Museums, values & deaccession



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5.1 Art, Artists, Art Institutions


In his work ‘Kritik der Urteilskraft’ (1790) the philosopher Immanuel Kant describes the special characteristics of our perception of art.

When we look at a work of art our esthetic experience does not depend on whether we own that piece of art or not. We do not need to own an artwork or know its price to value it. Our perception of beauty is disinterested (Van den Braembussche, 2006:154-155).

Kant also states that we judge art by our feelings and not by reason. Valuation of art is a subject of the hart and not of economic rationality (Van den Braembussche, 2006:155). Our experience of art is therefore also not linked with a certain goal beyond the esthetic experience (Van den Braembussche, 2006:157-160). If we see a work of art as a commodity that can be sold for a lot of money, we are unable to see the real beauty and esthetics of the work. Economic valuation makes us blind for what art really is about…
…sacredness, authenticity and magic (Abbing, 2002:23-32).

Ever since Romanticism people have looked at art as sacred (Abbing, 2002:23). Art works are put on a pedestal and looked upon as holy and in need of special treatment (Abbing, 2002:24). One of the factors that trigger this sacredness is the ‘uselessness’ of art. Art has little use value as it is detached from de needs of everyday life. This makes art belong to a separate category in live, a sacred category (Abbing, 2002:27).

The uniqueness of art also makes art special. People look up to art and artists, because of their authenticity (Abbing, 2002:25). This ‘romantic’ vision is wide spread. The illusions that artists create give us access to different and better worlds and inspire us. ‘Through imagination and the creation of illusion, artworks annoy, amaze, or touch art consumers and force them to reconsider their views’ (Abbing, 2002:29). It appears to be that we need this in our rational modern society (Abbing, 2002:27).
Some see these special characteristics as ‘intrinsic’ to art works. ‘[T]here cultural worth is in some way omnipresent, although the valuation that might be placed on them as cultural artifacts may vary markedly between individuals and over time’ (Throsby, 2001:39). Because, although aesthetic judgment is subjective, it is not merely subjective. Judgments can call upon the agreement of others (Wilde, 2008:222). And in many cases we agree that some works of art are of immeasurable value to our society, our art world and ourselves. This intrinsic value is based on shared cultural understanding and the recognition of the figured content, the subject matter, the expressive qualities, the historical context, the sacramental function and the uniqueness of the work (Wilde, 2008:226-235).
These intrinsic cultural values seem to make art priceless. We feel that selling a Rembrandt is trading downward, because what we call ‘art’ or ‘historical objects’ is superior to the world of commerce. The high value does not reside in the exchange system, but in the invisible ‘upward’ conversations and the attribution of social and cultural values (Kopytoff, 1986:82). Talking about the price of a piece of art is experienced as degrading to its true value. We do not talk about the price of art, because the price cannot capture the true value of an artwork.
The same sacredness that is attributed to art is ascribed to artists. Artists seem to be the living example of the fact that there is more to life than economic values. Artists are selflessly devoted to their art. Evidence for this is the fact that many artists earn low incomes (Abbing, 2002:122). Artists are less interested in monetary rewards than other professionals. Private satisfaction and status are much more important (Abbing, 2002:88). Their intrinsic motivation makes them reluctant towards economic values. ‘The artist prefers to keep the economy and whatever reminds her of it at bay and concentrate on her art. Many in the artistic community appear to distrust the operation of money, markets, and the commercial in their world’ (Klamer, 1996:7). Commercialism would diminish their work, status and recognition. Many artists don’t want to be seen as a ‘commercial artist’ who is solely into art for self-interests.

Therefore money only has to be made in order to survive and in order to work on their art. Artists will work, often in different jobs, but as soon as their funds are sufficient they will quickly loose interest in making money (Abbing, 2002:87).

If artists were not as dedicated to their art and they would make commercial compromises the sacred character of art would be at stake (Abbing, 2002:81). Artists preserve the sacredness, magic and disinterestedness of art.
And so do art institutions. Art institutions like theatres, museums and concert halls, are seen as carriers of social and cultural values. These institutions form places where people can gather, socialize, discuss and debate about various subjects. The performances, artworks and concerts are concentrations of cultural values and contribute to the conversations about aesthetics, history, religion, spirituality, politics and so on. Cultural value is also created through the ambience and the environment that art institutions create in order to give people the chance to appreciate art. Often the architecture of these institutions contributes to the cultural value and image of a city (Throsby, 2001:39-40).
5.2 Economic Values Unimportant?

Is this ‘romantic view’ on art, artists and art institutions not too romantic?

Actually the reality shows us that art has its price. Artworks are bought and sold on the market everyday and do fetch high prices in this process.

Recently at the first day of the auction of the art collection of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in Paris € 206.154.600 was collected. A work of Matisse was sold for 36 million euro’s and a painting of Brancusi for 29 million euro’s. These are the highest amounts of money ever paid before for works of these particular artists. And more records were broken during the two other days of the auction. At the second day and third day there were yields of respectively 101 million euro’s and 67 million euro’s, leading to a total sales over 373 million euro’s (Korteweg, 25 February 2009).

This example alone proves that art can be valued in economic terms. ‘[A]s one makes [art and culture] more singular and worthy of being collected, one makes them valuable; and if they are valuable, they acquire a price and become a commodity and their singularity is to that extent undermined’ (Kopytoff, 1986:81).

Art does have a price and economic values do interfere in the art world.


The same can be said according to artists. Money certainly does play a role for certain artists. The notion of the ‘commercial artist’ shows already that not all artists are selflessly devoted to art. There are artists that choose the most profitable activities in the art world for their own sake. According to them being a successful artists means generating as much external rewards in the form of money, recognition and fame as possible (Abbing: 2002:81). Economists would call these artists rational human beings.

An example is the artist Damien Hirst. Last year Damien Hirst sold his work during a special auction for an amount of 140 million euro’s. While some claim that his art isn’t even that revolutionary and beautiful, his works were sold for enormous amounts of money. Damien Hirst is an artist that used his business skills, personal network, charisma and publicity cleverly to succeed in the market (Benzakour, 2008).

There are many rich artists like Damien Hirst. The romantic view of the poor, starving, but dedicated artist is not applicable to all of the artists. It can even be said that top incomes in the arts are considerably higher than in all other professions for which the same education is acquired (Abbing, 2002:107).
Inside the art institutions economic values are not unimportant too. Many art institutions receive subsidy from the government, but they also have to generate revenues from ticket sales, catering and additional services to be sustainable (Throsby, 2001:36). A more commercial point of view therefore has to be adapted by these institutions. What are visitors willing to pay? Which services do visitors expect? What kind of performances or exhibitions should be in the program? How do we get the people in our theatre or museum?

There are many art institutions that have adopted their programs to the demand of the mass. Qualitatively high products are changed into qualitatively inferior products to attract more visitors. Here economic values prevail, as cultural values are used to generate economic values (Bourdieu & Throsby).

While money is a critical issue for many art institutions, sponsorships with commercial companies are also not uncommon nowadays. Large corporations have sponsor deals with museums and theatres and provide these art institutions with the budget they need. The autonomy and cultural interests, however, could be questioned in case Audi sponsors the new wing of the ‘Stedelijk Museum’ (Abbing, 2002:87). Are economic values more important than cultural values?
5.3 Denial of Economic Values?

The importance of economic values for works of art, artists and art institutions is most of the time not recognized in the art world. Does this mean that economic values are simply less important than social or cultural values? Or are economic values denied?


Klamer states that economic values are inferior to social and cultural values and play a less important role in the art world. Evidence is the fact that ‘many art forms thrive on gifts’ (Klamer, 2003:244). ‘[A] gift [is] any ‘good’, including money, that is transferred, conveyed or transmitted from one party to another when the nature, the value and the timing of the return of an equivalent is left undetermined’ (Klamer, 2003:243). Contrary to exchanges in the market sphere, the value of the gift is not its monetary value, but the value that the gift giving affirms or enhances. The gift sphere is able to do justice to the more vulnerable values, like friendship, love, collegiality, science (truth), religion (spirituality) and art (aesthetics, beauty and so on) (Klamer, 2003:246-347).

Therefore the art world depends a lot on the gift. This can be seen in the government sphere and in the social sphere or third sphere. The government sphere is that part of society in which the government fulfills certain tasks. The government interferes when the market and the social or third sphere do not suffice. The government sphere stands for equity and solidarity (Klamer & Zuidhof, 1998). Art institutions depend a lot on grants from the government. These can be seen as gifts, since the quid pro quo is immeasurable and it is unclear what, when and how much art institutions give the government back in return for the grants they receive.

More commonly recognized as gifts, however, are the gifts in the social or third sphere. The third sphere is a notion of Klamer and it stands for that part of society in which individuals and organizations take responsibility for certain things. Important values in this sphere are loyalty, connectedness, reciprocity, friendship and generosity (Klamer & Zuidhof, 1998). Gifts to art institutions in this sphere come from individuals and companies in the form of donations and labour time from volunteers (Klamer, 2003:244). In these cases there is no explicit quid pro quo. The donators and volunteers are pleased to contribute to the art institutions and the art world.

This is what sets the art world apart from the rest of our society. In the spheres of the gift, social and cultural values are generated that cannot be generated in the market sphere. In the market sphere, where goods are exchanged for something of equivalent value, it is all about price, efficiency, anonymity, calculation, greed and independence (Klamer & Zuidhof, 1998). The art world should not be associated with that, since social values and cultural values are much more important. Only the spheres of the gift can do justice to the true values of art (Klamer, 2006:135-137).


As we could expect, Abbing has a different view on economic values in the art world. According to him there are many myths in the art world that are there to hide the economic interests (Abbing, 2002:30). Money has to be made in the art world and it is made. However, to sustain the sacred and magical character of the arts and not to be associated with ‘lower art forms’, it is ‘profitable’ to deny any economic interest. Therefore attitudes in the arts are intrinsically two-faced. ‘On the one hand money and commerce are rejected. On the other hand trade is very present in the temple of sacred art [..]. The temple of art cannot exist without trade. Moreover, the trade in art profits from the belief that art is sacred and beyond commerce. For art dealers denying the economy is profitable: it is commercial to be anti-commercial’ (Abbing, 2002:12).

Still a lot of money is generated from the government sphere and the social sphere. Grants and donations are numerous in the art world. It is the money from the market sphere that is ‘rejected’ or hidden (Abbing, 2002:38-40).

According to Abbing, however, there is no reason for this. The market does not necessarily devalue art. ‘Comparing and ordering are such basic activities that there is no a priori reason why they should necessarily devalue art or increase its value. Because any aesthetic experience rests on measurements and comparisons, there is no basis for the notion that measurement devalues art’ (Abbing, 2002:45).

The art world, however, does not want to be associated with the market sphere. The reason for this is that in the market sphere the tension between economic values and cultural values is noticeable. This ‘essential tension’ originates from the incompatibility of the intrinsic cultural values of art and the rational economic values of art in the market sphere. The common feeling is that art cannot be priced and when it is, everyone feels the tension that comes with it (Van den Braembussche, 1996:32-33). It is therefore that the spheres of the gift are so strongly emphasized by the art world. By belonging to the gift spheres art stands in opposition of the world of commerce, technology and science, in which calculation, efficiency and rationality rule (Abbing, 2002:290). Dealing with the tension is not necessary. The affiliation with the gift is able to sustain the sacred character of the arts (Abbing, 2002:47).

This means that, according to Abbing, economic values are only denied to keep our believes up. This is possible by means of what Bourdieu has called ‘collective misrecognition’ (Bourdieu, 1998:95). Our society does not seem to see or want to see the economic interests in the arts, because we have the feeling that this devalues the art world. Although I have my doubts about this, the art world uses this collective misrecognition to preserve their sacred and unique character and to uphold the taboo on making things explicit (Bourdieu, 1998:96).

There is a permanent negation of economic dimensions, while everybody knows that economic values do play a role in the art world. It is the language in this world that is able to keep this denial up. Therefore it is interesting to take a look now at the conversations about deaccessioning museum objects.





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