BY JINGYI WANG
Although Post Capitalistic Auction reflects more, I hope, than just a utopian dream, its conception can be traced back to the youthful utopian mind of my 18-year-old self, when I was a freshman at university. A casual conversation between my cousin and myself ended with me asking: “Why do artworks end up in the hands on the rich? Why isn’t it people who really understand art and artists who own their work? Why does money decide everything? ” My cousin’s silence and his indulgent smile gave me a clear answer: “Isn’t that how it should be? Doesn’t everyone agree on that?”
Born and growing up in Beijing, the capital city of newly wealthy China, I have witnessed in the 12 years since leaving university, the rapid and deep embedding and justification of capitalism in every aspect of economic and cultural life — although obviously not on a national, ideological level. In China, as in the capitalist West, whoever holds the biggest share in a corporation, has the final say. In commercial movie making, whoever invests the most money, has the power to make decisions that can extend as far as selecting the cast.
I have no intention of criticizing corporations or the commercial movie industry here, as they are so evidently inextricably bound up with the capitalist mechanism. But what about art? Is it by definition different? In the past, artists such as Joseph Beuys and movements like Situationism persistently tried to de-commodify art. But despite the push to abstraction and conceptualization, art and artists have struggled to extricate themselves from the very material pull of both financial and social capital.
Art auctions are a powerful reflection of the paradox that even though we create an aura of ‘otherness’ around a work of art, its material (and therefore prosaic) value remains. I am not claiming that people who buy art don’t have a true love of art, or that an auction is nothing more than a financial game. Many collectors have a close and ongoing relationship to, and understanding of, the work that they buy. But, as Henri Neuendorf – a journalist at artnet Berlin – observes, others are certainly in it purely for the money. And regardless of who is buying, in an auction environment, it is always and only money that talks. And this is an exchange in which artists have no voice.
Moreover, money translates to social and symbolic capital for the exclusive group of participants in an art auction or fair. Despite postmodernism’s attempt to challenge the elitism of the art world, it has continued to defend the territories of its various cliques. Since it seems unavoidable that everything has its price, that money is power, and that status is also tied to the value of ideas, how can art extricate itself from this complex of forces? The values we attribute to art are a reflection of how we evaluate within the social, cultural, political and economic structures within which it is embedded. In the end, value reflects what are important for us.
Can I suggest a new value system to replace the current one? No, I can’t. But this does not mean we can’t call it into question. And already, the rise of information-based social structures is a challenge to capitalism. Journalist and author Paul Mason claims the transition to post-capitalism has already begun. It doesn’t matter if we agree on what post-capitalism is, or indeed whether we are heading towards being a post-capitalist society, it is clear that the internet and information technology has had a huge impact on our social and economic relationships. Economic and Social theorist Jeremy Rifkin discusses this in detail in his book The Third Industrial Revolution; How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, as does Futurist thinker Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable. Financial capital plays an unprecedented role in the development of business. On the other hand, big data and attention resources are predicated by many to be the next most valuable capital. Company mergers are more and more prevalent, but at the same time we see that the spontaneous rise of collaborative production and a sharing economy is challenging private ownership and the monopoly of big corporations. The behavior model and values of the digital generation should address a familiar question but in a new context. What change will this make on how art is accessed, possessed and valued? Rooted in this social and economic change, Post Capitalistic Auction looks into our current value mechanisms, as well as trying to propose new parameters.
Post Capitalistic Auction is an opportunity to bid for art using currencies other than money. But it doesn’t exclude money, and doesn’t intend to orient the bidding towards a non-money or anti-money result, since capitalism, as a long-establish economic system functioning in many ways like a religion, is deeply bound up with how human beings co-exist on many levels. In Post Capitalistic Auction, different values come together in dialogue. People within or outside the art field, with or without auction experience, are equally involved. Artists, collectors, dealers, critics, art lovers, art sceptics, etc. encounter each other and present their perspectives. There is reflection, but not judgement, there is investigation but no manipulation, there is dialogue but no exclusion.
This project is planned as a long term, ongoing series in different countries, aiming to investigate within different social and art economies and ecologies. Imagine how different the results of Post Capitalistic Auction will be in Beijing – a new booming market, where the evaluation of art is highly financialized, in comparison to London, where there is not only a strong tradition in both the mainstream academic and underground art scenes, but also a mature capitalist art market, in comparison to Berlin, where the spontaneous art scene has been developing in recent decades. Bergen, as my current home city, is a natural place for it to begin. What surprised me, interestingly, is that, during my communication with artists in Bergen, it became clear that there is not a strong culture of exchanging private money for art. Not many people collect art. And it seems there is not a commercial gallery that operates as most do. There is not yet an auction house in Bergen. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Post-Capitalistic Auction has no point here. On the contrary, Bergen, whose art scene could be defined as insular, and is obviously highly dependent on public funding, will generate its own discussion reflecting the possibilities of valuing art. Bergen’s rather unique position further convinces me of the importance of conducting this project in different cities, so to form comparative research results.
People might say that this project is riddled with paradoxes. That is very true. I hope this is also where the significance and value of the project lies. Post Capitalistic Auction is an investigation, a case study in how we value art, and, finally, in how we evaluate value itself. It will not immediately, in reality, change the rules of auctions or of the art ecology. Nevertheless, at least for one night, we can make an alternative and very real auction happen that both reflects the value system we have undoubtedly accepted for too long, as well as being a vehicle for envisaging future possibilities.