market futile? As is evident with the artists at hand, criticality can both challenge and feed the market in different ways. While all the artists I have explored oscillate between market engagement and criticality there are subtle differences in their approaches that can be noted between them. Through exchange based performance works such as Bliz-aard Ball Sale and Sheep Raffle, David Hammons demonstrates how artists produce symbolic value, which the market demands to justify economic valuations. While his performance works are difficult to commodify, his sculptural works such as Untitled (2000) fetch high amounts on the auction circuit. As discussed, Hammons resistance to fueling the market with commodifiable artworks only increases this value further. Through collaborative and group-based projects such as Acid Brass, Jeremy Deller’s social tendencies fuel his art making. Though he consistently flirts with the art market, he wears his left wing politics on his sleeve, creating works such as English Magic that blatantly point at its darker inner workings. Meanwhile, Jimmie Durham mixes mockery of the market with assault, in works such as Stone as Stone and his Smashing performances. Though the market covets his physical works, a spirit of generosity permeates his career whereby he prefers to engage in projects that ignore market principles and instead utilize gifting as a form of social exchange. In a similar spirit, Theaster Gates exemplifies how the contemporary artist can also serve as a type of social enterprise. The sale of physical works such as his Civil Tapestry assemblage series allows him to transfer monetary gains into important community projects such as Stony Island Art Bank. These projects serve to increase his symbolic value as an artist, which in turn positively impacts his market valuation. As works such as The Dorchester Project demonstrate, this circular approach to art making embodies the interdependent nature of symbolic and economic value types. By utilizing the market to his needs, Gates achieves social and communal value types that cannot be quantified by monetary terms.

But beyond methodology, how do they compare?

All of the artist’s I have discussed possess different approaches, but it is possible to identify some key differences between their practices in how they engage with the market. And it may be that these differences fall along generational lines. While David Hammons and Jimmie Durham are both in their 70’s today, Jeremy Deller and Theaster Gates are in their 40’s. While I have shown how all four artists have made important contributions to the realm of critical art making, it is important to note that Hammons and Durham have been working in the field much longer than Gates and Deller. With careers spanning back into the 1960’s, they arguably both possess more extensive and complex bodies of work than their younger peers. Through reflecting on this body of work we can see how well both Hammons’ and Durham’s careers effectively reflect the importance of symbolic value types in art. This may be a matter of career longevity; meaning Gates and Deller simply haven’t had the time to develop a practice as multi-layered as their elder peers. Or it may also be that these artists come from completely different times and places. The art market is a much different place today than it was when Hammons and Durham were young. This may be affecting the decisions that Deller and Gates make in terms of how they interact with it. By this I mean that they are more engaged with its mechanisms and perhaps as a result demonstrate more effectively how to employ the art market to impactful ends. While Deller and Gates make themselves available, Hammons and Durham are notoriously absent. It is said that Hammons doesn’t possess a phone, makes little effort to communicate with curators, and guards his privacy closely. Durham, whose career has shifted multiple times from art making to political activism, rarely travels outside of Europe, and no longer visits his homeland in the United States for fear of persecution from the state. He is probably unaware that Sylvester Stallone collects his work, but if he is aware, he most likely doesn’t care. It could be argued that Hammons and Durham are too old to have the energy to engage at this point. But it is more likely that their generational differences impact how they approach their practices, their artistic beliefs, and their actual goals in terms of market interaction. So while the artists I have discussed all demonstrate how symbolic and economic value types interact, it should be noted that their artistic goals and approach to market engagement are markedly different.

In discussing the work of Andrea Fraser, I have noted that she has also made important contributions to this dialogue, both through her artwork and her writing. Fraser’s performance works such as Art Must Hang and Untitled (2004) are perhaps some of the most poignantly critical artworks of our time. In this sense, her work may drive home the importance of market criticality more directly than the other artists at hand. Yet her negative experiences with the market paired with her observations around its unethical nature have led her to opt for a different approach in terms of market engagement. Fraser correctly points out that the booming art market is part of an “accursed share” that is negative for global income equality. With this knowledge, critical artists should consider dropping out of the commercial market entirely. While this essay support’s Fraser’s position, it has sought to advocate for another path, or middle road approach, that attempts to effectively balance symbolic and economic value types.

The nature of value types in art requires symbolic value be at hand, but as discussed, this can be difficult to quantify. What seems much easier to quantify are the dollars that are being exchanged and these dollars can distract us greatly from what is truly important. The knowledge that the art boom has a darker side is difficult to rectify, but it is not necessary to reject the market in its entirety. As this paper demonstrates, a preferable condition for artists is one that considers where they sit vis-à-vis the structures that shape their lives, but also allows them to have healthy and successful careers financially. For the artists we have looked at engaging with the market but remaining critical of its structures is a central component of their careers. By utilizing the market to their ends, artists can actually transform some of the money that is circulating in the art world directly into important social causes. This will have a positive effect on their symbolic value, which in turn feeds their economic value, and the cycle can continue in this way; Value types feeding value types, back and forth. While the state of today’s art market may feel completely overwhelming, in confronting its systems we ought not to abandon them completely. For while the artist cannot control the state of global economics they can control their own minds and make informed decisions around how they should navigate their careers. In doing so, we must remain conscious of the economic values that shape our lives, while recognizing and reasserting the symbolic values that we also bring to the table. Essentially, to find comfort in the market critical artists only need to say 9 short words: “My art is for sale. But I am not”.


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