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“In No Case Will This Special Rate Apply to Gold for Investment” - Octavi Comeron

1.

In debates on art and how it works, there is one recurring scene which many of us will have witnessed more than once, with minor variations. On one side of the table, one of the guests includes a harsh criticism in his arguments of the present link between art and the market, with the web of economic interests that surround it and that have nothing to do with artistic values. Following this, on the other side of the same table, another guest replies and defends exactly the opposite argument, often in almost perfect symmetry, based essentially on one simple question: ‘Why should artistic practice not be tied to the market and the economy like any other professional activity?’

 

In fact, both positions have their roots in historical lines of thought which despite belonging to different fields emerged almost simultaneously in the period at the end of the 18th century, with the rise of modern rationality1. The first stance can be placed within a tradition whose origin lies in Kant’s aesthetics. The conflict the German philosopher saw for the economic subjection of an artistic practice that should be essentially ‘disinterested’ appears at different moments in his Critique of Judgement. We find it expressed eloquently enough in a passage in which he states that ‘we should not call anything art except a production through freedom, whereas craft may also be called mercenary’. As regards the second position, we could point to an equivalent inaugural moment of sorts in the treatise in which Adam Smith lays the foundations for the economic logic of liberalism. A form of rationality in which the market is presented not just as the invisible hand that regulates the individual interests expressed in any work carried out in a scenario of freedom, but also as the eye that lets us see the true value of this work and of the resulting products, without artificial constrictions.

 

The two views these lines of thought have to offer seem to be completely irreconcilable, and in the scene I described above are most likely to give rise to explicit or veiled mutual abuse and to view each other as expressions of naïve idealism or empty economism. If we look closely, though, we shall see that these two viewpoints are not so far removed, or, at least, we may find a point at which they can converge. In both cases, the commonplace that in art ‘time eventually puts things in their place’ is a perfectly acceptable axiom and could well be used in defence of each side’s argument. It is as though a natural squint that makes the eye of artistic value spontaneously turn its attention away from the interests of the economic eye (often distracted by other interests or by pure ignorance) corrected this tendency simply through the intervention of the temporal factor, letting enough time go by for the artistic value and the market value to gradually move closer until their divergent images eventually come together as a single one. And the traditional faith in this harmonious reunion (which, I might say, can go up or down) is what sustains the logic of collecting as an investment in art.

 

2.
In debating slippery but important questions like the conceptualisation of artistic practice and its social construction, we often need to pay attention to more lateral areas, where reflections that might seem ethereal connect with more worldly aspects. One area that shows this worldly connection of art, like that of the economy, is law – which, as we shall see, is no stranger either to the logic of investment mentioned above. Attempting to define art is a delicate business that could be reserved to people with a foothold in aesthetic theory or to artists themselves, and even so could hardly avoid laying itself open to discussion and to the infinite forms of the public’s subjectivity. But the people in charge of drawing up laws sometimes have no alternative but to roll up their sleeves and put everything in black and white.

 

In current Spanish legislation, the nearest we get to an explanation of what can be considered ‘an art object’ is the Law on VAT2, Article 136. This article gives a detailed description of those items eligible for the special rate of taxation for artistic objects, which, amongst other things, allows artists to sell a work directly to a collector with a VAT rate of 8% instead of the 18% applied to conventional goods. The description establishes a total of seven categories for classifying different types of art object, according to numerous technical specifications whose arbitrarity can not fail to puzzle us. Paintings, collages and drawings are art if they are entirely hand-made, but drawings of architectural or topographical plans are excluded, as are stage sets. Lithographs, engravings and prints from plates made by hand by the artist with a print run limited to 200 copies are art objects, but photo-mechanical means of reproduction are excluded. Casts of sculptures must be limited to eight copies, the same as enamels on copper or tapestries and wall cloths made from original cartoons produced by the artist. Ceramics must be signed, the same as photographs, which must not exceed the limit of 30 prints and must have been taken, developed and printed by the photographer… In short, a conception of the art object more in line with the artistic imaginary of the 18th or 19th centuries rather than 1992, the year this law now in force was drafted.2

 

La balada del valor d’ús (2011). Octavi Comeron

But juridical spheres do not just represent a particular way of thinking, in this case one that pays little attention to a large part of what has happened in art since the first avant-gardes of the last century; they also intervene in what they are trying to define or manage. They have a performative dimension and favour or sanction certain forms of thinking or behaviour.3 It is interesting to look at another significant aspect of this law, apart from the 19th-century air there is about it, and that is the emphasis with which it establishes a rigid limit to the number of copies that can be reproduced in each medium for the artistic nature of the work to be acknowledged. This limit, of course, is intended to favour only a speculative component. Only by this reasoning – precisely because this reasoning is so obvious – does it make sense that this legal text felt it necessary to point out that ‘In no case will this special rate apply to gold for investment’.

 

3.
The connection between the economic and legal spheres, in this case applied to art, is more than just a pragmatic question. Obviously, any economic conception requires a legal basis for its application, one laid down in a series of regulations. But to generate and transmit this conception, an imaginary is needed to back it up. The clear-sighted analysis made at the end of the 1970s by the French philosopher Michel Foucault on the origins and various deployments of the rationality of economic liberalism contains a fundamental metaphor in this sense: the form in which liberal logic conceives the market is that of a tribunal in charge of discovering the truth.4 It is a space for veridiction, says Foucault: its function is to discover the true value of things. Its functioning is that of a tribunal permanently devoted to seeing the true value of things and activities and express it as a price –a perfect optical machine, in which all investment logic places its trust. And if any sphere has habitually assumed this imaginary in its purest state and expressed it in its most extreme form, this has traditionally been the sphere of art, as there is probably no other professional activity that so literally swings between zero and infinity in determining its value.

 

But Foucault reminds us that this idea of the market as a space for discovering the truth of things had arisen to replace another earlier one. Before Adam Smith and the economists of the physiocracy of the 18th century, the market was not considered a space of veridiction, but of justice. Its function was not to establish a truth, so much as a fair balance in the relations between producers and consumers. And it is interesting to note that this idea of justice, the possibility of conceiving of a fair price, which in a way strikes us as odd, becomes even odder if we think about practices in the art world than about a packet of coffee, for example. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the logic behind a large part of today’s art market also seems odd to those of us who inhabit it. And that the feeling of discomfort or of remoteness in many artists over how their own system works ought to become an unavoidable aspect of our debates.

 

Perhaps we could start to revise the whole of the imaginary with which relations are formed, laws are laid down and the social space of artistic practice is constructed. And also what sense does it make for collectors, institutions or governments to invest in art and culture. In other words, what can the idea of investment mean when applied to a good that is literally not consumed in its use; rather it is precisely in its use that it becomes and multiplies.

 

 

Octavi Comeron, July 2011

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Notes
1 Adam Smith’s treatise on economy The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement in 1790.
2 Law 37/1992, of 28 December, of Value Added Tax.
3 An artistic project recently presented at the NauEstruch in Sabadell, called La balada del valor d’ús (The Ballad of the Value of Use), set out to question and in a way interfere in this scenario through a simple action: the sale of a series motor car (a Seat León) as a work of art, taking advantage of the special tax rate applicable to art objects to sell it more cheaply. The idea included several elements that developed this performative nature of the legal and economic system, and posed a reflection on the
notion of ‘value of use’ in the artistic context.
4 See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-79. 2008.

 

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