A conversation on Value and Art


An Interview with artist Jingyi Wang about Post Capitalistic Auction

By Tuva Mossin


M: Can you explain the concept behind Post Capitalistic Auction? 

W: To understand what Post Capitalistic Auction (PCA) is, you have to understand both of the terms used. First, there is “post capitalism”, which is important to differentiate from “non capitalism”. The concept started from the question whether or not it was expedient that money should decide as much as it does. In most companies, the person who is the biggest shareholder also gets to decide more. This is true in most industries, including the art industry. What I am trying to question through PCA is whether or not this really makes sense. 

Then, you have “auction”, which is meant in the regular sense as a situation where something is sold to the highest bidder. What is different about this auction is that in addition to money, it gives more alternative options to evaluate art as well. In PCA the audience can also place bids in the categories opportunity, exchange and understanding. Because PCA has a lot of performativity in it, I call it a performative event. When I talk about a performative event, I mean that I take a ritual or event in real life as a reference and twist its rules and  framework so that in return it challenges and questions reality: Does reality always make sense, and should we take it for granted? I want to stress however, that it is a real auction in the sense that all bids are binding, and that the artworks will actually be sold to the bidder whose offer the artist finds most compelling.

M: Can you explain the categories and how you came up with these exact four?

W: Money is just money. You bid a certain amount as in a regular auction. The reason why I include this is because it is needed as a reference point. If money was not there, it would be impossible to compare the other bids to the existing system. I also believe it would be arrogant not to recognize how effective money is as a mediator of trade. Capitalism has existed as a way of organizing trade for centuries, and you have to respect this to be able to really understand the system. Through PCA I am not trying to say that we do not need money; what I am trying to question is how we value things in life. I think that to really be able to reflect and to make a deeper investigation into our value system in our society, the category of money is needed. Only then will you be able to see the real decisions of people: it is literally where you put your money. 

Then of course, this does not mean that everything can only be calculated this way. Maybe especially in arts, people don’t purely pursue money. Being an artist is about so much more, but being recognized by the industry may be very important to many. It also opens doors. For an artist, being recognized by someone in the industry or being collected by important institutions are effective ways of boosting a career. The honour of this is also in itself a rewarding way of recognition. This is one side of how the industry works in the current system, but as we all know there is a dogmatic side to it as well: Any system will in the way it is built exclude some exceptional artists because their work cannot be translated into the existing value system. No system represents all the kinds of qualities that a good artist should have. This is all related to the second category – opportunity – by which is meant career opportunity. Bidding in this category is related to what Pierre Bourdieu would call social capital. 

So, with the first two categories we have covered both economic and social capital. Let’s say that someone is a very good artist but does not want to accept all the rules in the system. Vincent Van Gogh is an example of an artist who was not recognized by the system of his own time, and only later was considered a great artist. What his contemporaries lacked was understanding, which is the third category. This category is more individual, more flexible, and more human. It is outside of the two pyramids of social and economic capital. Those are the two big towers which stand out as especially exclusive to many. 

The last category is exchange, which is the broadest and most imaginative category. An exchange could really be anything, and you never know what people will come up with. Most often people think of material exchange, but that is not the point of PCA, because mere swapping of goods is not postcapitalism, but precapitalism; it is how people have traded for thousands of years. I would like to stress, however, that such offers are not forbidden. Material goods are after all what most people have to offer, but it is when people start offering their creativity or skills that it gets interesting. I will give you an example of what I mean: I have a friend with whom I talked about PCA before the event. He said “What if I was a very famous blogger with a million fans around the world, and I really liked the work of some start up artist. What if I proposed that if she gave me her work, I would destroy it, but I would make a video documentation of the destruction that I would put on my blog?”. In this scenario one million people would see the artwork, and know the artist’s name from today on, but the work would be destroyed. It is when exchanges like this one are offered that you really start to see how people compare the different values they have. What is most important? Fame and a career boost, or the preservation of the work? These kinds of offers also reflect the time we live in, as they are only possible thanks to digital media and the booms of information technology, which is where a post capitalist society situates itself. To discuss value systems in today’s context is exactly the point of PCA. 

M: Since you mentioned Bourdieu, I would like to ask about the second and third categories. Is not understanding and opportunity interconnected in ways of social capital? Is it wrong to assume that someone highly educated within an art related subject would be better able to express his or her understanding? 

W: You could say that, but this is why you have to explain your understanding in detail at the auction. The point is not really to say whether or not you understand the artwork in terms of theoretical knowledge. On a deeper level, art is about connection and feeling in a way that cannot be translated into words. Anyone could find a special angle to connect with an artwork without a special background. Sometimes this kind of connection is even more vivid or real. I think some artists may prefer the bid of a person who can offer this kind of deeper understanding. Especially if they already have enough money and social recognition. 

M: The term “post capitalism” takes the mind to Paul Mason. In his book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, he declares that the world has already entered the era of post capitalism.  One of his arguments is that as information gains increased market status, capitalism will come to an end, partly because of the inherent contradiction between the nature of information as something that is by definition free and the commodification of it by capitalism. This is of course related to the Internet. The question is how it relates to art?

W: I wrote in the catalogue for PCA that the idea had been inspired by this new concept, but this is not where it started. The whole idea of an auction started much earlier than when I became aware of this theory. What I wanted in the beginning was purely to challenge capitalism. What I wish to talk about is not money or capitalism as a means of trading, like Paul Mason does. I want to question how we shape our whole value system. It is not only about how we evaluate art, but how we value everything.

I have read a lot of similar books like Kevin Kelly’s
Out of Control and The Inevitable. Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution also inspired me. What these books share, is the idea that we are in a changing climate we cannot ignore: There is now a whole generation born with iPads that have not lived a second of their life without Internet access. This is very different from how life was just one generation ago, so of course it will affect how we construct our society, and our value systems as well. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality also play a huge role in this development.  We cannot deny this, and neither can we deny that art is part of these broader tendencies. We have to discuss these kinds of questions because it is so essential to our whole society.    

M: What do you think are important differences between the situation for the generation born after the Internet and that of previous ones?

W: For pre-internet generations, there were clear rules for behaviour and taste. Also, there were not many different ways to access art. Before, only privileged people could go to art fairs, and now anyone can access digital sources of art in an instant. These developments have also influenced academic taste. In contemporary art festivals or even in Tate, they have started showing works by digital artists. Take the selfie as an example; several institutions have held exhibitions exploring this new medium. Taking selfies is a big part of a lot of people’s lives, and it is wrong to say that this is just a subculture, especially when the activity has even entered the high-end art institutions. 

M: That is also true here in Norway. At Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo they exhibited a work by Richard Prince, which was someone’s Instagram picture that he had downloaded and printed as an art object, thereby stirring questions about authenticity and also ownership. Who does a picture belong to once it is on the internet where anyone can download and reuse it?    

W:  Exactly.  That is a second wave of Marcel Duchamp’s question “what is art?”. You see that first the taste within art changes, and secondly the preferences also start to change. This means that if the taste of the new generation changes, then this will influence the artist by changing the way they create art, which will in turn affect what the institutions present. But this is not the only thing; it also raises questions about how you access and own art. In Kevin Kelly’s book The Inevitable, he mentions twelve trends that are inevitable to happen in the next fifteen years, and one of these is the want to access rather than owning. When it has become so easy to access anything, why would one feel the need to own as much?

Historically, the reason why people were so keen on owning artworks was because of the limited access to it. Even books were a luxury good, and only noble families could afford them. To have these things at home naturally became an icon of social status. When considering how private ownership is the base of capitalism, increased accessibility will naturally affect that system. When one can sit at home and see very high-resolution depictions of artworks on the Internet, this affects the way people approach art. When traditional institutions also become more accessible, this naturally changes people’s need for personal ownership.  

M: Some might fear that people will no longer feel the need to leave their homes and actually experience the artworks IRL, as they say online. Or on the other hand, one may speculate that when everything is so digitized, the need to seek out relational experiences may become even stronger. How do you think these developments will affect traditional art institutions?

W: This question reminds me of Philip Auslander’s concept of liveness. What is the relationship between virtual and liveness? This is actually not a new question today but has been relevant ever since one became able to record sound. When people can listen to a singer not only at a concert, but also in their own living room, will they still prioritize experiencing the real performance? The answer until now has been that the situation is actually quite the opposite: the recordings function as promotions and make even more people want to take part in the live experience. It is exactly the same with other digital sorts of documentation.

M: I want to get back to Paul Mason again. According to him, an idea is by definition common property. Could this to some extent be said about art? I noticed that you have copyrighted Post Capitalistic Auction. How does this work? 

W: Paul Mason is certainly not the first person to think about this question. Creative Commons, for example, was made to go beyond the traditional idea of “all rights reserved” in order to enable both individuals and companies a standardised way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. The philosophy behind it is that throughout history, culture has always been a public resource available for all human beings. It is only within a capitalist society that an idea can be considered private property, and hence copyrighted. We believe that copyright is to protect an idea, but of course the idea cannot be protected, it’s the use of ideas that is protected by copyright. For an artist who lives on her ideas, this protection is crucial to her very survival. Music is also an idea, and if nobody paid the musician, it would be wrong. It is also about the labour put into the creation of the idea, so if you see the situation from a Marxist perspective, the misdeed happens when companies take advantage of the ownership of these ideas just to make money. This is done all the time. 

When Napster released their software in the late 1990’s, they revolutionized this system by making it peer to peer. With Napster, anyone could share his or her music, and anyone could also download it for free. What they found is that very many people want to share their ideas without claiming commercial interest; they take pleasure just in sharing. But people still want to be recognized as the originator of the idea. 

As for me, the commercial income is not the point of the project at this stage, but I would like to patent the idea so that people know it was me who came up with it. This is where Creative Commons comes in. In the old copyrighting system all rights were reserved, but in the new system the focus is on social recognition and not on making money. There are still layers to it, so you can choose if you want to receive money for commercial use, or you can even choose to receive no recognition at all. This is of course still all very idealistic because the capitalistic system does not fully support this kind of structure. 

M: In Marxist theory, the relationship between base and superstructure is central. The latter includes social institutions. I am wondering why you chose Bergen Kunsthall as venue. Bergen Kunstforening was founded in 1838, and is Norway’s second oldest art association. It has undeniable historical ties to the upper layers of society. This and other institutions, such as your partner BIT Teatergarasjen, still attract a certain demographic sector.  Does this in any way undermine the project?

W: The initial idea was to have the auction in a hotel because the event is dependent on attracting people that are actually interested in auctions. A hotel would also be able to accommodate a large crowd. But there are some practical concerns which led to the choice of venue and which truly reflects the paradox of the situation between the ideal and reality: in order to receive public funding, and artistic project has to be held at an accepted art institution. I have been dependent on funding because I do not want to take any cut from the auction, so because of the financial situation the event could not have been situated in a public space as I wished. One cannot expect everything to automatically adjust to new ideas the moment they are thought of, and one always has to accept some compromise. This is always a challenge for artists because ideas within the art field always pioneer the real life. The situation being as it is, I chose Landmark in particular  because I wanted the event to have a relaxed atmosphere. I did not know the history of the institution, but I do not think it is reflected in the experience of the space. It is not uptight like many other art institutions.

M: So there is a paradox in that the project trying to question capitalism is itself dependent on the funding that it receives from what can be considered one of the socialist sides of the political system in Norway. At the auction, the artist Annette Kierulf, stated that she was not interested in bids in the understanding category. May it be that too much focus on money is actually not the issue in the Bergen art community? 

W: My perception is that Kierulf wants to challenge the Bergen society. According to her, the problem here is not that there is too much money in exchange for art, but the opposite: Most people are not prepared to pay decent amounts of money. The situation for some artists here seems to be that they are already rich in ways of social recognition and understanding, while money is the form of payment that they do not receive enough of. I know that she wanted to put this question on the table: why do people not want to pay for art when they are willing to spend large amounts of money on all kinds of other things? This perfectly illustrates the question of how we value different aspects of life, as how you prioritize spending your money is related to what is important to you. This is why she is challenging this society. She wanted to see if anyone could put real money on the table and show that they seriously care about art.  In many other countries, I think that there are more people that are willing to pay for art because they appreciate what the artists are doing through the creation of ideas in itself. 

M: When you look at the international art market today, besides luxury goods, art may be the single category to which the selling price correlates the least to the production price or working hours. I think it is fair to say that some people pay insane amounts of money just because they can. This takes us to Bourdieu’s theory about distinction. Is art in practice something primarily used to show off social and financial capital?     

W: We should be careful to view it like this, but sadly this is often what happens in reality. That is exactly one of the things PCA tries to question because distinction is not what art is really about. Like Hans Marius Hansteen, the keynote speaker at the seminar before the auction pointed out, art has intrinsic value. There is a pure aesthetic value that cannot be calculated in kroner. This is also true of most other aspects of life. But the capitalistic system we live in makes us compare everything in ways that are calculable. The deeper question is not how we should value art, but how we should value everything. 

M: One term that I experience as tightly connected to the need to distinguish oneself is “limited edition”. When you look at selling prices in the art market, there is a big gap between single edition works and those produced in larger quantities. This also became visible at PCA.  Not many questions were asked directly, but this is one of those that came up: “How many copies are there?”.  If I really love an artwork, why should it be less worth to me if someone else has it too? 

W: That is indeed about distinction, but it is also about how the market works: scarcity of goods is the base of capitalism, so of course price is regulated in accordance to it. If everyone has as much as they like of everything, then that is communism. The exclusivity of a limited-edition artwork reflects exactly on the system it is sold in. The aim of PCA is to show reality rather than criticizing it because we have to accept the situation as it is before we can try to move on. One could call it social research, and it seems like maybe it was effective in this instance.

What is interesting though, is that post capitalism is based on abundance of information. The Internet makes access to information much easier, although it is a whole other discussion whether or not it creates smaller or larger inequality in distribution of knowledge. From what I can tell, the possibilities of access are more equal today than they were for our ancestors. Information technology, if organized properly, can deconstruct this situation of inequality. Of course, there is a very idealistic aspect of PCA to break through elitism and private ownership etc., but I think the project reflects the complexity of the situation: You cannot fully rise above the system. It is this tension between the ideal and reality that is the interesting part. This is where discussion is generated.

M: Had you developed PCA in another country, it is not obvious that it would be accomplishable. What do you think would happen if you had done this anywhere else? 

W: My experience is that people in Bergen are already very open-minded. If I had done this in China where I am from, I think it would be different in some ways. As you said, there might be a homogeneous group of people who are attracted to this kind of event. That is one of the problems I am trying to resolve. It may be especially so in Bergen because the fine art community here is so small and isolated from other fields. Preferably, the audience should be as diverse as possible, and this would be easier to achieve in any more populated city.

In Beijing, I believe just finding a suitable context to situate PCA would be hard. The project will seem odd to many in any place because it cannot really be labelled as belonging to any specific genre: It is not really a performance, and not fine art; it is pretty much a new form of art. I think I would have to locate it in a gallery or museum, but I do not prefer to do it in any of them because I would like to try it in a context open to an even larger public. An auction house would be interesting, but I think it would be difficult just to find an auction house with such an open mind because auctioning is a business concerned with making money. Had I put PCA in a Chinese auction house, the event would probably go down even harsher than let’s say at Blomqvist in Oslo because Chinese society is so directly and brutally about money. So, maybe I would put it in something that is not a cultural institution, but maybe in social media with its own space behind. I think this could facilitate the diversity I am looking for more than any cultural platform. It would also demonstrate the reality of today’s society even more.  

M: Do you think the remarks you just made would be true to any large city? 

W: Yes. The fun thing with this project is that the more I do it, the more it will reveal about values. If you only do it once, you do not see the bigger picture. The reason why people become interested in this type of project will depend both on the individual and on the society in which it takes place. I believe PCA has the potential to facilitate discussion on a wide range of topics. 

M: Final question: do you think the answer to how to construct a post capitalist society can be found through this project? 

W: That would be a very big project involving forces much more complex than what an art project alone can hope to answer. But I definitely wish for this project to inspire people to think beyond the situation we live in now and envision alternative possibilities. That is the point of PCA, and perhaps it should be the purpose of all art in different ways. I do keep on thinking about two questions: what do we need art for today, and what function will art have in the future? I do believe that art should and will participate more and more in political and social life in a broad sense, which means to question the current system and paradigm and try to suggest alternatives. The feelings and sensational experiences that art creates are of course meaningful, but I think this aspect of art will be more and more replaced by pure technology. Art will then be expected to stretch beyond what it is today, and its creation should be considered in a broader sense. This implies that the concept of art itself will also have to be expanded. This can enable art projects to become more deeply intertwined into even more aspects of society.

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