Satyajit Das: The Art of Destructive Capital

By Satyajit Das, a former banker and author of Extreme Money and Traders Guns & Money

Noah Horowitz (2011) Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market; Princeton University Press

Don Thompson (2013) The Supermodel and the Brillo Box; Palgrave MacMillan

With art and money now synonymous if only for the ridiculous amounts involved, a study of the art market provides a titillating perspective on the lives of the very rich and even richer.

The Art of Value…

In truth, art and money have never been far apart. The wealthy have always collected art. Joseph Henry Duveen, the legendary dealer who in the early twentieth century masterminded the sale of Old Masters to wealthy Americans with little knowledge of art, observed that: “Europe has plenty of art while America has plenty of money and large empty mansions and I bring them together.” Richard Rush in his 1961 book Art as an Investment doubted that “collectors have ever been unmindful of the investment value of art”.

But the market rather than the art itself is now the centre of this universe. Traditional literature on art focused on the works themselves. Today, it is about the functioning of the art market, which is code for what a specific work will sell for today and in the future. Experts are ‘specialists’ employed by auction houses with a role akin to relationship managers tasked with building relationships with artists, buyer and seller. Robert Hughes explained the dissatisfaction with art scholarship bluntly: “One gets tired of the role critics are supposed to have in this culture. It’s like being the piano player in a whorehouse, you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs”.

This is monetisation of aesthetics and beauty. More than most, Damien Hirst – the best known of a group of artists dubbed yBAs (young British Artists) – understood and tapped into this parallel: “I have a genuine belief that art is a more powerful currency than money – that’s the romantic feeling that an artist has. But you start to have this sneaking feeling that money is more powerful.” With an estimated net worth of Sterling 215 million, Hirst has monetised his art better than most. Not bad, considering Hirst does not really paint or sculpt but designs things which are then made by a team of employees.

Finance and art share common qualities – a symbolic and abstract nature, constant debates about value and significance. Art is a meta-object unrelated to anything else. It is circular – high prices and the fact that it is an artist’s work make it art. It is self-referential using itself as the point of departure and benchmark. Modern money, especially complex financial techniques such as derivatives and securitisation, too are meta-concepts, capable of infinite expansion, circular and self-referential.

Both lack intrinsic value. It is a trade in things that have no real price. Like financial assets, prices for artworks in the view of art critic Robert Hughes “are determined by the meeting of real or induced scarcity with pure irrational desire, and nothing is more manipulable than desire… a fair price is the highest one a collector can be induced to pay.” Both worlds pay lip service to innovation and the unconventional, but are really conformist.

Art and money entail deception. A former director of the Museum of Modern Art once observed that perhaps 40 percent of expensive art being traded are forgeries. Collectors and museums held 600 works by Rembrandt, despite evidence that the artist had produced only 320 paintings. In a similar vein, financiers multiplied money with their alchemy, creating a false, ephemeral wealth. Monetary abstractions – CDOs (collateralised debt obligations), derivatives of different complexions -allowing betting on everything from shares to the weather – were created and traded, without any concerns about their value or utility.

Both worlds are exclusive. American artist Martha Rosler identified that: “The contemporary art world, like all modern technical/ professional discursive fields, is cohesive and (inadvertently) exclusionary. Few people not professionally implicated can meaningfully participate in it.”

Like financiers, artists make things that consciously look like art, enhancing stereotypes. Mimicking the behaviour of financial markets, collectors chase works by a handful of fashionable painters. Robert Hughes, the art critic, observed there was a herd instinct: “Most of the time they buy what other people buy. They move in great schools like bluefish, all identical. There is safety in numbers.”

Great artists believe that they are almost divine, possessed of the protean power of creation. Artist Grayson Perry once pronounced without irony: “This is art, because I’m an artist and I say it is”. Financiers- the Masters of Universe strutting through the City of London or Wall Street – also believe that they are also just like God, although they are better dressed. Art has become the religion of choice for bankers, the new robber barons of a new gilded age.

More Money…

Underlying art purchases, now part of passion investing, are several factors.

Few collectors are poor. Only the Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, a US postal service worker and a librarian, assembled a stunning 4,500 work collection without real wealth. It was only possible because of the period (immediately after the war) and their friendships with emerging artists like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Roy Lichtenstein.

Collecting art is popular because it is expensive. After all “after you have a fourth home and a [Gulfstream] G5 jet, what else is there?” For the wealthy, collecting art is a simple progression from buying Gucci, Prada or Louis Vuitton. In 2000, Louis Vuitton asked the Japanese artist Takeshi Murakami to redesign the century old signature pattern, a beige and brown letter LV superimposed on four petal flower and diamond shapes. Murakami subsequently produced paintings featuring the new multicolour LV pattern, blurring the distinction between luxury goods and art.

For people who have everything, the attraction is something unique and unattainable. Purchase precludes the ability of others to acquire the work. Financiers enjoyed bestowing what Tom Wolfe defined in The Painted Word as “uptown patronage” on artworks and artists. The allure is increased by the fact that mere wealth did not guarantee you access.

Art investment has become increasingly driven by financial motives – the return available and the assumed lack of correlation between price movements of art relative to that on traditional financial assets. Post 2008, prices for artworks fell. But they recovered rapidly, reflecting in part a growing mistrust in money and traditional financial assets, such as shares, bonds and property. Increasingly, the smart money saw safety in unique collectibles, including works of art, as governments and central bankers began to implement policies that devalued the purchasing power of financial instruments.

In November 2009, the auction of Andy Warhol’s 1962 silk screen painting 200 One Dollar Bills confirmed the curious semiotics of the relationship between art and money. The catalogue describes the piece as Warhol’s response “to the post-war world’s media and consumerist saturation” via “a form of art that would remove the hand of the artist, creating the same sense of distance and disconnect that was emerging in the world around him.” Real money was rapidly losing value, as governments turned to the printing presses to boost the economy, but the painting valued each dollar bill at US$219,000.

In contrast to financial assets they trade, financiers and the wealthy now see art as a solid investment that holds its value. Jose Mugrabi, art dealer, argued that “today people believe more in art than in the stock market”. Celebrating the success of his successful two day sale Beautiful Inside My Head Forever which coincided with the failure of Lehman Brothers, Damien Hirst thought “people would rather put their money into butterflies [one of Hirst’s trademark motifs] than banks”. This new group of buyers, who may or may not be interested in art, see it as another commodity.

Increasingly, the language of art reflects its financialisation. Art is an investment with “liquidity” that “diversified your portfolio”. There is the language of derivatives: “…. collectors are effectively buying future’s option on a work’s cultural significance.” Collectors trade: “They study the form, they read the magazine, they listen to the word on the street, they have hunches.” For the alpha males of banking, buying and selling art approximates trading. Art dealers talk of “making markets in art works” and “pulling the trigger on a trade.” The fall of the hammer publicly pronounces success or failure.

There were fascinating parallels with the evolution of the global economy, primarily the increasing importance of the emerging markets. In art, dealers and collectors trawled for new artists from emerging markets (known as “emergent art”) as well as wealthy collectors from these new frontier lands, echoing the trawl for treasure by fund managers and businesses.

In 2006, Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, stated that: “For the first time we are in a non-cyclical market”. Meyer assumed that in case of a slowdown of demand in the developed market, emerging markets would pick up the slack. Decoupling was as illusory as in the real economy, with the art market collapsing after the GFC.

Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu’s speculation that the art market was a combination of symbolic and economic capital is true today.

Art of Art Economics Book…

There has been rapid growth in books about the modern art market: Peter Watson’s From Manet to Manhattan; Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World; Philip Hook’s Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World; Georgina Adam’s Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century; Olav Velthuis’ Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art; Isabelle Graw’s High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture etc. Noah Horowitz’s Art of the Deal and Don Thompson’s The Supermodel and the Brillo Box are additions to this growing literature.

The books have certain minimalist repetition to them featuring the same cast of artists (Hirst, Koon, Murakami etc.), dealers (Larry Gagosian, Jay Jopling), collectors (Charles Saatchi, Steven Cohen), the same auction houses etc. It would be difficult to find a work on the art market that does not open with an auction, exhibition, something to do with Damien Hirst or preferably a combination of these elements. Authors inevitably position themselves as “insiders”, regaling readers with salacious anecdotes, celebrity references and breathless hyperbole.

Dr. Horowitz is an art historian and expert, with experience at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and online VIP Art Fair. Art of the Deal is essentially three essays on video art, experiential art and art investment. One welcome aspect of the book is that its avoids to a degree but not entirely the usual cast and plot lines because of its focus on the relative undermined areas on ‘immaterial’ art genres in the first two essays.

The book’s discussion of video and experiential art is interesting. The discussion of the minutiae of this world of performances, installations, action and social interaction and their ancillary elements, content ownership and the rise of the collector’s box will add greatly to the reader’s ability to appear learned on a suitable social occasion.

Dr. Horowitz proceeds on the assumption that all this is art. There is Rirkrit Tiravanija who organises dinner parties consisting of Thai soup and drinks but does not allow any photographs or documentation. It is not clear what the collector acquires. Dr. Horowitz quotes Nicolas Bourriaud’s explanation that it is: “a relationship with the world rendered concrete by an object, which, per se, defines the relations one has towards this relationship: a relationship to a relationship?” Marcel Duchamp would have had fun with that.

The strength and weaknesses of Art of the Deal both derive from its evolution out the author’s Ph. D (which in scholarship translates into ‘permanent head damage’ or ‘protein has degraded’). On the positive side, the book is thoroughly researched, evidenced by 65 pages of tables and appendices, 48 pages of footnotes and a 14 pages bibliography. On the negative side, it is dense. Structurally, the three essays seem unrelated to each other, giving the book a disjointed feel. The author admits that his original intention was to write about art investment funds but a lack of data forced a change in plans.

Befitting his status and erudition, Dr. Horowitz maintains a dignified, cautious and balanced tone through the text. Words like ‘experientialization’, ‘marketization’ and ‘aestheticized’ (to name a few) will undoubtedly expand the reader’s vocabulary. Sentences are marred regularly by malapropisms and jargon. Observant readers may puzzle over the phrase: “ambivalent or antagonistic to the market’s espousal of singularity and objecthood”. According to the publisher, the book is also “replete with whizzy charts”.

Most troubling, the writing and analysis evidences a palpable apprehension of giving offence to or causing any discomfort to the art world of which the author is a part.

Sexy Supermodels…

Professor Don Thompson, a professional economist and professor of marketing and brand strategy, takes a slightly more irascible and questioning attitude to the art market in Supermodel, a sequel to his earlier The $12 Million Stuffed Shark.

Professor Thompson’s interest is in the question why people are prepared to pay high prices for particular works and the role that art performs. Supermodel explores this in a series of steps such as the world of contemporary art, the crash of 2008, the collector’s interest, contemporary artists, the auction houses, dealers, art fairs and the emergence of new museums in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Dubai.

Supermodel takes its title from two works of art: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s trophy-style wax sculpture of supermodel Stephanie Seymour’s nude torso; and Andy Warhol’s renowned Brillo Boxes. The Cattelan sculpture is used to explore the power of branding and marketing. The Brillo box allows discussion of authenticity and appropriation of art works.

Thompson’ exploration of collecting is interesting. He portrays collectors becoming absorbed by the provenance, ownership history and trajectory of a work. He draws an interesting parallel based on work by cognitive scientists. Apparently, narratives about a specific artwork can trigger a strong response, similar to the reaction when subjects are shown a chocolate truffle.

Unlike Art of the Deal, the author’s lack of vested interest is an asset. As in his previous book, Professor Thompson has a good eye for an anecdote and enough humour and scepticism about the modern art market to make Supermodel an easy and entertaining read. A nice turn of phrase doesn’t hurt; Art Basel Miami Beach is “the best example of seeing art in the worst way.”

Supermodel is perhaps less interesting than The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. Partly, this is because it goes over similar and by now familiar ground. Also it is less cohesive, with many of chapters having been published earlier as standalone articles. Nevertheless, the book remains an amusing insight into its subject.

Immaculate Conceptions!

Previous generations collected Old Masters, like the Impressionists. New generations favour modern art. Both books fail to provide satisfactory issues to the attraction of contemporary art, which frequently bears little or no resemblance to traditional forms.

Much of new art seems founded on a strange relationship between art, dealer and critic. Jacob Kassay’s oeuvre is silver paintings, entailing an industrial production method which creates semi-opaque surfaces which reflect movement and colour with an effect like out-of-focus photography. Kassay became successful through what Professor Thompson describes as clever marketing and some price enhancement strategies, more creative than the works themselves. Writer Andrew Russeth contributed to the mystique describing the works as having “the appearance of elegantly abused luxury goods”.

Another critic described the works as simultaneously painting, sculpture and interactive installation. The works by the “silver painting guy” became briefly widey sought after.

What sells seems to be works expressing the artist’s angst at the discovery of his or her inability to draw or paint. Maurizo Cattelan summarised this approach to modern art with disarming candour: “I don’t design, I don’t paint. I absolutely never touch my works”.

Damien Hirst and Murakami Takashi also do not actually make things themselves, preferring to follow Andy Warhol in using artisans to actually execute the work. But why is an identical work by the worker regarded differently as well as being priced lower than the work of the artist?

Controversial works, like Jeff Koons’ painting Red Butt, depicting the artist having anal sex with Ilona Staller, aka la Cicciolina, a former pornographic star, are prized. Distillation of suffering exorcising the guilt of wealth does well. Charles Saatchi’s famously profited from Marc Quinn’s Self – a cast of the artist’s head made from his frozen blood.

Art confirming the self-image of financiers attracts high prices. Inspired by Hokusai’s famous 19th century woodblock print The Great Wave of Kanagawa, Murakami’s 727 paintings showed Mr. DOB, a post nuclear Mickey Mouse character, as a god riding on a cloud or a shark surfing on a wave. The first 727 is owned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the second by Steve Cohen.

The collector’s appreciation of the works themselves is revealing. With its jaws gaping, poised to swallow its prey, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (or as it is more popularly known: The Dead Shark in the Tank) mirrored the killer instincts of hedge funds, feared predators in financial markets. Cohen “…liked the whole fear factor.”

English graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter Banksy labelled the “the art world is the biggest joke going”. In a May 2008 New Yorker interview, he called it “a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak”. Responding to a Sotheby sale of his work, Banksy created an image of an auction room crowded with collectors frenziedly bidding for a painting consisting of a canvas with the words: “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit.” The image was duly turned into a print and sold at auction.

Banksy meanwhile was not interested “in convincing people in the art world that what I do is ‘art’”. He was more worried about his street cred: “convincing people in the graffiti community that what I do is really vandalism.”

Destructive Capital

The nature of art is now defined by its relationship to money. Prices have been driven to unprecedented heights, the definition of art has shifted and artists no longer simply create but package, sell and brand their works. Art is increasingly as much a monetary commodity as a cultural signifier. But the parallel between inflated financial and art markets poses the question: will contemporary works really hold their value preserving their purchasing power.

Dr. Horowitz cites the experience of the visionary British Railway Pension Fund (“BRPF”). It collected art between 1974 and 1987, based on research that art had proved a sound long term investment. Beginning in 1987, BRPF began disposing of its portfolio, realising around three times the purchase price. A more detailed analysis is revealing. The Fund’s impressionist painting returned 21.3 percent per annum. Chinese porcelain returned 15.4 percent. In contrast other investments showed inferior return. The total performance of BRPF’s over its entire holding period was 11.3 percent, equating to 4 percent per annum in real terms.

BRPF’s performance is hailed as evidence of the merits of art investment. But it underperformed equity markets over the relevant period. It also does not take into account the significant holding costs, such as storage and insurance. The Fund was perhaps lucky in owning impressionist works which benefitted from the boom in demand at the time it was selling. Without the large gains from a few isolated works, the Fund’s performance would have been less than stellar. Ironically, BRPF’s success was due to it selling to take advantage of a boom in art prices rather than investing for the long term.

There may be subtler long term problems with art investing. The shift to a more diffuse economy of artistic goods, services and experiences make identifying what will and won’t maintain value more difficult. The diversification benefit has diminished because of the nature of buyers and the amounts involved. As highlighted in 2008, the art market’s correlation to other financial assets may have increased. If investing in art is motivated by it very exclusiveness, then its popularity may reduce its ability to bestow a mark of distinction on collectors leading to a shift away from the sector. Ultimately, the real driver –the scarcity value of an outstanding Rembrandt, Matisse or Giacometti- is also a constraint. Truly great artworks that endure cannot be created on demand.

Art journalist Melanie Gerlis in her 2012 book Investment: a Survey of Comparative Assets highlighted the issues in art investment: high risk, illiquidity, a fashion-driven demand and increasing supply for contemporary works from living artists. Interestingly no artworks purchased for more than $30m has ever resold at a profit. It may well be that few of the works purchased at today’s extraordinary prices will resell for more than the purchase price.

French intellectual and literary figure Georges Bataille argued that any idiot can produce wealth. It merely required toleration for monotonous processes involving commodities, goods and services. Moreover, once created it tended to accumulate and multiply rapidly as profits were reinvested. The more interesting question, he argued was how this wealth was destroyed, especially through purely useless expenditure which transforms the useful into the useless. The process should be exhibitionistic and profane. Batalille thought that art was the preferable medium of non-productive expenditure, which was an inevitable manifestation of the concentration of wealth.

Artist Gerhard Richter would have agreed, seeing the art world as “perfectly harmless and even pleasant, if you don’t judge it in terms of false expectations…it is …just one variation on the never-ending round of social game playing that satisfies our need for communication, alongside such other as sport, fashion, stamp-collecting and cat breeding.” Art investors would be alarmed at this thought.

On 2 May 2012, one of the four versions of Edvard Munch’s painting Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature) but more commonly shortened to The Scream sold for around US$120 million. The painting shows a distressed primal figure experiencing an existential crisis on a bridge against an orange-red sky.

In a diary entry dated, Munch set down the inspiration for the picture: “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked.”

As the modern economy and world enters its own existential crisis, it seems appropriate that this disturbing work captured global attention. The price paid for the iconic work was a record, the highest nominal price paid for a painting at auction. The purchaser was, unsurprisingly, a financier – hedge fund manager Leon Black.

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  1. MartyH

    At risk of another “one-liner of ire” from Yves ;-)

    But isn’t Capital converted from a stimulator of production and collective well being into a weapon of private accumulation and domination intentionally destructive? Why would be thus be surprised?

  2. Garrett Pace

    Don’t forget the market in ancient artifacts! Even though they aren’t being made anymore, branding is still possible for the smart scholar/investor with a clever idea who knows how to market it.

    For example, here’s the guy who paid > $2 million for a single Hadrian sestertius, branded as the “Alphaeus Master”

    It’s an exceptional coin, but without the fanciful backstory I think it would have gone for 1/20th as much.

  3. James Levy

    It is a strange society wherein a painting can sell for $120 million dollars but all the “serious” people in positions of power and influence will tell you that it is absolutely impossible for every child to have free access to a doctor. It is beyond obvious that there is more than enough money sloshing around the global financial system to meet basic needs, but no will amongst the vast majority, not only of the powerful but also the powerless, to even imagine how that money could get to where it is needed. It would appear that the need to be better than, to have more than, others is so ingrained in the human psyche that we will tolerate a very great deal of suffering so as to maintain our pecking orders. I guess it is foolish for people like me to imagine that the chimp and the baboon are not alive and well and exerting themselves in our subconscious.

      1. craazyman

        sometimes it seems like 2000 should still be in the future.

        some painter dude did a Virgin Mary painting with dung in the late 1990s and it made the papers.

        Everybody jumped all over him with scorn for degrading Christianity, but actually it’s a really really good painting! I wonder if the dung will last as long as the paint.

  4. so

    Who is an Artist? What is Art? The person who dares to create can only answer that for themselves.
    Everything else is noise.

  5. trinity river

    Could you help us pronounce Satyajit Das’ name? I am even unable to google it. Even if you anglicize it, that would be better than nothing. I have trouble remembering names that I can’t pronounce. Thanks.

    1. JEHR

      Break the name into syllables and pronounce them. You probably won’t have the right pronunciation but you will be able to remember the name.

  6. Carolinian

    Great stuff. It should be pointed out that Wolfe’s The Painted Word is a debunking of the modern art world in general and not just collectors. Put it on your bookshelf next to From Bauhaus to Our House. Steve Martin has a good novel about art collecting (the title eludes me) and he is an avid collector himself. Even in fiction he talks about how art prices go up and down with the vagaries of the stock market. Indeed perhaps a third Wolfe book should be mentioned: Bonfire of the Vanities.

  7. JEHR

    I have been painting pictures of barns found in my local area. The best return on my art work was $3,000 that I made one year. I have a whole basement full of my art and am contemplating how to get rid of them before I die. One solution I came up with was to give the paintings to the descendents of the farmer whose buildings I painted in 2007. The five children of this man were thrilled to get the paintings as their father had died two years ago and the buildings are falling apart with neglect. That gift of paintings made me as happy as the
    creation of the original paintings themselves did !


    1. fresno dan

      I would say those are pretty nifty
      I would say some of them remind me of Van Gogh….I understand Van Gogh couldn’t get rid of a lot of his paintings either…

  8. fresno dan

    “Finance and art share common qualities – a symbolic and abstract nature, constant debates about value and significance. Art is a meta-object unrelated to anything else. It is circular – high prices and the fact that it is an artist’s work make it art. It is self-referential using itself as the point of departure and benchmark. Modern money, especially complex financial techniques such as derivatives and securitisation, too are meta-concepts, capable of infinite expansion, circular and self-referential.”

    Ah, the fault lies within our selves.
    Any one of us can create “art” that is the equal of 99.8% of what is in a gallery (I wonder how many could match Vermeer, not because of talent, but because of patience)'s_Vermeer

    Yet humans set up an academy, with official critics to tell us what is “art” and how much it is worth – and we listen to such people!!!
    We do the same thing with spirituality….official holy men, official doctrine, and of course, official giving…
    And of course, with economics telling us that the rich are doing something useful, that ONLY THEY can do….

  9. DCR

    “In truth, art and money have never been far apart.”

    1mon·ey noun, often attributive \ˈmə-nē\
    : something (such as coins or bills) used as a way to pay for goods and services and to pay people for their work
    : a person’s wealth : the money that a person has

    The idea that “money” has been transformed into limitless fiat doled out by corrupt governments to favored constituents, or that “art” is near money, is the root cause of much of the suffering on the planet. Monetary regimes that are durable and equitable produce money which has a solid relationship to the goods or services which you or your ancestors actually produce or produced in free markets to others, not “money” conjured out of nothing, or “art” bubbles. With rare individual work exceptions, when art bubbles turn, liquidity evaporates, trading spreads blow out to mammoth levels, and prices crater. Sounds a lot like Venezuelan bolivars, Ukrainian hryvnias, and Argentinian pesos. Next up Japanese yen, perhaps soon to be followed by new Greek drachmas.

    Rather than “The Art of Destructive Capital” might I suggest “A Fool and His Money Are Soon Parted”.

  10. fresno dan

    just one variation on the never-ending round of social game playing that satisfies our need for communication, alongside such other as sport, fashion, stamp-collecting and cat breeding.”

    Besmirching cat breeding???? Beyond the pale!!!

  11. Oliver Budde

    I generally like Das a lot, but my reaction here is basically ‘who cares?’ I’m reminded of the late Raul Julia speaking to Kurt Russell in Tequila Sunrise: “You go to a good deal of trouble to explain an inconsequential event, Lieutenant.” Rich idiots catering to other rich idiots. Huh.

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