Art market, 21 June 2019

The Wealth in Art
Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre
talking to Catherine Millet 1/3

by Catherine Millet


Enrichissement, une critique de la marchandise is something of a milestone. For the first time it analyzes a sector of western economies that is often hidden and sometimes even taboo. The authors, Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre reveal the rich “resources” for capitalism represented by the luxury industries, heritage and art, which are often associated and sometimes confused. This nexus represents a major, decisive reorganization of capitalism within which art, including contemporary art, plays a major role. If, like me, you are naïve enough to believe that the “speculative bubble” of the art business is bound to burst one day, and that one day we’ll get back to “normal” prices, think again: this is going to last.

[ 1 ]

This is the term used by the authors for personnel employed in maintenance, guarding, reception, etc. in cultural business who are asked to show responsiveness and amiability that “evoke the servants of yesteryear.”

[ 2 ]

This walk was laid out on the old railway on the Lower West Side in Manhattan.

[ 3 ]

American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, a theoretician of the capitalist global economy.

[ 4 ]

Modernizes plurielles de 1905 à 1970, Oct. 23,2013–26 Jan. 26, 2015, Centre Pompidou. Hanging of the collection brining out the global nature of art.

[ 5 ]

Ils collectionnent, exhibition held in 1974 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Paris featuring ­collections of all kinds of objects, including some assembled by artists.

Catherine Millet: Allow me to sum up your thesis: since our soil and subsoil now represent only a tiny fraction of our economy and industry as a maker of objects has migrated, the only source of wealth and profit that remains is luxury brands, artworks and heritage, which brings in tourists.

Luc Boltanski: A friend told us, “Marx had the good ­fortune to live in England when industrial society was developing. You have the good fortune to live in France, where the economy of wealth-generation that you analyze is at its most developed.” The problem is not so much the dwindling of certain resources as the fall in profitability of industrial forms of production, the ones that imply intensive labor. There is a productive overcapacity in relation to the solvent demand, compounded by the great number of industrial objects already in circulation, to which must be added the will of capitalism’s moving powers to get rid of this weight after the scale of the workers’ ­movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Arnaud Esquerre: This transition from an industrial ­economy to an economy of enrichment is strikingly exemplified in the conversion of the old Fiat plant in Turin to a ­center combining shopping mall, hotels, restaurants and, at the top, a museum ­building by Renzo Piano which has preserved the driving track that was a surprising feature of the original building. What we call an “enrichment basin” (bassin d’enrichissement) can be a building or a given neighborhood in a city. In countries like France and Italy, this can represent quite a large part of the country.

CM: There is the case of Arles and the Luma Foundation project, for example.

AE: Arles was an industrial town with workshops producing railway stock. Today it has the highest level of unemployment in the whole PACA [Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur] region, but Arles is an enrichment zone with a heritage that is already being valorized (its regional history, bullfighting, the Rencontres de la Photographie) and the coming of the Fondation Luma, who have called on Frank Gehry, fits perfectly into this economy of enrichment. This foundation is a fulcrum of the city’s conversion, and note that it is also taking over the old SNCF locomotive workshops.

“ What we are sketching out here are the contours of another economy that is just as important but that does not produce, one that exploits and valorizes things that are « already there ». ”

CM: The historical sites developed to attract tourists are our heritage. Our society, which has always projected into the future, is now forced to draw on its past.

LB: The science of economics was con­s­tructed with the model of industrial society and mass production. What we are sketching out here are the contours of another economy that is just as important but that does not produce, one that exploits and valorizes things that are “already there”. Classical economists knew about these rare things like works of art but they considered them as limit cases, with no influence over the general economy. As you know, there is currently a battle ­be­tween economists. At stake, among other things, is the relation to sociology. The more unorthodox camp is closer to sociology, which is itself critical of orthodox economics, which it believes does not take into account the role played by people. This orthodox economics has remained a positivist science that studies the world of exchanges with a view to deducing laws from them, whereas sociology sees that it is human beings who construct their environment. This change in sociology has occurred mainly due to the influence of linguistics and cognitivist philosophy, of Wittgenstein. The question of language is therefore very important in this perspective, which puts the emphasis on the construction of reality. But sociology has left prices to the economists, when prices are a central part of the way we all experience reality. So there is a need to bring sociology and economics closer together, which is what Fernand Braudel set out to do when he founded the École des Hautes Études. Our book takes a considerable interest in prices, but from a sociological angle.

CM : What does the economy of enrichment represent in comparison to our economy overall?

AE: A number of activities are part of this economy: tourism, the luxury industry, and artistic activities. The difficult is that there is no coherent framework providing figures for all these activities together. That’s why they are always underestimated. Indeed, these are activities that are often thought of as futile and that consequently aren’t taken as seriously as finance and industry. But, to give you an idea, tourism represents about 7.5 % of GDP, which is a lot. Culture is about 4%. It’s striking that the number of professionals in the culture ­sector has doubled since the 1990s.

LB: The luxury industry is very important, including luxury foods, which are one of France’s main export sectors along with aeronautics and arms! When an agricultural area is transformed into a residential one, antiques dealers move into the region, along with various artisans, to “do up” old houses, not to mention various “servants” with precarious rights1. When you tot it all up, that makes a lot of people.

AE: When we presented our work in New York, academics there said that it might apply to Old Europe, but not to New York. The following day we went walking on the High Line 2 where you can see panels explaining the history of this railway, around which luxury boutiques, galleries and restaurants have opened. This ensemble stands only a few blocks from the New School where we presented our paper. It occurred to us that the people ­involved with this economy just don’t want to see it.

A part of history

CM: As most of the riches constituting this new deposit come from the past, it seems odd that contemporary art should be one of them.

LB: A thing becomes “art” only after a whole process of “ratification” which consists in considering it as if it was already museumified, already eternal—as if, from some point in the future, it already appeared as if it was part of history.

AE: Whatever is said about the importance of the private sector in contemporary art, there is an ambiguous connection with museums and foundations. The question of how works will be go down in art history is central—hence the attempts by big collectors to transform their holdings into museums. If all this was just private, why would they want to exhibit their collections in museums as if they were forever? Also, why is it possible to pay death duty by bequeathing artworks to the state? The museum is important because it guarantees and stabilizes the position of artists in art history, outside the market.

LB: A common discourse on the relations between art and the economy consists in separating the economic dimension from the interest of the works as revealed by historians. We connect these things in two ways: on the one hand, by showing that what determines the price of works today is the connection between the market and the appreciations of collectors, critics, curators and historians. Ordinary financial products don’t come with that kind of guarantee. On the other, this frontier separating the exhibition room where people talk art and the backroom where they talk about money is absolutely vital to maintaining the prices of these things and hides the fact that a whole set of people are working to guarantee what we call their metaprice, that is, the estimated price as opposed to the price that is paid. A third element is that there is something ambiguous about auctions which resembles the contradiction in ­capitalism identified by Wallerstein3, namely, that beyond the bidding war engaged in by those who edge up auction prices, it is in their mutual interest, in this little world of big buyers, that the prices of works should remain high.


CM: Hence the publicity around those incredible prices. It’s in the participants’ interest to keep prices high: what they have bought must keep its value, and they are all each other’s hostages.

AE: Yes, but with this particularity, that many of the prices are not known, especially for sales by brokers. Hence the importance of auction results, which set benchmarks.

“ Collectors seek to impose the artists they have invested in and, in this power struggle it is possible for brilliant artists to end up being marginalized. ”

CM: This reasoning reminds me of what Marc Augé observed about the immediacy of news giving each of us the impression we are witnesses to History. Just as it is ­flattering for a TV viewer to think of themselves as a witness of an event that will be considered important in the future, so it is gratifying for a collector to say that he was one of the first to see a body of work that will be deemed “historic.”

AE: Power relations are involved in the writing of this history. The exhibition Modernité plurielle 4 was interesting from this point of view because it contrasted different ways of writing art history. Collectors seek to impose the artists they have invested in and, in this power struggle it is possible for brilliant artists to end up being marginalized.

LB: Still, displacements do occur when a market is saturated. If you are among the first onto the market for a certain kind of object, you can find a lot of things at low prices. Then there comes a time when you can’t go on collecting because these things are too expensive. The logical thing is to slightly displace the selection criteria, and therefore to push up a minor master or other school that hadn’t previously been very highly valued. In the field of heritage and tourism you look at the case of ­Laguiole, a village that sells a famous knife. You explain that its grounding in the past, which bestows value on the product, necessarily generates a narrative. In the case of Laguiole, the history of the knife as you can read it, for example, in the catalogues, is pretty far out. Discourse is ­necessary, but in many cases that discourse is more of a dogma. (Maybe that’s not so much the case with contemporary art—hmm, come to think of it…).

AE: We need a story and the person writing the story varies depending on the objects or the places. In the case of Laguiole, not many academics have written about the knives, so the story is controlled more by the sales people. They are free to open a museum next to the shop. In heritage sites, where subsidies are more involved, there is a great role for historians and anthropologists, while for contemporary art there are critics and curators, etc. And there’s the operation whereby artists turn their own lives into a narrative because in a sense they have to trade in their own person.

CM: In a recent article about the Pinault collection moving into the former Bourse du Commerce in Paris I read that they were looking for a new name for this new ­museum-type venue because “‘Bourse du Commerce’ is not very suitable when ­talking about culture”! That is typical of the blindness you mention. That being said, your presented the whole development of the group founded by François Pinault as exemplary.

AE: The name change, from Pinault-Printemps-La Redoute to Kering, shows the break in the group’s activity. Originally dealing in a raw material, wood, then in the distribution of standard objects, it has totally converted to the luxury industry, and it is ­directed by someone who has himself gone into the world of contemporary art in a big way. It is interesting to emphasize—we keep coming back to history—that if in the industrial world you can always create a brand from scratch, the same is not possible in luxury. A brand gets bought ­because it is linked to a history, the history of the brand itself or of the person who created it. What is purchased is the story linked to the name and it is this story that justifies the very high price of things that in fact cost very little to produce.

LB: Actual innovation is very rare and what is called “creation” is usually just the art of reinterpreting.

The collection form

CM: That remark chimes with Hans Belting’s theory—and the principle of postmodernism more generally—that contemporary art reflects the history of art but does not extend it. You present the “collection form” as a model. The logic of a collection is the quest for difference through the accumulation of the same. That reminds me of the fashion for objects presented as “collector’s items.” The article I quoted predicted that invitations to the inauguration of the ­Pinault Collection at the Bourse du ­Commerce would surely become ­“collector’s items.”

LB: Take the weekend supplement of Le Monde: in it you will find the cult of the cult object. The kind of watch worn by such and such a star in 1950, not to mention charm hotels and designer furniture. We wanted to move on from the analyses being made in the 1960s by people like Baudrillard, Barthes and Bourdieu, analyzing that commercial reality that surrounds us, even more so today than fifty years ago. In fact, this has been much less analyzed. The difference is that as Baudrillard, Barthes and Bourdieu saw it there was consumer society, meaning the idea of passive people whose desires were stimulated by capital via advertising. We try to show that we are in a society of commerce where everyone is forced to be at once an active seller, buyer, seeker and offerer, and even offer themselves. The societal model is therefore very different.

AE : Why does an object that is less ­expensive when secondhand gain in value over time if someone decides that it’s a collector’s item? After all, it’s the same ­object. This allowed us to shift our ­perspective in relation to the discourse on work, which is usually considered from the standpoint of an industrial economy, notably in discussions on working time and the like, whereas in the economy of enrichment, for many of the protagonists working time is one with living time.

CM: Writers and artists have described the ­“collection form.” You mention Le Cousin Pons by Balzac.

LB : Do you remember the exhibition Ils collectionnent 5, in which Annette Messager took part. There is also a very strange book by Anatole France, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard. One of the characters, a member of the Institut de France, is looking for a manuscript of The Golden Legend, and another is a rich Russian prince who has started a collection of matchboxes and ends up on a dirt track in Italy looking for a very rare box made by a small business tucked away in the mountains of Sicily. It’s a novel about what we become attached to, about the value of things, about the relation between the manuscript of The Golden ­Legend and matchboxes.

CM: You show how everything can become ­“heritage.” In The Map and the Territory ­Michel Houellebecq imagines a France wholly transformed into a protected natural park.

AE: What sociologists and economists can’t describe, a novelist can. Many people say he was exaggerating, but no. People are in denial about this reality.

LB: Behind Houellebecq’s ideas, though, there is a kind of nostalgia for authenticity. He is critical, sure, but in the spirit of the Frankfurt School, of Adorno, with regard to the authenticity of the “country” as Heidegger would have called it, and not with regard to its transformation into a territory whose “marketing” is based on a parade of authenticity.

AE: The economy of enrichment rests on names of persons or territories that carry stories. The name becomes a brand and the issue is to know who owns this name as a brand liable to create wealth. One of the examples we take is the village of Laguiole. Can the name of a village become a registered trademark? Who registers it and how is it valorized? There was a conflict because an entrepreneur from Val de Marne [east of Paris] registered the name and the inhabitants of the village took him to court. Now, the judge held that the name Laguiole was generic because many of the Laguiole knives were in fact made in Thiers, and the person who had registered the name could continue to use it for other products, such as watches. After this trial, however, there was a law extending protected geographical names, previously limited to food products, to manufactured items such as Calais lace, Marseille soap, etc.

“ We are not against commerce, but we have adopted Braudel’s point of view, which consists in distinguishing between capitalism and mercantile ­activities. ”

CM: You mention The Accursed Share by Georges Bataille, but then take a different position.

LB: The accursed share is expenditure for nothing, luxury. The critique of capitalism, like economics, based itself on a model of capitalism that belonged to industrial society and mass production. Starting in the 1920s and 30s, when standardized form developed, many critics looked to art, luxury, expenditure, potlatch, etc. as a means of getting away from capitalism. Considering that standardized form was going to take over, that humans themselves were going to be standardized as in Chaplin and Huxley, people looked for a place where it was possible to live humanely and criticize this invasion by capitalism. We have worked on the fact that in shifting capitalism has taken over this outside space to make it a generator of profit. We have tried to keep away from the moralizing critique of commodities and commerce that Left-Marxist critique drew from ascetic forms of Catholicism in the late nineteenth century—from Léon Bloy, for example. We are not against commerce, but we have adopted Braudel’s point of view, which consists in distinguishing between capitalism and mercantile ­activities. What distinguished capitalism is not the fact of commodities, but the concentration of profit.


Prole or creator?

CM: Your last chapters look at the professionals in this economy, and notably the people you call, in a broad sense of the word, “creators,” whose fragility you show.

LB: I did a lot of work on the history of these socio-professional categories, and some of them are extremely vague. (They are less so when they are taken under the wing of the state, because collective working agreements attribute and fix names.) Some everyday names, such as boho, hipster or creative, are also very vague. This vagueness is found among the actors themselves and in their practice. Imagine ­someone who has done art school and finds herself designing invitation cards that are meant to be kept as “collector’s items” and who at the same time is working on a movie project with a friend. Is she a prole or a creator?

AE: The incomes of “creators” are not lower than in other sectors of activity, but their way of life is exhausting because they are forced to have several activities, since they don’t know what they will be doing next week and because they work on several projects at the same time, some of which won’t go anywhere. And as we said, they have to sell themselves. Creating your own little business, looking for subsidies, preparing applications, etc. means lots of time-consuming work.

LB: Going against the discourse on individualism, I am sure that in these milieus the time consumed by managing one’s professional life is enormous and that there isn’t much left over for collective or ­political life. If you envision the question of precariousness only in terms of material standards of living this problem will not be very visible. There are huge differences here, depending on whether you have a little bit of inherited wealth, if only an apartment, which is a great source of inequality nowadays. Some lives are constructed at what is very great physical and emotional cost.

“ Luxury objects such as leather goods by the big brands, or watches say, play a ­noteworthy role in auctions nowadays, a phenomenon that didn’t exist a few decades ago. ”

CM: Are there really that many “creators”?

LB: Think of the old bourgeoisie. In the old days, you might for example be an engineer. In the generation aged between twenty and forty, they might be a librarian, a filmmaker or an artist. This is a transformation of what was called the bourgeoisie.

CM: Who are the “new rentiers”?

AE: If Thomas Piketty has clearly shown the growth in inequality, with an increasingly rich upper class, we explain that one of the latter’s problems is how to stock its wealth. Property has to keep its metaprice and be maintained. The nature of such property may also change. It can be visited, or what have you. Another element that is underestimated, in that the emphasis is put on property when estimating wealth, is the value of objects. One of the concerns of their owners is to maintain their metaprice.

LB: We make a distinction between heritage and capital. When you own something, how do you maintain its metaprice, how do you make it work to bring you money, how do you ensure its liquidity? Some things, such as postage stamps for example, once played this role. Today other types of goods lend themselves to this, such as watches.

AE: Luxury objects such as leather goods by the big brands, or watches say, play a ­noteworthy role in auctions nowadays, a phenomenon that didn’t exist a few decades ago. These objects can be sold all around the world because people everywhere know what they are.

LB: The mass economy, as its name says, was made for the masses. The idea was to sell as many objects as possible with slim profit margins to people who were not very rich and who were given the credit to buy. In the situation that interests us, it is more a case of the exploitation of the rich by the rich. This generation of riches is ­almost autonomous with regard to the rest of society.

This interview has already been published in February 2017 in the magazine Artpress No. 441.
Thanks to Artpress ( and Catherine Millet
Originally published on May, 18, 2018 in

Translation by C. Penwarden

Luc Boltanski’s (1940) many books include Mysteries and Conspiracies, Detective Stories ([2012] Polity Press, 2014), and On Critique, a Sociology of Emancipation ([2009] Polity Press, 2011), both published by Gallimard NRF.

Arnaud Esquerre (1975) is the author, among others books, of Théorie de événements extraterrestres (2016) and Prédire, l’astrologie en France au XXIe siècle (2013), both published by Fayard. The two authors previously published Vers l’extrême, extension des domaines de la droite, Dehors 2014.

 Cover: Stéphane Bérard, Overheated !, 2007. Pencil on paper 7 x 15 cm (detail from Pop Up, plexiglas 160 x 112 x 1 cm). Courtesy of Stéphane Bérard

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