Paleolithic stone axe

Above: A Paleolithic stone axe (front and back). Credit: Museum de Toulouse/Wikimedia commons.

Worthless/Priceless

The extreme polarization of prices in the contemporary-art market is beginning to function as a short-circuit of the entrenched hegemonic hierarchical system of values. These days the tendency is for an artwork to either be sold "without reserve" as it is essentially "worthless," or else, it is so rare and fetishized, that no certain value can even be estimated, it is worth an unknowable amount of "silly" money, or "priceless." If the current trend in art were to continue for any length of time unabated (intense polarization) then one outcome would be that any given artwork whatsoever would eventually be designated either worthless or priceless.

Jean Baudrillard considered theorizing the object--and in fact the art-object--as central to his life's work, and when he introduced the priceless/worthless binary dichotomy it was in an effort to step outside of capitalism's relentless assignment of a monetary market value to all objects. ("In either case [priceless or worthless] we are dealing with what cannot be evaluated, in the strongest sense of the term.")

What is interesting in the case of the art auctioneers is that it is the most archly capitalist industry which has begun to collapse itself: prices are neither going up nor down ... they are actually disappearing. The value hierarchy is stripped away, and what is left tends to a sort of neo-Paleolithic age in which an object either has immense value, or no value at all. The key point here is that the undermining force comes not from outside of capitalism but from inside it--the system if left long enough, eventually deconstructs itself.

(6 December 2018)