You might argue that prices do not matter. However, we all know that money is power, and it is the private not the public sphere that increasingly wields power over art. This thought will be touched on in Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry’s BBC Reith lectures, broadcast starting on Tuesday, which promise to be an eye-opener to those unversed in the curious economics and ethnography of the art world.
In a context of dwindling state funding, public institutions are increasingly pushed into courting private individuals (some of whom have made their money from less than savory activities) for loans and bequests and gifts — but the irony is that private individuals seem less willing to bestow their wealth on the public realm than in the 19th century and the immediate postwar period, when the civic, educational value of art for the masses was a given.
The power that public institutions still wield is that they can confer curatorial validation on the art that they show, which in turn increases its standing and price. When the Daskalopoulos private collection of contemporary art (built on Greek yogurt rather than arms or
petrochemicals) was lent to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, for example, it was not a one-way favor; I cannot help feeling discomfited by this exchange of goods for kudos.
At the same time, parts of the public realm are also, sadly, waking up to the fact that artworks are assets that can be converted into cash. Hence Tower Hamlets council in east London cynically tried to sell off its Henry Moore statue, Old Flo.
The notion of art shown for the public benefit for free, in the civic realm, looks almost quaint amid the clinking champagne glasses of the Frieze-week jamboree. If art is engulfed by the private sphere, it risks becoming a branch of the luxury-goods market — and irrelevancy.
Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief arts writer