Is Art a Mere Luxury Good?

Why do we not object when the luxury industry dictates the conditions of contemporary art? A group of prominent intellectuals respond to the cynical argument that there is no alternative.

From the facade of Fondation Louis Vuitton, which recently opened in Paris.
From the facade of Fondation Louis Vuitton, which recently opened in Paris.

The ever-increasing role in contemporary art of big financial groups linked to the luxury industry provokes even less debate than that of oil tyrannies. Intellectuals, critics and artists are implicated here, and although they are traditionally inclined to «radical» postures and discourses, today they seem paralyzed by a fear of capital drain – as if the slightest reservation would go straight to their wallets. A code of silence reigns as soon as funding is at stake in this otherwise outspoken and at times rebellious milieu. When one has doubts about the disinterested character of this or that sponsor (in the sense of «patron»), one generally responds that, while no one is fooled, there is no alternative – the famous TINA (There Is No Alternative). The state, impoverished by a crisis in which the same big financiers have played a major role, would therefore condemn the world of art to beg at the doorway of the richest.

We are not presenting ourselves as models of virtue. Who has not, in this milieu, participated at least once in an event put on by a private foundation? But, as France’s biggest fortunes are competing to rule over artistic production, the usual arguments in favour of this type of funding appear especially weak and hypocritical.

Sponsored art events always insist on the protective sealing between the commercial activity of the «sponsor» and the cultural activity of the foundation that bears its name. There was in fact a time when the grand patrons helped the arts without putting themselves forward.They were content with a mention in type-size eight at the bottom of a third cover page, with an enamel plate on the corner of an edifice, with a thankful word in a preamble. But our epoch is one of sensationalized announcements, pharaonic parties and giant advertising campaigns. Sponsors no longer give carte blanche to an artist to then remain in the shadow: they order the decoration of a boutique on the Champs-Elysées or a mise en scène at the inauguration of a Tokyo branch. Only a thin wall separates the handbag shop from the gallery and the works mingle with accessories, themselves presented on plinths with a cartouche. Luxury boutiques now set themselves up as prototypes of a world in which commodities are art because art is a commodity, a world where everything would be art because everything is a commodity. By way of their golden bridges, the new masters of the art market have succeeded in seducing even the most respected experts and curators, thereby contributing to the intellectual impoverishment of our public institutions. But they do not do so in order to give them the opportunity to work freely with a certain kind of art: they relentlessly intervene in their transactions, in which they have the greatest interest.

The new building in the Bois de Boulogne is designed by Frank Gehry.
The new building, designed by Frank Gehry, in the Bois de Boulogne.

There is assuredly no protective seal between corporate and art affairs and the support offered by these people is neither innocent nor disinterested. Their employees do their best to remind us that patronage is an ancient and noble tradition. Without going as far back as the Roman Maecenas – delicate friend of the poets – they cite Lorenzo de Medici, Jacques Doucet or Peggy Guggenheim, of which sirs Pinault and Arnault would be the most worthy successors. Even if they were the kind and enlightened amateurs depicted by the culture pages of the newspapers – and not the businessmen revealed to us in those of the economy section – the facts account for themselves.

The essence of true philanthropy is gift, what is dry or, to speak like Georges Bataille, «unproductive» expenditure. True patrons lose money and this is the only way in which they can merit collective recognition. But neither Mr. Pinault nor Mr. Arnault lose a cent in the arts. Not only do they gain tax exemption on profits not already lodged in some fiscal paradise, but they also acquire, for more profit, rooms to sell their wares. They siphon off public money for events that only aim to boost the quota of a handful of artists upon which they have provisionally bet. They distort the market by appropriating every link on the chain, through the making and unmaking of fames. In a word, they speculate, with the active complicity of the big public institutions that exchange favours for treasury. Already the primary fortunes of France, they simply enrich themselves further through the means of art. Those who present themselves to us as noble patrons are in truth only speculators. Who does not know that? Yet who says it?

Fondation Louis Vuitton. Photo: Iwan Bwaan.
Fondation Louis Vuitton. Photo: Iwan Bwaan.

Calling for the respect of entrepreneurial spirit and France’s industrial interests is an even weaker argument in favour of this mode of funding. Shouldn’t we credit these CAC 40 flagships for the help they bring to creation? A brief glance at the history of financial groups, such as Pinault’s Kering and Arnault’s LVMH, is sufficient to understand that industry has not been at stake for a long time. The politics of these groups is clearly and strictly financial. Only the logic of profit determines their abandonment and acquisition of enterprises. More than a thousand women recently laid off at La Redoute realised this at their own expense after dedicating their entire professional lives to it. Big corporations have now lost their factories in this tense flux; they have abandoned their industrial production in the Asian jungle. As Mister Arnault’s glorious feat in Belgium recently demonstrated, the petty politics of scraping and tax evasion has nothing to do with national interests. This politics, obsessed with dividends and short-term profit, has provoked the heaviest economic crisis of the fifty last years, putting entire nations on their knees and throwing millions of our European neighbours into misery and despair.

Nevermind the capitalist immorality incarnated by these new princes, one is told. These artistic activities have no consequence for them. They act on a different scale. But this cynical argument overlooks the importance of media orchestrations. The new entrepreneurial culture believes in the publicity event as if it were a new God. Finance and communication have replaced the industrial tool and the force of sales. Art, whether good or bad, can produce events, most often for the worst and sometimes in spite of itself. Fluctuating like money, its movement is akin to that of a stock market value. For a society that dreams of rapidity, and is indexed on fluxes, art has the very profile of the object of desire. It functions as an ideal vitrine for the new financial consortiums. They can even brand it as their existential project. And for this neoliberal symbiosis to be viable, art only needs to let itself be absorbed, artists only to renounce any autonomy. No surprise then that the academism of today is, precisely, designed: chic and smooth, shocking and photogenic, easily packaged in the white cube of the museum, easily unpacked in the dungeons of these financiers’ houses of cards. The private museums of our billionaires are the industrial palaces of today.

Olafur Eliasson, Inside the Horizon, 2014.. Foto: Iwan Baan.
Olafur Eliasson, Inside the Horizon, 2014. Foto: Iwan Baan.

Can we still believe that the caution of our presence and the appropriation of our work are only negligible components of their strategy? Some among us describe ourselves not only on the left, but as Marxists, even revolutionaries. How can we be satisfied with such an evasive response? Does the enemy’s overwhelming power turn it into a friend? In these times of mass unemployment, pauperization of intellectual professions, dismantling of social programs and government cowardice, do we not have anything better to do – as artists, writers, philosophers, curators and critics – than boost the image of one of these financial Leviathans by contributing, however little, to the value of its brand name? It seems urgent to us in this moment (as the Centre Beaubourg celebrates the opening of an ultra-rich foundation by devoting an exhibition to its star architect Frank Gehry) to demand that public institutions cease to serve the interests of big private groups through adherence to their ‘artistic’ choices. We don’t have a moral lesson to give. We only want to open a long-deferred debate and say why we do not see the inauguration of the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Contemporary Art as any cause for celebration.

The article was originally published in Mediapart on October 20 as L’art n’est-il qu’un produit de luxe? Among the co-signers were Pierre Alferi, Giorgio Agamben, Jérôme Bel, Christian Bernard, Georges Didi-Huberman, Xavier LeRoy, Jean-Luc Nancy and Catherine Perret.

Translated by Anna De Filippi and Lucie Mercier.