In their book Enrichissement, une critique de la marchandise, Gallimard, NRF Essais, 2017 (Enrichment, A Critic of Merchandise), Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre explain capitalism’s recent transformations. From a world dominated by industrial economy, focused on innovation and the rapid renewal of objects, we have passed into an era of enrichment, in which already produced goods, sometimes even scrap material, have an enriched, prolonged existence thanks to the adjunction of cultural and patrimonial characteristics.
In this manner, the practical function of an object that once appeared to be primordial for the defining of value in the industrial model loses its pertinence regarding the logic of the collection, in which an object is acquired for entirely different motives than the utilitarian function for which it was conceived. Profit is no longer issued from the exploitation of work, but comes from the commercial income extracted from valorised goods for which the richest people are ready to pay extremely high sums of money.
However, the authors’ ambition goes beyond this simple opposition, since they intend to develop a vast sociological reflection on the value and prices that are distinguished from the usual approaches of economists and socio-economists. Whereas the economic world accords primacy to individual action and interpersonal interactions in order to explain to explain the mercantile mechanisms, Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre have chosen a structuralist approach. In this holistic, global manner, individual logic is limited. The desire of each and every person is not taken into account. In “enrichment,” the systems are defined by four factors known as “forms of valorisation”: “standard”, “collection”, “trend” and “active”. These “forms” determine the prices (or rather the value) of all types of merchandise.
Switch (on Paper): According to you, three out of the four forms of valorisation proposed by the authors (“standard”, “trend”, and “active”) are no longer innovative. You evoke the research of American economists Harvey Leibenstein and Kelvin Lancaster. How are they comparable in time and in the research models?
Nathalie Moureau: Very schematically, for economists, prices result from the confrontation of supply and demand. If the proposed goods do not correspond to the desires of the public and, consequently, if the quantities offered are superior to those demanded, prices tend to decrease and conversely. Boltanski and Esquerre would like to go beyond this approach and consider that the price of an item is justified by its inscription in a “particular form.” They combine diverse elements issued from the strategies of producers and intermediaries, associations of consumers along with various institutions – in a same structural ensemble – in order to establish four forms of valorisation. In this manner, one same item has a different price according to the form of valorisation it belongs to. For example, nobody would pay a high price for a Lagiole knife inscribed in a standard form, because its value is simply defined by its expected usage. The same knife positioned in its “collection” form has a much higher price, because its traditional artisan characteristics linked to a particular territory and a singular know-how are valorised.
Three of the forms they propose refer to patterns of consumerism already identified by the economist Hervey Leibenstein (1922-1994), for whom the aim of all consumerism is to answer either a practical demand, or correspond to a social or speculative determinant. The “practical function” can be found directly in Boltanski and Esquerre’s “standard” form, where goods are valorised in regard to their technical characteristics that enable them to acquire practical usefulness. In the “trend” form, the social issue is brought forward, and in the “active” form, goods are only considered in function to their financial capacities. Hence, their reasoning falls back into the old categorisations, although impoverishing the analysis. Indeed, in the classical approach, the social and speculative determinants can intervene either separately or concomitantly in a same demand, which is not so with Boltanski and Esquerre. Furthermore, the valorised aspects in the different forms, for example, the artisan characteristics or the territorial anchorage of the Lagiole knife, are not new elements, either. Kelvin Lancaster (1924 – 1999) also took a keen interest in these aspects. He showed how goods are not inseparable entities, they present characteristics that are more or less susceptible of creating a demand, and it is possible to open different markets by playing on these characteristics, such as brands and conditioning.
“ Goods that already exist take on new value thanks to the adjunction of cultural and patrimonial characteristics that come to enrich them, thereby placing them in a rationale of the « collection ». ”
SoP: According to your analysis, the constitutive elements in the reflections of Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre are vague and show a lack of logic.
NM: Their initial intuition is appealing, but the manner in which they unroll their argumentation leaves the reader yearning for more. Their departure point is the shift of the capitalist model since the last quarter of the twentieth century. This economic model, founded on the rapid renewal of goods produced in a standardised manner, has been exhausted, leaving its place to a model in which the value of goods increases in time. Goods that already exist take on new value thanks to the adjunction of cultural and patrimonial characteristics that come to enrich them, thereby placing them in a rationale of the “collection”. Municipal patrimonial policies as well as strategies of enhancing the value of goods from the luxury industry are emblematic of this evolution. Several well-chosen examples are introduced, but the reasons that explain why the evolution in their development could affect the ensemble of the economical sector are not elucidated. Their work remains anecdotal. One doesn’t know precisely what ingredients are at play in the proposed forms. There are institutional elements, elements issued from the strategies displayed by producers of goods and actors who propose them on the market, associations of consumers, etc. But how do these institutional factors intervene? And which ones precisely? All these issues remain vague. In the book Economie des grandeurs, co-signed by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot in the early 90s, the two authors worked to show that relationships between individuals were managed differently according to the “worlds” in which the people lived. These “worlds” were defined in a logical manner by different factors; the theoretical framework provided was specifiedp. Boltanski and Thévenot elaborated what they called a “grammar of worlds”. There is nothing similar to this in Enrichissement, the arguments that legitimise the forms appear progressively without one knowing why the authors have chosen to mobilise one rather than another during the moments of their demonstration.
SoP: You also point out that the authors have overlooked more abstract, subjective characteristics, such as pleasure and satisfaction in the makings of a collection.
NM: Yes, this is due to the nature of their structuralist approach. The fact that a person can assign a value to an item that falls within his/her personal taste or past experience doesn’t interest them. In their book, value is in the goods or the collective discourse. The rest is evacuated. However, it appears to me that as far as artworks, more than other “objects”, are concerned, pleasure is not just inscribed in the characteristics of the item, but also depends on the way people see the work, and on their experience and on their cultural capital.
SoP: You also regret that the authors see things essentially through the prism of the luxury industry, whereas art (and economy in general) is not restricted to this one aspect.
NM: The problem is that the authors seem to consider that one can be aware of the global evolution of capitalism by studying examples taken from this one sector alone. Examples taken from others sectors would have lead to different conclusions. Indeed, it seems that other factors apart from the quest for profit underline the emergence of short circuits in agriculture, with organic food baskets. In the same way, what can be said of the rise of social, solidary economy? And what about the emergence of movements that tend to give a second life to goods issued from the standard model, without resorting to the logic of the collection, thanks to websites such as Le Bon Coin? The authors ignore these forms of evolution, and many others, like the rise of digital economy that they have explicitly set aside.
“ […] linking an item to a collection is not a novelty (even if it has become more systematic today) and this is especially not necessarily linked to high prices or the loss of an item’s usage. ”
SoP: You affirm that the principle of the collection has been used by different enterprises as early as the late nineteenth century. Can you specify how the chocolate company Poulain fits into this form of logic?
NM: Boltanski and Esquerre characterise the logic of the collection from two elements, accumulation and differentiation. They affirm that goods placed in the logic of the collection are no longer sought for their usage but for “an endless need for accumulation, their price only being limited by the wealth of people and their capacity of spending money”. This logic, for them, constitutes the new form of capitalism. However, as demonstrated by historic examples, linking an item to a collection is not a novelty (even if it has become more systematic today) and this is especially not necessarily linked to high prices or the loss of an item’s usage. As early as the late nineteenth century, the chocolate company Poulain searched ways to make people buy more chocolate bars, and one cannot affirm that this was in order to extract “excess” returns from the wealthy. The form of the collection can be associated with goods without it having an impact on their value. The most recent example can be the Bel company, producing boxes of Vache qui rit cheese designed by artists, in limited series sold for 5 euros. This doesn’t extract excess returns from the wealthy, either.
SoP: You point out an ambiguity in the book, namely that the authors affirm that the economy of enrichment has become dominant, whereas they also accuse public authorities of not setting up the adequate instruments for measuring its amplitude. Is this really a paradox?
NM: It appears quite incoherent to me to affirm all at once that one is unable to measure the amplitude of a phenomenon and to claim that this phenomenon has become dominant. Without data, on what elements could one affirm such preponderant statement? On impressions? Scientific research cannot decently be based on mere impressions. Development of research on cognitive bias (bias of representativity, availability, etc.) shows how it is risky to rely on scattered information. We tend to think that mediatised phenomena are more frequent than they are in reality. How many people believe that buying contemporary artwork is lucrative just because the media makes a big deal of the spectacular auctions that only make up for an extremely limited part of such transactions? People focus on several record sales, such as Christopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now that reached over 26 million dollars in 2013, multiplying the work’s value by 4 400 in twenty-five years. But we shouldn’t forget that transactions over 10 million dollars only represent 0,03% of the auctions in 2016.
“ Many works in marketing […], have already explored the links between luxury and art, and have emphasized the potential abuses of this alliance. ”
SoP: One last paradox you highlight: the unequal treatment in the book of the different forms. Eighty pages are devoted to the presentation of the “collection” form and to different examples from the world of culture, forty to the “standard” form. The “trend” form has only twenty-five, whereas the “active” form, only fifteen. What does this disparity indicate?
NM: According to Boltanski and Esquerre’s approach, the new logic of capitalism would encourage producers to culturally enrich goods to commercialise them for the wealthiest at a higher price. But they seem to apply the same logic to their own book; there are many digressions on the arts without these being directly useful to their arguments. They do not apply the same treatment to the different forms of valorisation presented. The “collection” form is enriched with ample information on culture and takes up a large part of the book. However, their structuralist approach calls for the same treatment for all the forms. They embroider their discourse with analyses that are finally not so innovative. Many works in marketing, such as those by Jean-Noël Kapferer and Olivier Assouly, have already explored the links between luxury and art, and have emphasized the potential abuses of this alliance. Likewise, much research has been published within the context of work by Richard Florida, Edward Glaeser and Charles Landry on creative cities and the rise of patrimonial tourism. As for the four forms brought forward by the authors, the only truly innovative opposition is the one between “collection” and “standard”. Sometimes the reader has the impression that starting form this opposition – which, I recall, is initially extremely pertinent and appealing – Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre have multiplied examples referring to culture and art at the expense of the logical reasoning that would have enabled them to truly consolidate their position.
Translated by Emmelene Landon
Nathalie Moureau is Professor of cultural economics and Vice-President of Culture, University of Paul Valery Montpellier, France. She has published different books and various papers on the contemporary art market. She has also conducted several researches for the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. Among her recent publications Le marché de l’art contemporain, ed. La Découverte (in collaboration with D. Sagot-Duvauroux) and Contemporary Art Collectors : The Unsung Influences on the Art Scenes [CE-2015-1] DEPS (in collaboration with D. Sagot-Duvauroux and M. Vidal).
Cover: Stéphane Bérard, No long lows, 2007. Pencil on paper 7 x 15 cm (detail from Pop Up, plexiglas 160 x 112 x 1 cm). Courtesy of Stéphane Bérard
Originally published on May, 18, 2018 in switchonpaper.com