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The Emperor's New Art

Art has always been highly valued and yet it serves no practical purpose. So why are money and art so closely linked?
Mel Evans: The Emperor's New Art
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Art and money go together in some circles – but not for everyone. The arts for most people are not merely objects that could appreciate in financial value, but always have and always will be temporally bound moments to explore and experience life, history and our own minds.

Art is not something the rest of us hang on our walls – it’s something we practice in community centres, it’s what we wait for that weekend trip to the big city to go and visit, it’s what we cherish in books on the shelf or in the local library. So art does indeed have practical purposes: and different ones for different social groups. For some it performs a demonstration of social status, others look to it as a magic money machine like a house, as many did in 2008-09, when one of the only financial markets to grow was the art market. For others its purpose is ritual, intellectual or spiritual; visual worlds to enter mentally but never to own. And of course the artworks themselves operate within both these fields of purpose at once – a picture hanging on a wall in a public gallery or in someone’s home is at once a declaration of prestige, a potentially appreciating artefact and a site of intellectual and aesthetic exploration.

So the hyperventilating ascent of prices in the art market is yet another playing out of the consistent differentiation and antagonism between private art and public art, individual gain and the idea of valuable assets shared in common. These tensions play out in large public arts institutions like Tate, The Baltic and MoMA from Glasgow to New York to Brisbane. The public art organisation strives to keep pace with global art market prices driven up by individual buyers from the global elite, or as the Occupy Movement would describe, the 1%. Once they've bagged some classics newly available and a set of striking new works from artists on the rise, those artefacts at once become public, common goods, and at the same time shift the wider market values by adding a prestige to the artists and the works that often sees them gain value. Hence the furore when Tate bought a Chris Ofili collection £700,000 and quadrupled the value of the artist’s other works being sold across town.

These trends in art and finance lend themselves to a set of conservative and neoliberal ideas about the role of arts in society – and that’s usually a superfluous one. There are various risks associated with this. Firstly, the loss of a more accurate understanding of the economics of the cultural sector. When we focus on the escalating value of art objects, we lose sight of the thousands of jobs within the sector and the social and economic return that comes from public investment. Secondly, the idea of art as its own money-spinner ignores the fact that it’s a fairly discrete market, and the arts in public life nonetheless need and deserve public funds. The notion of arts as cash-rich encourages a pulling away of public support and the fantasy notion that elite interest implies a wider dependence on big business – which simply isn’t the case. The UK’s biggest cultural institutions are founded on state support and their own trading incomes. The case of BP at Tate and British Museum is the perfect example of a façade of financial support that crumbles down to peanuts in sponsorship and arduous directives for exhibitions and events.

The arts are an unparalleled opportunity for us to share understanding, critique, reflections and ideas – whether in community arts processes, events, or by all standing staring at a Hepworth sculpture in Trafalgar Square. The elites may well keep driving up prices, but like the NHS, public parks, our libraries and more, the preservation of cultural artefacts, spaces and conversations must remain open to all.

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