Art into Money

Almost weekly, the newspapers report new record prices for works of art. Monthly, expensively glossy magazines bulging with dealers’ advertisements, chronicle the art market’s latest trends with respectful minuteness. And every year, art’s present peculiar status, as conspicuously high-priced merchandise, inspires more and more books of one sort or another—most recently two breathless accounts1 of the takeover of Sotheby’s auction house by an American syndicate headed by Alfred Taubman.

All this commotion, lurid as it sometimes seems, is not absolutely unprecedented. Just over eight centuries ago in China, the late Sung dynasty critic and theorist Ts’ai T’ao mournfully wrote: “The love and enjoyment of art has become the fashion everywhere, and [works of art] are regarded as merchandise and bribes; this is indeed the evil of our age.”2

The truth is that whenever art too crassly becomes merchandise, the transformation has a way of shocking some people. It is more important, however, to note another set of facts of rather deeper significance. In all the millennia since art began on earth, tens of thousands of tribal cultures and scores of higher civilizations, almost all rich in art, have come and gone without producing anything really resembling the transformation of art into merchandise. This is in fact a sternly culture-bound development, or at any rate it was culture-bound before the present unprecedented era of worldwide cultural homogenization.

The reasons for this culture-boundness are not far to seek, either. Before homogenization set in about a hundred years ago, no more than five cultures in the whole long, culturally multifarious history of art had so much as imagined art collecting, art history, and an art market for the collectors. The three main ones were the classical culture that was born in Greece; the Imperial Chinese culture; and our own Western culture rooted in the Italian Renaissance. To these must be added Japanese culture after its extensive importations from Sui and Tang China, and in a limited way, later Islamic culture after the Mongol invasion of the Middle East; and there the list ends. Furthermore, whatever the cultural surroundings, art collecting, art history, and an art market for the collector must all be present and briskly interacting before the transformation of art into merchandise can begin. Hence the stern culture-boundedness.

Fortunately, it is needless to explore all the complex data needed to convince those who may doubt the completeness of this culture-boundedness. The doubters can simply cling to art history as their chosen clue, for nothing resembling art history can be found anywhere, even in primitive form, beyond the limits of the five cultures named above. In the art-into-merchandise transformation, moreover, art history, which supplies the art market’s labels, is just as important as art collecting, which supplies the art market’s customers.

To see why the labels are absolutely essential, it is only necessary to choose at random a few objects among the art market’s most expensive current offerings—say a Mosan chalice, an Achaemenid or Sassanid wine vessel, a Meissen platter…

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