Is art a currency? Investor Stefan Simchowitz thinks so. He wrote with uncompromising clarity about the post-Brexit era: “Art will effectively continue its structural function as an alternative currency that hedges against inflation and currency depreciation.” Have silver paintings become a proxy gold standard? How did it come to this? During the ongoing crisis, investors were showered with tax money, which then went into freeport collections, tower mansions, and shell companies. Quantitative easing eroded currency stability and depleted common resources, entrenching a precarious service economy with dismal wages, if any, eternal gigs, eternal debt, permanent doubt, and now increasing violence. This destabilization is one reason the value of art looks more stable than the prospects of many national GDPs. In the EU this takes place against a backdrop of mass evictions, austerity, arson attacks, Daesh run amok, and Deutsche scams. Results include child poverty, debt blackmail, rigged economies, and the fascist scapegoating of others for widely self-inflicted failed policies. Art is an “alternative currency” of this historical moment. It seems to trade against a lot of misery.
Meanwhile, reactionary extremism intensifies in many places. I won’t bore you with specifics. There’s always another attack, election, coup, or someone who ups the ante in terms of violence, misogyny, snuff, or infamy. Derivative fascisms continue to grow, wherever disenfranchised middle classes fear (and face) global competition—and choose to both punch down and suck up to reactionary oligarchies. Ever more self-tribalized formations pop up that prefer not to abolish neoliberal competition—but instead eliminate competitors personally. Derivative fascisms try to fuse all-out free trade economics with (as one example) white nationalism by promoting survival of the fittest for everyone except themselves. Authoritarian neoliberalism segues into just authoritarianism.
A permanent fog of war is fanned by permanent fakes on Facebook. Already deregulated ideas of truth are destabilized even further. Emergency rules. Critique is a troll fest. Crisis commodified as entertainment. The age of neoliberal globalization seems exhausted and a period of contraction, fragmentation, and autocratic rule has set in.
Art markets seem not overly concerned. In times in which financial institutions and even whole political entities may just dissolve into fluffy glitter, investment in art seems somehow more real. Moreover, as alternative currency, art seems to fulfill what Ether and Bitcoin have hitherto only promised. Rather than money issued by a nation and administrated by central banks, art is a networked, decentralized, widespread system of value. It gains stability because it calibrates credit or disgrace across competing institutions or cliques. There are markets, collectors, museums, publications, and the academy asynchonously registering (or mostly failing to do so) exhibitions, scandals, likes and prices. As with cryptocurrencies, there is no central institution to guarantee value; instead there is a jumble of sponsors, censors, bloggers, developers, producers, hipsters, handlers, patrons, privateers, collectors, and way more confusing characters. Value arises from gossip-cum-spin and insider information. Fraudsters and con artists mix helter-skelter with pontificating professors, anxious gallerists, and couch-surfing students. This informal ecology is eminently hackable, but since everyone does it, it sometimes evens out—even though at highly manipulated levels. It is at once highly malleable and inert, sublime, dopey, opaque, bizarre, and blatant: a game in which the most transcendental phenomena are on collectors’ waiting lists. Further down the food chain, media art, like Bitcoin, tries to manage the contradictions of digital scarcity by limiting the illimitable. But for all its pretense to technological infallibility, Bitcoin is potentially just as dependent on group power as art-market values are dependent on consent, collusion, and coincidence. What looks like incorruptible tech in practice hinges on people’s actions. As to the encryption part in art: art is often encrypted to the point of sometimes being undecryptable. Encryption is routinely applied, even or especially if there is no meaning whatsoever. Art is encryption as such, regardless of the existence of a message with a multitude of conflicting and often useless keys. Its reputational economy is randomly quantified, ranked by bullshit algorithms that convert artists and academics into ranked positions, but it also includes more traditionally clannish social hierarchies. It is a fully ridiculous, crooked, and toothless congregation and yet, like civilization as a whole, art would be a great idea.
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