The state of 'exceptionality' versus purpose for contemporary art in society has become a clear and necessary debate of late, and opportunities to take stock of the situation are sought after and scrutinised in equal measure. The presentation last autumn at the Serpentine Gallery of two papers, one by historian, writer and curator Dorothea von Hantelmann, and the other by cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen was a timely occasion for thought on the subject and relations of art's valuation at the present moment. The timing of this particular event located itself between the publishing of books by each of these speakers - after the influential text On (Surplus) Value in Art (2008) by Diederichsen, and leading up to the publishing of von Hantelmann's new book The Rise of the Exhibition (2009). Their respective papers tied together their thoughts on the social and economic conditions of contemporary art, starting from the premise that art and its institutions - whilst still maintaining the premise of art being an erudite space of reflexive enquiry - have shifted into a more central, embedded context in society. So where does this leave valuation, what means do we have for estimating or even determining what we mean by 'value', and, finally, who is value for?
Diedrich Diederichsen speaking at the Serpentine Gallery Summer Pavilion, 18 October 2009. Photograph: Mark Blower
Value is certainly a contested notion. The multiplicity in the understanding of value has left art straddling artistic, social, political and economic realms simultaneously. All of these different arenas, moreover, seek to affirm the veracity of their own ideologies from how they determine 'value'. The points of divergence in the dialogue between von Hantelmann's and Diederichsen's respective analyses, which made this particular event a useful and provocative discussion, was not only around how art acquires its value today, but also how art's relations to new audiences across the social spectrum have led to the traditional 'qualitative', or artistic, valuation being eclipsed by other forms exported (from the viewpoint of the artistic domain) from this diversity of spheres.
Von Hantelmann's thesis on the 'upgrading' of the visual arts in terms of societal relevance charts a linear history of museums creating the conditions for art to be a communicative tool. In her paper, she claims that it is the display mode of art - that is, the exhibition - as a specific experiential format that has enabled art to rise in status, rather than the specific content of artworks or artists' biographies. Her thesis is rooted in the idea that the act of displaying an art object constitutes a democratic offer of subjective experience. The exhibition format, von Hantelmann argues, has 'performed' itself into this central role, and is considered so successful that it continues to be exported globally with the emergence of new biennials and museums. Her research also resonates with the recent tendency for (re)considering the history of art through the history of exhibitions, with, for example, the recent book Salon to Biennial (2008) published by Phaidon. However, her focus remains more on the relationship of the exhibition format to audience, rather than on historically pioneering curatorial practices in themselves. Von Hantelmann is still researching the subject, and why she alights specifically on the exhibition as the ritual format that has led art to its current predicament, and not the museum or gallery or Kunsthalle that houses it, is not immediately apparent.
Diederichsen's paper was based heavily on his recent On (Surplus) Value essay, discussing the Marxist notion of mehrwert in relation to art - a term difficult to translate coherently into English, but which approximates as either surplus value, added value or the 'pay-off'. He uses the term to describe art as a phenomenon that embodies the conditions of advanced capitalism by being highly speculative in terms of economic value - operating entirely in what he calls the 'bonus realm', or with a belief in things consistently adding up to considerably more than the sum of their parts, and then some. Art, he argues, finds itself in a cycle of production where it must continuously generate surplus value. Diederichsen asks whether the art sphere would collapse without this drive for surplus value, and, at the same time, about the risks of the art system becoming too heavily reliant on one particular realm of value - such as the commercial or social - to the detriment of others.
Von Hantelmann and Diederichsen both only partially acknowledge the economic and social understandings of value. Though this is understandable within the parameters of their respective arguments, we might look to these as useful foundations for drawing out further a more detailed representation. The evolution of the marketplace, for example, has created a space where the valuation of art enters a realm even more delirious than what we can imagine. Remember the talk of 'art is like gold' just as the economy was crashing, hinting at the market's consideration of artworks as a kind of value store - or the regular skirmishes between the primary and secondary art markets.
Thinking about specific interpretations of value that are privileged over others is particularly useful for the present time, especially for those artists, curators or theorists who have traditionally concentrated on the artistic or qualitative understanding of art. The picture that it puts in my mind is that of an 'energy triangle', like the kind used in chemistry to describe how fire burns. Here we may replace 'fuel', 'CO2' and 'heat' with 'economic', 'social' and 'artistic' for the three essential requirements. Conveniently for the purposes of this text, von Hantelmann provides a snapshot of the social, and Diederichsen an image of the economic. This triangulation of value represents a condition where all three sides are now mutually reliant on each other, though this does not necessarily mean that they understand each other, or, from their own perspectives, that they realise what they have in common.
By focusing firmly on the social and economic conditions of art and sidelining its artistic stipulation (highlighted by how little they discuss any actual artworks or exhibitions), both von Hantelmann and Diederichsen end up closely equating value with demand. Both of these realms celebrate demand as a form of liberation in capitalist democracy, superimposing it over the idea of 'freedom of expression' - or even portraying it as a new form of creativity. Such a construal of demand positions individuals, and their pursuit of individualism, at the core of 'supply and demand', forming a system of value that relies on consumption and circulation, and which needs to be constantly performed in order to sustain itself. Art's correlation to the demands of and for individualism is central to their respective theses on generating value, and is one of the more pertinent points one could draw from the two put in parallel. For von Hantelmann, the social construction of the artwork performatively invokes the individual as both the work's implied maker and its implied viewer. The individual is likewise central to the museum's project, which facilitates the social construction of the artwork, and is simultaneously cultivated by the commodity market. In contrast, Diederichsen discusses the valorisation of the individual artist as central to the commercial potential of art, which is in turn cultivated by a wider public interest. These perspectives are not necessarily in opposition to each other, if you believe that the relations involved can be reciprocal. Indeed, both readings crucially acknowledge the role of individualism in this triangulation of value, in which it acts as the lubricant of its mechanisms of circulation.
It feels important, though, to be conscious that understanding the valuation of art as part of a causal relation of supply and demand can end up conforming to the neo-liberal sanctioning of culture - in which art is socially 'useful' and economically productive (its discussions far removed from art's historical idea of autonomy). 'Art for art's sake' seems intensely redundant in Western capitalist democracies right now. The trickling down of ideology taking place in the neo-liberal cultural policy model, in Europe particularly, in presupposing these ideas of purpose and value for art in the social and economic realms, has had a tangible effect at the level of practice for both artists and institutions. A broader picture in general is required of the consideration of art within the apparatus of the political economy as a part of this process of mapping value today.
If art is required to continue juggling so many realms of value - and some would disagree that it should - then it need to at least get a grip on how they are all constituted. Von Hantelmann's call for art to reflexively question how it can take advantage of the consequences of its new status, rather than become a mere symptom of it, suggests that art needs to draw reciprocal benefit from those realms that demand value from it in the first place. By equating value with social and economic demand whilst sidelining the qualitative valuation of art, this triangulation between the social, the economic and the 'artistic' could become too irregular. There is the risk that the field of art will be left with only the remnants of its former exceptionality. That sounds dramatic, but at least art is thus far seen as something that can make itself perform in relation to a given situation, albeit in the mode of an improvised dance.