New Generation Lighting sign seen
on the Bowery in New York City
Blake Gopnik writes in a December 3, 2011 article titled Why Is Art So Damned Expensive for Newsweek:
The uselessness of art makes any spending on it especially potent: buying a yacht is a tiny bit like buying a rowboat, and so retains a taint of practicality, but buying a great Picasso is like no other spending. Olav Velthuis, a Dutch sociologist who wrote Talking Prices, the best study of what art spending means, compares the top of the art market to the potlatches performed by the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest, where the goal was to ostentatiously give away, even destroy, as much of your wealth as possible - to show that you could. In the art-market equivalent, he says, prices keep mounting as collectors compete for this "super-status effect."
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As money stacks up in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), their oligarchs are buying into the wealthy Western mainstream by forking out for its art, the way their poorer compatriots are buying into skinny jeans and Lady Gaga.
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Top art collectors aren't shoppers like anyone else. If they spend right, they can purchase the status of cultural patron. No one looks up to you for buying a fleet of Bentleys, but own a flock of Richard Serras, and you become a supporter of culture. Turning the filthy lucre of commerce into the "cultural money" that's used to purchase art is one way to launder it, explains the Princeton sociologist Zelizer.