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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.1 Have silver paintings

become a proxy gold standard?2 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.
Hito Steyerl This destabilization is one reason the value of art
looks more stable than the prospects of many
If You Dont national GDPs. In the EU this takes place against
a backdrop of mass evictions, austerity, arson
attacks, Daesh run amok, and Deutsche scams.
Have Bread, Eat Results include child poverty, debt blackmail,
rigged economies, and the fascist scapegoating
Art!: of others for widely self-inflicted failed policies.
Art is an alternative currency of this historical
moment.3 It seems to trade against a lot of
Contemporary misery.
Meanwhile, reactionary extremism
Art and intensifies in many places. I wont bore you with
If You Dont Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms

specifics. Theres always another attack,

Derivative election, coup, or someone who ups the ante in
terms of violence, misogyny, snuff, or infamy.
Derivative fascisms4 continue to grow, wherever
Fascisms disenfranchised middle classes fear (and face)
global competition and choose to both punch
down and suck up to reactionary oligarchies.5
Ever more self-tribalized formations pop up that
prefer not to abolish neoliberal competition but
e-flux journal #76 october 2016 Hito Steyerl

instead eliminate competitors personally.

Derivative fascisms try to fuse all-out free trade
economics with (for example) white
nationalism[6] by promoting survival of the
fittest for everyone except themselves.
Authoritarian neoliberalism segues into just
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.

Alternative Currency
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 Ethereum and Bitcoin have

10.17.16 / 13:28:43 EDT


Chritstie's auctioneers vend a Mark Rothko painting.

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hitherto only promised.6 Rather than money profits into fiscal banana republics. Apple,
issued by a nation and administrated by central Google, Uber, Airbnb, Ryanair, Facebook, and
banks, art is a networked, decentralized, other hipster providers pay hardly any taxes in
widespread system of value.7 It gains stability Ireland, Jersey, or other semisecret jurisdictions.
because it calibrates credit or disgrace across They dont contribute to local services like
competing institutions or cliques. There are schools or hospitals and their idea of sharing is

markets, collectors, museums, publications, and to make sure they get their share.
the academy asynchonously registering (or But lets face it in relation to the scale of
mostly failing to do so) exhibitions, scandals, other industries, the art sector is just a blip.
likes and prices. As with cryptocurrencies, there Contemporary art is just a hash for all thats
is no central institution to guarantee value; opaque, unintelligible, and unfair, for top-down
instead there is a jumble of sponsors, censors, class war and all-out inequality. Its the tip of an
bloggers, developers, producers, hipsters, iceberg acting as a spear.
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 The growth of the global auction market from 2005 to 2015, according
collectors waiting lists. Further down the food to data from Auction House, ArtNet, and AMMA.

chain, media art, like Bitcoin, tries to manage the

contradictions of digital scarcity by limiting the
If You Dont Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms

illimitable. But for all its pretense to Degenerate Art

technological infallibility, Bitcoin is potentially Predictably, this leads to resentment and
just as dependent on group power8 as art-market outright anger. Art is increasingly labeled as a
values are dependent on consent, collusion, and decadent, rootless, out-of-touch, cosmopolitan
coincidence. What looks like incorruptible tech in urban elite activity. In one sense, this is a
practice hinges on peoples actions. As to the perfectly honest and partly pertinent
encryption part in art: art is often encrypted to description.10 Contemporary art belongs to a
the point of sometimes being undecryptable. time in which everything goes and nothing goes
Encryption is routinely applied, even or anywhere, a time of stagnant escalation, of serial
e-flux journal #76 october 2016 Hito Steyerl

especially if there is no meaning whatsoever. Art novelty as deadlock. Many are itching for major
is encryption as such, regardless of the existence changes, some because the system is pointless,
of a message with a multitude of conflicting and harmful, 1 percent-ish, and exclusive, and many
often useless keys.9 Its reputational economy is more because they finally want in.
randomly quantified, ranked by bullshit On the other hand, talk of rootless
algorithms that convert artists and academics cosmopolitans is clearly reminiscent of both
into ranked positions, but it also includes more Nazi and Stalinist propaganda, who relished in
traditionally clannish social hierarchies. It is a branding dissenting intellectuals as parasites
fully ridiculous, crooked, and toothless within healthy national bodies. In both regimes
congregation and yet, like civilization as a whole, this kind of jargon was used to get rid of minority
art would be a great idea. intelligentsia, formal experiments and
In practice though, art industries trigger progressive agendas; not to improve access for
trickle-up effects which are then flushed locals or improve or broaden the appeal of art.
sideways into tax havens. Arts economies divert The anti-elitist discourse in culture is at
investments from sustainable job creation, present mainly deployed by conservative elites,
education, and research and externalize social who hope to deflect attention from their own
cost and risk. They bleach neighborhoods, economic privileges by relaunching of
underpay, overrate, and peddle excruciating stereotypes of degenerate art.
baloney. So if you are hoping for new opportunities
This does not only apply to arts investor with the authoritarians, you might find yourself
and manager classes. The lifestyles of many art disappointed.
workers also support a corporate technological Authoritarian right-wing regimes will not get
(and antisocial) infrastructure that whisks off rid of art-fair VIP lists or make art more relevant

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The online art market has continued to grow strongly (up 24 percent to $3.27 billion) despite the global art market slowing in
2015, states the foreword of this art insurer's report.

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or accessible to different groups of people. In no histories.
way will they abolish elites or even art. They will
only accelerate inequalities, beyond the fiscal- An Alternative Alternative Currency?
material to the existential-material. This Now what? Where does one go from here?
transformation is not about accountability, Lets put the next paragraph into brackets.
criteria, access, or transparency. It will not It just indicates a hypothetical possibility.

prevent tax fraud, doctored markets, the Daesh If art is an alternative currency, its
antiquities trade, or systemic underpay. It will be circulation also outlines an operational
more of the same, just much worse: less pay for infrastructure. Could these structures be
workers, less exchange, fewer perspectives, less repossessed to work differently? How much
circulation, and even less regulation, if such a value would the alternative currency of art lose if
thing is even possible. Inconvenient art will fly its most corrupt aspects were to be regulated or
out the window anything non-flat, non-huge, or restructured to benefit arts larger communities?
remotely complex or challenging. Intellectual How about even a minimum of rules in the
perspectives, expanded canons, nontraditional market gallery contracts, resale-time
histories will be axed anything that requires an minimums, artist fees,12 remunerated
investment of time and effort instead of internships? Introducing blockchain public
conspicuous money. Public support swapped for records for the production, transaction, and
Instagram metrics. Art fully floated on some kind locating of artworks in order to reign in tax fraud
of Arsedaq. More fairs, longer yachts for more and money laundering?13 Declining the most
violent assholes, oil paintings of booty blondes, mortifying sponsor and patron relationships
abstract stock-chart calligraphy. Yummy organic instead of artwashing fossil extraction, weapons
superfoods. Accelerationist designer breeding. manufacturing, and banks bailed out with former
Personalized one-on-one performances for tax cultural funding? How about asking for fees on
evaders. Male masters, more male masters, and resales similar to those asked on photocopies to
repeat. Art will take its place next to big-game pay for art workers health insurance? Or on any
hunting, armed paragliding, and adventure offshore art-related transaction? Could art as
slumming. alternative currency not only circulate within
If You Dont Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms

Yay for expensive craft and anything existing systems but even launch not-yet-
vacuous that works in a chain-hotel lobby. existing economies (publics, institutions,
Plastiglomerate marble, welded by corporate markets, parallel art worlds, etc.)?
characters banging on about natural selection. But to expect any kind of progressive
Kits for biological self-improvement. transformation to happen by itself just
Crapstraction, algostraction, personalized because the infrastructure or technology exists
installations incorporating Krav Maga lessons. would be like expecting the internet to create
Religious nailpaint will slay in all seasons, socialism or automation to evenly benefit all
especially with a Louis Vuitton logo. Hedge-fund humankind. The internet spawned Uber and
e-flux journal #76 october 2016 Hito Steyerl

mandalas. Modest fashion. Immodest fashion. Amazon, not the Paris Commune. The results
Nativist mumbo jumbo. Genetically engineered may be called the sharing economy, but this
caviar in well-behaved ethnic pottery. mostly means that the poor share with the rich,
Conceptual plastic surgery. Racial plastic not vice versa. Should any less unilateral sharing
surgery. Bespoke ivory gun handles. Murals on be suggested, the bulk of capital will decamp
border walls. Good luck with this. You will be my immediately.14 One of the first steps towards
mortal enemy. parallel art sectors would thus be to organize
Just like institutional critique was even partial sustainability in the absence of
overtaken by a neoliberal Right that went ahead bubble liquidity and barely limited amounts of
and simply abolished art institutions, the free labor. Whatever emerges will be a new
critique of contemporary art and claims for an version of art-affiliated autonomy
exit from this paradigm are dwarfed by their In contrast to the modernist autonomy of
reactionary counterparts. The reactionary exit art schemes, this autonomy is not solitary,
or acceleration of stagnation is already well unlinked, or isolated. Nor will it come about by
underway. Algorithmic and analogue market some fantasy of progress in-built into
manipulation, alongside the defunding, technology. On the contrary it can only emerge
dismantling, and hollowing-out of the public and through both a conscious effort and exchange
post-public sector,11 transforms what among diverse entities. Its an autonomy that
sometimes worked as a forum for shared ideas, works through circulation, transformation, and
judgment, and experimentation into HNWI alchemy. The links it could build on exist as weak
interior design. Art will be firewalled within links (aka, air-kiss links) and reshaping them
isolationist unlinked canons, which can easily be would need to happen within a compromised
marketed as national, religious, and fully biased mess of contradictory activities. But

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simultaneously people can try to synch with the and challenge in de-growing constituencies? Can
art-related undercommons15 by building partial one transform arts currency into arts
networked autonomy via all means necessary. If confluence? Replace speculation with
art is a currency, can it be an undercurrent? overflow?24
Could it work like an Unter, not an Uber? Arts organizing role in the value-process
How to do this? People are used to long overlooked, downplayed, worshipped, or

perceiving the art world as sponsored by states, fucked is at last becoming clear enough to
foundations, patrons, and corporations. But the approach, if not rationally, than perhaps
contrary applies at least equally well. realistically. Art as alternative currency shows
Throughout history it has been artists and that art sectors already constitute a maze of
artworkers, more than any other actors, who overlapping systems in which good-old gossip,
have subsidized art production.16 Most do so by greed, lofty ideals, inebriation, and ruthless
concocting mixed-income schemes in which, competition form countless networked cliques.
simply speaking, some form of wage labor (or The core of its value is generated less by
other income) funds art-making. But more transaction than by endless negotiation, via
generally, everyone involved also contributes in gossip, criticism, hearsay, haggling, heckling,
all sorts of other ways to arts circulation, thus peer reviews, small talk, and shade. The result is
making it stronger as currency. Even artists who a solid tangle of feudal loyalties and glowing
live off their work subsidize the market by way enmity, rejected love and fervent envy, pooling
of enormous commissions in relation to other striving, longing, and vital energies. In short, the
industries. But why should one sponsor VIP value is not in the product but in the network; not
prepreviews, bespoke museum extensions in gaming or predicting the market25 but in
without any means to fill them, art-fair arms creating exchange.26 Most importantly, art is one
races, institutional franchises built under penal- of the few exchanges that derivative fascists
colony conditions, and other baffling bubbles? dont control yet.
This bloated, entitled, fully superfluous, But as a reserve system for dumb, mean,
embarrassing, and most of all politically toxic and greedy money, arts social value
overhead is subsidized by means of free labor (auto)destructs and turns into a shell operation
If You Dont Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms

and life time, but also by paying attention to that ultimately just shields more empty shells
blingstraction and circulating its spinoffs, thus and amplifies fragmentation and division.
creating reach and legitimacy. Even the majority Similarly, arts venues are already shifting into
of artists that cannot afford saying no to any bonded warehouses and overdesigned bank
offer of income could save time not doing this.17 vaults inside gilded, gated compounds designed
Refusing sponsorship of this sort might be the by seemingly the same three architects
first step towards shaking the unsustainable and worldwide.
mortifying dependency on speculative Its easy to imagine what the motto for art
operations that indirectly increase authoritarian as the reserve currency of a fully rigged system
e-flux journal #76 october 2016 Hito Steyerl

violence and division. Spend free time assisting might be. Just envision a posh PR lieutenant
colleagues,18 not working for free for bank policing the entrance of a big art fair, gingerly
foundations. Dont share corporate crap on declaring to anyone pushed aside, displaced,
monopolist platforms. Ask yourself: Do you want exploited, and ignored: If you dont have bread,
global capitalism with a fascist face? Do you just eat art!
want to artwash more insane weather, insane
leaders, poisonous and rising water, crumbling Thank you to Sven Ltticken, Anton Vidokle, and Stephen
Squibb for very helpful comments.
infrastructure, and brand-new walls? How can
people genuinely share what they need?19 How
much speed is necessary? How can artistic (and
art-related) autonomy evolve from haughty
sovereignty to modest networked devolution?20
How can platform cooperatives contribute to
this? Can art institutions follow the lead of new
municipalist networks and alliances of rebel
cities?21 In the face of derivative fascisms, can
local forms of life be reimagined beyond blood,
soil, nation, and corporation, as networks of
neighborhoods, publics, layered audiences?22
Can art keep local imaginaries curious, open-
minded, and spirited? How to make tangible the
idea that belonging is in becoming not in
having been?23 What is arts scale, perspective,

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Hito Steyerlis a filmmaker and writer wholives in 1 countries. But in Portugal,
Berlin. Rain Embuscado, The Art World economic inequality is way
Responds to Brexit, Artnet higher, and unemployment is
News, June 24, 2016 twice as high (not to mention state debt and related austerity
world/art-world-responds-bre policies), yet this country does
xit-526400. not have a significant right-wing
party or movement, partly due to
2 its recent history. Look at Spain

Apparently this specific market or Italy, both hit by the debt
crashed in the meantime. Art crisis; no new fascist party on
markets in general are still the ascent. Even in Greece,
rather stable. hardest hit by crippling
austerity, votes for the fascist
3 Golden Dawn are going down,
The idea of art as currency is not up. The more than 50.000
also explored in fascinating refugees stranded there by the
detail by David Joselit in After closing down of the so-called
Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Balkan route have been mostly
University Press, 2012), but at a generously welcomed; certainly
different historic moment, the not with 90 arson attacks. In
moment of the expansion of contrast derivative fascisms are
neoliberal globalization. Now, at strongest either in
the end of this historic moment, comparatively rich European
art as currency seems to have countries (France, some
become even more powerful. Scandinavian countries, Austria)
or countries that are refusing to
4 take in refugees like Hungary or
The term derivative fascisms trying to minimize numbers like
means a jumble of widespread Poland. The economy is most
extreme right-wing movements certainly an important reason
that relate to twentieth-century for the acceleration of fascism.
fascisms in terms of future But it is also most certainly not
options, but not by any means as the only reason for the boom in
equivalents, as in: creating and fascist derivatives. In light of
marketing future options for hard facts, the correlation
fascism. There is no point in between economic hardship and
asking whether they are really fascist popularity is very much
fascisms or not because fascism complicated. The latter also
is the underlying entity, which requires a part of the population
may or may not have anything to that will, if it feels threatened or
do with its derivatives. just slighted, blackmail the
whole of society vote fascist,
If You Dont Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms

5 destabilize, or kill.
I use the term middle class in a
more expanded sense in the 6
sense of a global middle class To make this very clear: art is not
(which may well include both a cryptocurrency. I am trying to
working and out-of-work classes point out some structural
in formerly industrialized similarities between art systems
countries) undercut by and cryptocurrencies, not to
outsourcing and expanded suggest art as currency works in
competition. However, economic the same way. Nevertheless, the
reasons are not the only possibility of art becoming a
explanation for the new cryptocurrency is raised in a very
popularity of derivative informative text by J. Chris
e-flux journal #76 october 2016 Hito Steyerl

fascisms. How is it that in Anderson, Why Art Could

Germany, ninety refugee camps Become Currency in a
were attacked last year by arson Cryptocurrency World, The New
alone (total attacks numbered Stack, May 31, 2015
901 that year), while at the same t-
time the country is doing very could-become-currency-in-a -
well economically? Indeed, the cryptocurrency-world/.
unemployment rate in Germany
has fallen to its lowest level in 7
twenty-four years. Why is In contrast to cryptocurrencies,
Austria 53 percent likely to elect in art there is not the slightest
a neofascist president, when its pretense to decentralized
own unemployment rate hasnt transparency, nor the pretense
surpassed 6 percent at any point to an automated incorruptible
since the mid-Nineties? How set of functions. Art as currency
does one explain the constant gains its relative stability
and growing presence of precisely because of
extreme-right-wing nontransparency, and because
organizations in these two of its overwhelming reliance on
countries that have profited human relations.
massively from recent crises
Austria, from the so-called 8
Eastern expansion, a pillage See
streak that moved the pensions
of local retirees to the art m/bitcoin-mining-centralizat
collections of the Austrian ion/.
financial industry; and Germany,
which made a windfall from the 9
European debt crisis and This leaves art projects that deal
funneled centuries of Southern with alternative currencies (or
European peoples futures into financial options or contracts)
subsidies for domestic car on a double scene. They can
industries cheating on carbon become representational and
emissions? Its true that sometimes somewhat
inequality has risen in both misleading because they show

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something other than they 16 circulation based on sharing, the
actually already do themselves. Pointed out by Anton Vidokle in dissolution of enclosures, locally
Art without Market, Art without actualized diverse
10 Education: Political Economy of constituencies, and the creation
I very much agree with Ben Art, e-flux journal 43 (March of parallel economies using
Daviss excellent text After 2013) http://www.e- LETS and other pre-blockchain
Brexit, Art Must Break Out of Its l/art-without- alternative currencies. On the
Bubble, Artnet News, June 28, market-art-wit hout-education- one hand, this means utter
2016 political-eco nomy-of-art. corruption; on the other, a

08/08 parallel form of exchange. On a
ion/brexit-art-532178. 17 related note, see Aria Deans
I am fully aware that it is a major excellent recent text Poor
11 luxury for most artists to be able Meme, Rich Meme, which maps
By post-public I mean semi- to say no to anything; but even in vectors of a Black circulationism
public corporate ventures like this case one could still rethink projected by shared motion,
biennials and many institutions ones participation in circulation. history, movement, and
and museums. multiplicity
12 One of many excellent examples meme-rich-meme/.
W.A.G.E., Precarious Workers is Neue Nachbarschaft in Berlin,
Brigade, etc., are doing a stellar where Berliners both longtime 21
job on this issue, as are new residents and newcomers I suppose big art institutions
artist unions and other come together for art courses could see themselves as cities.
organizations working on related and lessons in German or music.
issues, including Liberate Tate, 22
Gulf Labor, etc. 19 How do we defend
See the Platform Cooperativism municipalities under attack, like
13 website the twenty-four deposed
The use of blockchain t. municipalities administrated by
technology in art circulation, The idea is to use technology to the pro-Kuridish Democratic
criticism, and documentation connect workers and service- Regions Party (DBP) in southeast
opens up a huge can of worms providers to users through Turkey, including Nusaybin,
relating to the quantification of platforms that are worker- Cizre, Sur, and Suru, some of
different art phenomena, the owned or organized which have declared self-rule
manipulation of consensus, cooperatives. Blockchains are and operate on a model of
submission to the tyranny of used in many of the already assembly-based autonomy?
averages, etc. Arguably, arts existing examples. A lot of art
appeal (and value) derives at projects incorporate different 23
least in part from the fact that it versions of blockchain elements. A proposition advanced by Brian
does not always reproduce the See, for example, Sami Emory, Massumi in Conjunction,
so-called wisdom of crowds or BitchCoin Is a New Disjunction, Gift, transversal,
other popularity-driven Cryptocurrency for Art, The January 2011
functions. There is enough great Creator's Project, February 10,
If You Dont Have Bread, Eat Art!: Contemporary Art and Derivative Fascisms

art about this (see, for example, 2015 /0811/massumi/en.

Komar and Melamid, The Most
Wanted Paintings on the Web ryptocurrency-for-art; and 24 Steven Sacks et al. in Confluence instead of coalition,
ro.html) to understand how it conversation, Monegraph and a way to let movements move.
would be both funny and the Status of the Art Object, dis Overflow: productive loss of
devastating for all art to be like magazine control over dynamic
this or made on demand developments. See the new
according to futures and ssion/73342/monegraph-and-th issue of the journal transversal
prediction markets. That said, it e-status-of-the-art-object/. An on these and other notions
would be extremely useful to excellent critical reflection on
record the provenance and to a art projects dealing with ersal/0916.
certain extent the authenticity of blockchains can be found in
e-flux journal #76 october 2016 Hito Steyerl

artworks, and to establish public Sven Ltticken, The Coming 25

registries of works and their Exception, New Left Review 99 By trying to gauge artists
whereabouts in order to prevent (MayJune 2016). lifespans or investing according
money laundering through art. to the number of the kids female
And in the longer run, this kind 20 artists have.
of record-keeping could perhaps This question requires a long
also support more ambitious paragraph reexploring the idea 26
projects. Of course, this also of delinking under conditions I learned this from Elie Ayaches
creates the potential for the of simultaneously networked fascinating treatise The Blank
total tracking and secondary and fragmenting global systems Swan: The End of Probability
data analysis of art works, thus an idea which has been (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010).
assimilating them on another explored by Samir Amin,
level into social marketing and Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre
metasurveillance. Gunder Frank, and Giovanni
Arrighi, among others. A more
14 fully developed version of this
And the currency function will be text will rely heavily on Karatani
diminished by decreasing Kojins idea of autonomous
circulation, thus possibly modes of exchange. In his book
eliminating arts function as The Structure of World History:
currency altogether, reverting From Modes of Production to
artworks to commodities or Modes of Exchange (2014),
products. Karatani foregrounds circulation
as a mode of production and
15 highlights cooperativism and
Adapting a set of propositions associationism as sites of
advanced by Fred Moten and creative organization. Art
Stefano Harvey in The systems combine most modes of
Undercommons: Fugitive circulation mentioned by
Planning and Black Study Karatani: pre-agricultural clan-
(Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, based modes; modes based on
2013) plunder, expropriation, and
http://www.minorcompositions statehood; and capitalist modes.
.info/?p=516. Art also contains seeds of a
potential future mode of

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