How sociology can help explain the high prices of art

Collecting art is an expensive hobby – and sociology can help explain why:

The top art prices may have little to do with classic economics. Noah Horowitz, whose Art of the Deal is a crucial text on the subject, says in the long run your investment in art may only do about as well as your holdings in bonds—and comes with greater risk. (But, as one major New York collector put it, that’s not so bad, if you have nowhere else to store your income. And anyway, “bonds aren’t that good to look at.”) At this moment, when the 1 percent has the cash to burn, buying art is less about finance than about the cultural value of money, and of art. “A dollar is not a dollar is not a dollar,” says Viviana Zelizer, the great Princeton sociologist who wrote The Social Meaning of Money. The dollars spent in Miami are “cultural dollars,” Zelizer says, and that makes them obey their own rules. Below, five reasons why art defies economics…

The sociologist Mitch Abolafia, who has made a study of Wall Street financiers, says that sometimes money speaks for itself. “A trader said to me one day, with glee in his eyes, ‘You can’t see it, but money is everywhere in this room. Money is flying around—millions and millions of dollars.’ It was a generalized excitement about money. Even I felt it.” That’s the excitement we all get from expensive art. One collector, who believes deeply that art should be bought for art’s sake, acknowledges basking in the “robust glow of prosperity” that his purchases give off once their value has soared.

The people who are spending record amounts on art buy more than just that glow. (And much more than the pleasure of contemplating pictures, which they could get for $20 at any museum.) They’ve purchased boasting rights. “It’s, ‘You bought the $100 million Picasso?!,’” says Glimcher. Abolafia explains that his financiers were “shameless” in declaring the price of their toys, because in their world, what you buy is less about the object than the cash you threw at it. The uselessness of art makes any spending on it especially potent: buying a yacht is a tiny bit like buying a rowboat, and so retains a taint of practicality, but buying a great Picasso is like no other spending. Olav Velthuis, a Dutch sociologist who wrote Talking Prices, the best study of what art spending means, compares the top of the art market to the potlatches performed by the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, where the goal was to ostentatiously give away, even destroy, as much of your wealth as possible—to show that you could. In the art-market equivalent, he says, prices keep mounting as collectors compete for this “super-status effect.”…

I’m convinced that most collectors spend their surplus millions on art because they have a genuine belief in its aesthetic value. “We don’t consider art an investment. We get a psychic reward—I love to come home and look at our walls,” says Eli Broad, a prominent collector from Los Angeles, taking a break from shopping with his art-loving wife at the fair in Miami. (They’d just bought some early Cindy Sherman photos, for sale at Metro Pictures for a modest $150,000.) Aesthetics are the bedrock the art market is built on. But, for want of any other reliable measure, they often get tallied in dollars. One of New York’s biggest dealers told Velthuis, the Dutch sociologist, that collectors “permanently have to explain to themselves why they spend so much money on art, sometimes up to 40 percent of their total net worth. So that they want to hear all day long that it makes sense what they do.” And the easiest way to gauge the aesthetic “sense” of an art purchase is to check out the “cents” the thing is selling for. When you’re looking for great art, you may spot it by its price tag.

Sounds like a common sociological explanation: status matters. In order to show their social status or to break into elite circles, people with money buy art.

It would be interesting to read more about how this plays out with emerging artists. After watching Exit Through the Gift Shop, it looks like there is quite an interest in “discovering” and capitalizing on the “next best thing.” It’s one thing to be able to buy works by the masters but another to find the next Banksy and become a new patron.

And can the wealthy create a different kind of status by donating their works to museums or traveling exhibitions to show that they are sharing?

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