One of capitalism’s major characteristics consists in the limitless, overall dynamics of accumulation and enrichment: the only aim of these dynamics is their own perpetuation, by shifting the quest for profit towards new pools of wealth once the chances of making a profit from a given economic site or established merchandise format have been exhausted. This characteristic is infinite (since the movement of capital’s accumulation is endless) and mobile (since one of its main operating principles is the shifting and constant renewal of the sources of profit), and represents both the strength and weakness of capitalism. Strength, because this integral form of capitalism proceeds by progressively enrolling what used to be subtracted from trade and merchandizing, by the commercial sphere’s progressive colonisation of the entire realm of existence; weakness, because the self-referential dynamics of enrichment pursued for itself have to find normative and political support from society in order to be acceptable, even though they never stop producing inequality and social suffering for the many. Enrichment can hardly constitute an autonomous moral grandeur liable to trigger the approval of the overwhelming majority of people who are not capital-rich, and yet whose work is indispensable for the valorisation of this same capital.
This is where the notion of the “spirit of capitalism”1 plays a major role in Luc Boltanski’s work, comparable to Karl Marx’s ideology, notion that it can be readily associated with, extending beyond the narrow form of collective lying or guilty conscience. This “spirit” participates in the justification and the maintenance of a certain social order; it maintains, on the one hand, non-violent cooperation with the social actors in business processes from which very few profit; and it allows, on the other hand, actions to be coordinated for a maximisation of global profit in regard to which financial sharing for employees and operators remains negligible. Therefore, capitalism has a discursive dependency on arguments borrowed from regimes of justification of actions that are exterior to it, because its legitimisation by the lure of gain alone would be insufficient in bringing forth a form of general consent. A certain contextual dependency also results from this: the spirit of capitalism is never immutable because it is always capable of shifting towards something else; it “mutates” according to the historic content of criticism it receives and the effective structuration of the asymmetrical distribution of capital / workforce. The New Spirit of Capitalism could be compared to a vast enterprise of an ideological analysis of the justifications and grandeur mobilised in the postmodern form of services economy: the book focuses on the manner in which the managerial line, from the 70s, integrated the anti-capitalist discourse of alienation in work, expressed by the challenging post 68 left wing view points, while absorbing them in its own service. To criticism concerning the standardisation and impoverishment of experiences linked to work, the discursive systems of neo-management answer the problem with a paradoxical twist: they turn capitalistic business into the place of autonomy, creativity, disruptive experimentation and “artistic” transgression of the accepted rules of innovative “projects”.
The publication of Enrichissement. Une critique de la merchandise, Paris, Gallimard, “NRF Essays,” 2017,2 completes this important overview of contemporary capitalism, while leaving leeway for a certain theoretical ambiguity as to its object. Does the economy of enrichment in question correspond to a stage of the spirit of capitalism that would be logically posterior to the managerial spirit studied in the precedent book, distinct from those presiding over the paternalistic, Fordist, post-industrial phases? Is this a new stage of capitalism or a re-description, in other words, of the same “spirit”, applied this time to the things it is making use of to trade? Could the spirit of enrichment be soluble in the new spirit of capitalism? And especially: what resources could we extract from this situation in order to elaborate a critical theory of art and culture?
Forms and formats of enrichment
On the plurality of means to add value to merchandise
Enrichment here should be understood in a plural manner, by a theoretical return to the essential categories of Marx’s philosophy: the notion of merchandise and the notion of value. But the functioning of these two notions depends in no way on an intrinsic or real essence that could be found in the things themselves, even if Marx distinguished, in merchandise, the value of exchange available to it regarding the market and the use value linked to the needs of everyday life. Boltanski has a radical sense of anti-essentialism concerning value, comparable to the anti-essentialist position in the philosophy of art that radically contests that works of art, in particular those of contemporary art, should have a specific nature; the consequences that one can draw are, from certain angles, similar. Indeed, Boltanski does not place the value of merchandise upstream, in the internal qualities of an object, but downstream, a posteriori, in the exchanges and the forms of interaction it brings.
It is because the traded object is inscribed in the institutional and social mediation channels that an operator such as its “value” can be mobilised in order to justify or to contest the price the merchandise is sold. Correlatively, a multiplicity of formats exists for showcasing the one same material object, which, although it is materially identical to the others, becomes another piece of merchandise, with another price structure, when it is moved into alternative dynamics of valorisation. A simple example of this shifting of “format” or inscription in a new perspective can be illustrated by old industrial objects transformed by requalification into collectors’ items, either because of their relative rareness, obtained by the passage of time and obsolescence, or because they belonged to a famous person or collector who chose to put them into a series of objects that formed a whole, in which they acquired specific qualities. Devalued things may therefore become re-valued objects, and, correspondingly, be sold for a higher price when inscribed in the adequate formats.
To anti-essentialism, one may now add relativism: capitalism displaces the objects of the world from one format of market valorisation to another in order to multiply the sources of profit; hence there is an ontological mobility of objects in the market world. Often, it is less important to produce new material objects than it is to shift those that already exist into a new market perspective that has not yet been exploited, in view of a gain, when they are re-launched on the market.
Thus the term of enrichment has several levels of signification according to the scale of analysis. Firstly, it designates a quantifiable, verifiable economic fact: the historic development, in western countries, of economic sectors depending on the exploitation of resources linked to a valorised past. For example, well-known regions, artisan tradition or works of art, when brought together in a collection or assembled in places stamped with the cultural certificates of historic heritage. This form of economy assembles a fair number of workers (luxury, art and patrimony) whose goal is to give value to objects they do not possess, by virtue of the social division of the workforce of valorisation.
Secondly, enrichment can be understood as a mechanism of increasing the differential value of market objects assumed by narrative devices that articulate goods and the story telling of their supposed history. The goal of these narratives is to halo merchandise with a form of aesthetic exceptionality; it becomes “artified”: objects are transformed into artistic experience thanks to the reconstruction of a spatial, symbolic proximity with works of art or admired people. In spite of the absence of reference, in Boltanski’s and Esquerre’s book, to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura, it may be assumed that the manner of symbolically enriching objects constitutes a new form of the auratisation3 of merchandise, converted into an enriched-sign, whose singularity will therefore become convertible, in the transitive space of business and trade, into a moneymaking difference, inscribed in the price of the objects for sale. We will examine later on how the consequence of this auratisation or symbolic enrichment takes place through the mediation of a story in which art, especially contemporary art, plays the role of an aura-diffuser.
Finally, enrichment appears as the macro-economic result of profit linked to the merchandising of “enriched” objects: this economy is principally directed towards ostentatious consumerism, meaning that it is modelled on the possessing classes; real enrichment takes place in fine for the benefit of the richest, even if this economy is based on the work of a large number of social mediators and intermediary dealers. However the place occupied by “auratised” commercial objects in the economy of enrichment should be relativized: the forms of hedonism and ostentatious consumerism, luxury objects and collected or re-sold works of art occupy an important place in ideology, but this place is quantitively marginal in regard to the value of debt securities exchanged on financial markets, in particular on the market of financial derivatives which outstrips all the others.
Financial securities are conceived in order to assure maximum liquidity, meaning the capacity to be bought and/or sold minimizing as much as possible the mediations linked to the heavy materiality of objects and the necessary care for their conservation (objects have to be transported, wrapped, surveyed, etc.). A financial product is hence a dematerialised commodity whose function is to be bought and then sold as an asset at a potentially higher price, with the best facility of exchange possible. Merchandise-objects can also be treated as assets (this being the case of certain works of art with a high degree of valorisation, bought as investments and resold at spectacular auctions), but they have a much higher price of maintenance and insurance than a stock portfolio of immaterial securities.
We are faced here with a paradox, in economic development, that Boltanski and Esquerre have not fully pointed out: the trade of “auratised” things (works of art, luxury artisan tradition, collectors’ objects, etc.) is at the crossroads of the most visible of the exchanges in merchandise of contemporary capitalism, but it does not constitute the real heart whose pulsations are those of the computerised international financial markets and their screens dedicated to high frequency trading. The financialisation of economy and the aesthetic auratisation of merchandise go hand in hand, without mixing, however: the exchanges that these two trends of capitalism favourise do not evolve at the same speed or flow rate – even if the beneficiaries are susceptible of being the same people, as evidenced by the presence, among the world’s greatest fortunes, of the major shareholders of the luxury groups such as Hermès, Kering and LVMH, whose market capitalisation is the highest.
Art and added sumptuary value
One of the major contributions of Enrichissement consists in the way the world of merchandise has been partitioned following the structural method, in four elementary forms, at the crossroads of two axes of variables4: 1. The presentation of the object (either analytical, when the object is defined by a sum of objective properties, or narrative, when the object is inscribed in a story providing it with aesthetic or historic properties); 2. The commercial power (which corresponds to the hope that the price evolves in time, either by increasing or decreasing). The standard-form and the active-form of merchandise have the same analytical presentation of things, but they have opposite commercial power, decreased for the standard form and increased for the active form, which one hopes to resell for more than it was purchased. The collection-form and the trend-form of merchandise share the same narrative or “auratic” presentation of qualities of things, but their market power is equally opposed; the latter is decreased in the trend-form, based on a temporality of cycles of fashion, whose consequence is to render obsolete what was imitated beforehand, and increased in the collection-form in which the collected object gains value. Even if the logical comprehensiveness of this partition could remind one of a totalitarian approach to the world of trade, the fact remains that these forms are relative, and synchronically co-exist according to the changing historic and geographic configurations. They are not determined by the unchanged nature of the objects they support, but by the ways of adding value to these objects that are susceptible to vary and to shift from one form to another.
Our hypothesis goes as follows: a form of adding value exists that exceeds the Boltanskian pattern. It is precisely the function of art, in the heart of the economy of enrichment, to be inscribed as a sumptuary-form of adding value to items other than itself, by the effects of projection of its residual symbolic prestige and differential aesthetic qualities.
Even if the concept of sumptuary value has already been elaborated in anthropology, particularly in Marcel Mauss’s study of the exchange of gifts and counter-gifts5, or in the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s6 study of consumerism and ostentatious spending in the dominant “leisure class”, this form still needs to be reconstructed as a specific device of valorisation, with the axes of variables used by Boltanski and Esquerre. The form’s logic is used precisely to “enrich” the narrative presentation just as much as the commercial power of other far more numerous goods, by aura transfers whose source is in art. The scope of the sumptuary-form of merchandise therefore reaches beyond itself; even more so when it is used to valorise the four forms of adding value already documented. There is a “secondary” effect of this form, which projects an added value on an increased number of objects, and, by extension, to the people concerned by their purchase.
Here is a description of several partial examples of this merchandising of the aura, brought forth thanks to the sumptuary value of the artistic sign, figures that are easily identified in contemporary capitalism: 1. Possessing an important collection of artworks reflects upon the collector, who is often the chairman of the company and the brands of merchandise; 2. The artwork’s prestige as a unique piece made by an artist, exhibited in a private institution, rubs off on the “collector” objects, even though they are industrially produced, signed by the artist in limited series, sometimes on sale in the actual boutique of the institution, creating an effect of spatial contiguity between luxury items and art works; 3. The brand image that profits from the artistic aura gives the consumer the impression that (s)he has artistic trends as well as aesthetic reflexes which in turn fuel the vertical chain of enrichment as a whole. There are long networks of valorisation that are more concerned with effective transactions than those dealing, strictly speaking, with the selling and purchasing of artworks.
One could even speak of a continuum in which the value would shift between artwork, luxury products, the collector-director of the brand, the industrial brand image and the consumer of merchandise. Sometimes the directors themselves commission artwork from artists for their collections, in an arrangement in which several simultaneous forms of adding value overlap: the active-form (in which one hopes to resell the artwork at a higher price, through manipulating the artist’s current market value by artificially placing the work in the limelight), the collection-form (when it is necessary to fill a gap in a totality or to add an n+ 1 element to complete it) and the trend-form (in order to create dynamics of imitative purchasing in other buyers). The transactions that concern contemporary art with a high degree of visibility often exploit practices of pre-selection and asymmetry in the available information comparable to a form of insider dealing, always for the benefit of those who already dispose of a large amount of accumulated capital. This asymmetry can also be found in the extremely unequal distribution of income in the pyramidal structure of the art world: between a miniscule minority in which the resources are withheld and the pauperised multitude struggling for residual visibility. The economy of enrichment, on this scale, accompanies the de-multiplication of the gaps in neoliberalism. At play are singular dialectics: the sumptuary functioning of the artistic sign, at the heart of the economic complex art-luxury-industry, which aggravates existing inequalities, and in the actual fact of selling symbolic access to a simple ambiance or atmosphere of wealth, without the effective detention of capital accompanying it, to an increasing mass of consumers.
We will conclude by reflecting on the actual concept of contemporary art, which presents, behind the unity of its historic construction originating in the avant-gardes of the last century, a cleavage, an internal fracture in regard to the categories of enrichment. The most visible part of contemporary art consists in an “enriched”, spectacular recoding of the strategies of de-definition and the critical expansion of art brought forth by the avant-gardes. An “enrichment”, because the critique of the instituted limits of art has been institutionalised itself as a genre of art, a merchandisable value capable of being exhibited, and sometimes even easily associable with strategies of “creative” consolidation of brand images. This dominant, post-conceptual, spectacular7 paradigm absorbs attention at the expense of activist, participative, collective contemporary art, in other words,“poor” in real capital. These two “layers” of contemporary art do not, however, have watertight doors: on the contrary, part of the experiments undertaken in the activist sphere go back to the vertical structure which is a source of sumptuary prestige. The same situation exists for things and for people: enriching a limited ensemble of objects considered a matter of interest corresponds to the impoverishment of the rest of the world.
Translated by Emmelene Landon
Cover: Stéphane Bérard, When capitalism will be a counter-power, 2015. Pencil on paper 7 x 15 cm (detail from Pop Up, plexiglas 160 x 112 x 1 cm). Courtesy of Stéphane Bérard
Stéphane Bérard has developed a polymorphous body of work in which invention is a means of critical intervention. He started by publishing in reviews of poetry, in particular the review TXT in 1991. Soon after, he experimented with forms of extremely short performances (lasting several seconds). His practice then became multifaceted and process-based: including design, fashion, architecture, cinema, sound and song-writing. Objects, sculptures, prototypes and sketches come together to form his main corpus. His works bear witness to an acute sense of aesthetics, economy and elegance that contrasts with the common brutality of the material he chooses. His work is often characterised by reworking the functions and uses of everyday objects. To this day he has made seven long feature films, seven musical albums, five books, and a host of performances, collaborations as well as a dozen one man shows.
Originally published on May, 18, 2018 in switchonpaper.com