??? What is real, is also allowed ???

??? What is real, is also allowed ???

It is surely one of the more or less tricky questions, showing various dimensions. Taking its simple form, there is of course only one answer and that is a clear


Not every reality, not every behaviour, structure, regulation …. – not everything that is real, should be considered as allowed. Shakespeare’s Hamlet posed only one question: in the famous words

To be or not to be?

A question of at least equal importance is, if reality can also be legitimised simply due to the fact that is real. And if we read the soliloquy further,

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d.

listen to the dramatic inner contestation we see the deep content.

At first glance, looking at legitimacy seems to be an entirely different question, the one is a nearly scientific one – if we take the narrow understanding of science as being concerned with nature in the widest sense as the English language suggests: it is the issue of physical existence; the other is a matter of power – falling thus in the realm of social science. We find many different approaches to discuss this distinction between science and social science, some being concerned with the methodological dimension, some with historical-institutional aspects around societal differentiation – and some surely just about crude interests.

Sitting in the academic nest, I may nevertheless swirl up a bit of the dust that makes breathing in the ivory tower occasionally difficult. One of these crude comforts is based in the effort to maintain power. And we may even say that this is the more noble-minded, if compared with the alternative: the refusal to engage at least with the work of the other, independent of agreement or disagreement. What is even more worrying is the increasing further tightening of boundaries. Nowadays it is not only the differentiation between science and social science. We find, looking here at social science only, increasingly the quest for strong dividing lines between for instance psychology, social science, economics …, and looking at these developments, we find occasionally new paradigms, borrowing from various disciplines and at the same time claiming to be “super-science” – superior in its meaning and standing.

  • The critique is well known – and a surely important contribution comes from world systems theory.
  • And there is a surely not less important perspective coming from considerations that, without denying the need for specialist work, draws our attention towards the need of a meta-theory as elaborated by the Social Quality Approach.
  • As important as all these considerations are, there is surely a lack of one perspective: only little attention is paid to the theory of science in the perspective of a sound reasoning that includes a thorough historical perspective, taking the conditions for and created by scientific developments thoroughly into account.


A Saturday in May 2012. I obliged myself to look buy opera tickets, so I leave early lunchtime the office: a sunny, warm day, pleasant for the walk towards the Kálvin tér, along the Múzum utca, Múzeum körút, Károly körút, crossing Déak Ferenc tér, walking the short distance along the Andrássy út – Budapest’s well-known boulevard – to stand in front of the Opera house. But my attention is caught at the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum, the Hungarian National Museum. It is some years ago that I visited the place – as much as I am interested in history, as limited is my enjoyment of such places, in so many instances reification in two ways: the worst of all history lessons at school merged with nationalism – the latter even aggravated by the way of “dusted presentation”. The thousand years of mould, making headlines in 1967 when German students protested behind the slogan Under the professorial robe a thousand years of mold [Unter den Talaren – Muff von 1000 Jahren [1] – here (like in so manuy similar exhibitions) it is not hidden under the gowns, but openly presented. But that visit is part of my personal past history, the present history is a different one: the wide stairs crowded, Hungarian folk music resoundingly filling the air, jaunty maze of voices, laughter, romping children … . Even if it is some distance to the Szabadság híd – the Liberty Bridge, that links Pest and Buda since 1896 – I hear a loud blow from one of the Danube-vessels, a split of a second later followed by a less intensive sound from a smaller ship.

– In a realist perspective it is surely amiss, if I allow myself a bit of an impressionist attitude though it may be justified: my thoughts are wandering, the picture of the present reality dissolving in the paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Younger. The glaring sun makes it difficult to keep the eyes open, to maintain a clear vista. The next moment the batiment of the Museum building fades away, makes place for a new picture The Battle of Carnival & Lent: Harmony and inequality going hand in hand, naturalness in the movements, reflecting the knowledge and reliability of the rules of the game – and it is exactly this: a ruled game, a game of ruling, a “playful ruling” as it is well known from ancient times: panem et circenses.

It may be that this moment’s sense is actually not just a reflection of the present situation. Instead, one of the books I am reading these days is surely playing a role, influences my perspectives: Franz Borkenau on the transformation for the feudal to the bourgeois worldview. But what I read there is only element of a jigsaw, brought together in a really puzzling way. The paragraph I read just minutes before I left the office said the following:

In the term of sovereignty the decisive power of the modern state, the princely absolutism gains it’s theoretical expression. It is this concept that exceeds the system of the estates of the realm and subsequently also the corporate natural law. It is not oblige itself to the corporative order, it destroys the corporate associations; it breaks up all “undeniable” subjective rights, and transforms step by step all customary law into positive law. In one word, it is the political expression of the emerging capitalism … As far as it abolishes the feudal forms of life.

(Borkenau, Franz, 1934: Der Übergang Vom Feudalen zum Bürgerlichen Weltbild; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchhandlung, 1971: 100)

In this light the joyful nationalism is exactly the ancient pattern maintained from antiquity – the “nation”, the imagined community, working against any notion of anxiety. The gathering of pure individuals that enjoy the illusion of community – reality fades away, takes the form of a dream, something that actually doesn’t exist, is to far to be meaningful in …, in reality. All this seems for a moment unimportant:

  • The “Hungarian misery”: poverty, the further deconstruction of social rights, the increasing danger to political structures of at least some democratic forms seem to be forgotten;
  • The protests in Frankfurt around the European Central Bank and in other major cities around the world, the massive disrespect of human rights as it shows up in this context seems to be too far away to think about;
  • The G8-meeting, the seclusion at Camp David appears just as matter of sorting out some technical details – looking at some of the photos it has even a human touch: politicians hard at work, but also enjoying a good laugh during the break.[2] Panem et circenses too, just another place and form?
  • And there is another piece of the puzzle that should be added– an ad, three links going together as banner, claiming to deal with performance:

+ ElitePartner for dating with style

+ Xing as address for professional contacts

+ And the child of the future is then a foster child in some developing country: make a gift, secure the future of a child.

What actually catches my attention is the dissolution that is getting clear in this ad by exactly this combination, bringing different trinities to the fore: family, work, childhood (sic! outside of the family); two actualities, one future; partnership, networking, fostering …, importantly there seems to be little place of unity: life is torn into pieces.

And looking at the picture, we may add the question: Is this the future, is this the future that the current system “grants” to women, the future for women?

Indeed, everything that is …., is real in its very specific way and only ignorance allows us to see and interpret the one without thinking of the other. This does not mean that everything is also legitimate. But approaching that question in a serious way requires seeing an understanding the complete picture.


Of course, if we take everything unquestioned, accept the world as it is and don’t even think about the need to change, let alone that we strive for change in our daily social practice, we would not only end up in a standstill. Moreover it would mean to accept countless obvious and less obvious injustices.

But with this, we are actually at the point where the question is getting tricky:

  • What is justice? Can we clearly define it or is it a matter of grades?
  • Is there development and how can we classify it?
  • Is there a right on irrationality?
  • Is there actually more then what Ludovico Vives called vita naturalis? Boldly taken meaningless existence, driven by instincts, by cravings?

In particular the last question[3] opens a fundamental dilemma: On the one hand we can reduce ourselves, i.e. humankind to beings merely lead by instinct. Of course, this would allow us to be “social” in the understanding of gregarious animals … . A higher social existence seems to be however outside of such order. On the other hand we could see this also as an opening towards the pure hedonist, defining him/herself out of him/herself and for him/herself. The other, in that case, does not exist as part of a social setting, as part of relational existence. Instead, the existence of the other is only part of a utilitarian system. And such utilitarianism is a matter of life – the fetish-character of which Karl Marx speaks: inescapable. In Marx’ own words

the fetishism which metamorphoses the social, economic character impressed on things in the process of social production into a natural character stemming from the material nature of those things.

(Marx, The Capital II, chapter xi)

This follows the definition Marx provides in the first volume of the same work:

There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

(Marx, Karl, 1867, The Capital, I: chapter 1, section 4)

However, in terms of thinking it is a different issue: we find the very same pattern, but we find it only in a perverted form – and the following wants to be as provocative as it is self-critical: being in our practice very much caught in this system of hedonising structures, we like to see ourselves as if we would stand above them, outside of all this: Isn’t everybody of us very genuine rather than being superficial? Looking for inner values rather than status, acting meaningful and responsible rather than just “doing a job”? Taking care of the other rather than striving for personal advantage …? And if we are not seeing ourselves as heroic individual figures, we admit only to very few others the entrance to this circle of the chosen. Societally it looks as if we are in need of a permanent reformation, also: permanently referring to some mystified past.

And actually we are trying to push it through in the different present times, as Albrecht Duerer did, who directly engaged in the fights with this famous painting for the Four Apostles.

And as much as these questions are raised by us as individuals – or implicitly answered without thinking about the question – the very same questions may be raised nationally: the authoritarian character: analysed by Theodor W. Adorno while looking particularly at the German-Austrian monster of the said character: bigoted by its inability to think beyond the next mountain, especially aggressive by being caught between its own economic strength,[4] and watchful counties at least to the west and to the east; this authoritarian character which grew especially strong under these conditions had been unique: leading during the period between 1933 to 1945 to the most devastating spells of history, it is also visible in the general war of nationalism which had been already initialised by the Treaty of Westphalia, paradoxically stepping up to lay the founding stone for eternal earthly peace. Both the systematic and extreme individualism and the nationalism have a common root which we may see as mark of Cain of the modern age: the concept of sovereignty. It is the dissolution if the feudal order, positively allowing the individual to develop, but negatively condemning the individual as long as it is individual under capitalist rule to the “new natural law”. Especially with Calvin we find that

(sich) [u]nter der Hand (…) … die Lehre von der Verderbtheit  der Menschennatur in ein subjektives Recht der Individuen auf eine Spähre des Egoismus (wendet).

(Borkenau 109)

It is not surprising that subsequently the state looses its social character and emerges as distinct power, at the end being itself a legal personality, later – with Thomas Hobbes – entering the stage as Leviathan, but already at an earlier stage showing up: the tyrant claiming to tame the tyrant:

Docet nos ius Naturale, vitam et libertatem nostram, qua sine vita vix vitalis est, adversus omnem vim et iniuriam conservare et tueri. Insevit id natura canibus adversus lupos, tauris adversus leones, columbis adversus accipitres, pulls adversus milvos; longe vero magis homini adversus hominem ipsum, si ipsi fiat lupus

(Junius Brutus, 1579  [feigned]: Vindiciae contra tyrannos; in: Borkenau, op.cit.: 110)

But paradoxically, this new entity is complex and full of contradiction: social in the sense of some form of community, the reification of the general interest, social as caring state: the provided prince, and not least the authoritarian institute that is later baptised by Thomas Hobbes The Leviathan. – Unfortunately, it had been the Machiavellian prince who survived, not leaving any space for discourse.[5]


We may reduce the issue on four arrays that have to be taken under scrutiny:

  • One is dealing with the tension between social and individual needs and rights.
  • Another is dealing with the tension between what is necessary and the realm of the ‘un-determined’.
  • Furthermore we are employed by the tension between mass and elite(s).
  • Finally there is a field spanning between self-determination and externally defined determination.

These different realms – and there are more and similar – are defined along one line that may serve as common denominator, the fundamental question that does not really look for an answer – and that surely will never find an ultimate answer: the question of meaning of (human) existence.

And a further issue going along with the previous ones is about artificiality.

We may start by looking at some terms that are usually popping up when it comes to discussing and exploring issues around painting(s).

But perhaps it is useful to go a step further back, briefly presenting the background of this project.


Having been invited to stay for a longer time in Budapest at Corvinus Egytem, I proposed to add a bit to my teaching – buy one, get two as I really like teaching. In particular as I had then been asked to make a proposal. I made two and the one offered had been somewhat risky for me. To cut a long story short, “New economic philosophies. Its reflection in 6 paintings since the Renaissance” offered the new challenge. Though it had been soon getting clear that 6 paintings had been a very small number and more paintings would be looked at, this did not mean just to scroll over a multitude of paintings. Fortunate to have a small and dedicated group, I accepted the challenge to enter in reasonable depth both the unveiling of the close interpenetration of the development of the worldview and political economy – or it may be better to speak of the political-economic worldview – and the reflection in styles of fine arts, in particular painting. And reflection is meant in the best understanding as it is on another occasion in these texts presented, namely when attention is turned towards the Water Lilies by Claude Monet – here a quick glance may be allowed at one of the relevant paintings: the Nympheas from 1908.

The reader should not expect anything that is even close to perfection. Having just put my nose a little bit closer to the beguiling haze of arts some time back when I stayed in Florence, Amsterdam, Milano and in particular during a lengthy stay in Rome, having been pulled by this into an addictive mood, taking opportunities to spend on the occasion of various journeys any possible spare hours in galleries in Budapest, Taipei, Warsaw, Berlin, Istanbul, Vilnius, Madrid, Moscow, Chisinau, and Copenhagen recently to name but a few, enjoying special visits: casual strolls with friends in Barcelona, Vienna, Dnepropetrovsk …, special guided tours in Munich …, finally guiding my own group [admittedly they didn’t really have a choice – most of them at least ;-)]; and personal acquaintance with some artists and art-critics … Well you may say: name [or place] dropping, or you may say I allow myself being carried away – memories of a man who begins to live more in past than in presence]; there is probably a much simpler answer: it is a way of expressing my gratefulness. But mind. I am sure, many of the readers will see it as a kind of extended holiday-life. As said, I feel indeed hugely privileged. Having said this, there is surely another side to it – two, even three other sides actually: not all these places had been the fancy large galleries – several, and many very existing had been small galleries, exhibitions of young, unknown artists – looking for new ways, applying new techniques ….; and secondly, certain ways of travelling are a more or less lonely exercise. Even where language didn’t really matter, the spoken language is not the language that allows any kind of “universal access”. And painting is such language – as is the case with music. But another dimension of loneliness is given by the route which I entered probably about forty years ago: the route through an academic world. I never regretted having chosen this route. In the beginning a lonely route – for instance living in a private and social surrounding that had been hostile, forcing me to some kind of “underground work”; for instance under the shadow of Berufsverbote in the then Federal Republic of Germany; later for instance lonely by studying in a foreign country – at that times unfortunately not at all common …; later, much later again, and increasingly lonely: walking across a minefield, always in danger of being captured by a bullet, a power point, or running danger of suicide as it is so sadly reported for so many working in academia in the presentation by Carin Holmquist and Elisabeth Sundin (Holmquist, Carin and Sundin, Elisabeth(2010) ‘The suicide of the social sciences: causes and effects’, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, 23: 1, 13 – 23). The third point: underground also meant working in the dark – but here in a very simple way: as much of theses studies had not been “part of the job” it meant working in the darkness of the nights: what is called long days and short nights; and what is becoming real as little sleep …

Perhaps it is justified to say that the price of such privileged life is the permanent danger of being shot while trying to escape, finally ending as harpist on a cloud which is at the end not really much better than being incarcerated in an ivory tower, through the latter has the material privilege of firm ground under the feet and firm walls to lean against.

Speaking less metaphorical, leaving also the deeply personal dimension out of play, the development of scientific work – and with this of academic life – is increasingly characterised by specialised research and knowledge, teaching in academia is more and more characterised by knowledge transfer. And this should not be easily pushed aside as useless or wrong: real in-depth knowledge needs specialisation. And the amount of available knowledge and the successfully opening of third level education. However, there is without any doubt the huge danger: overspecialisation, mediocre-isation of research and teaching … – the catchwords and some simple answers are easily at hand: the lack of values, egoism and greed taking control and this evil not finding a real antidote. With a very broad brush – and this approaches the issue from the perspective of the world view, leaving the economic perspective outside of the present consideration – we can suggest the following groups or stages.


In ancient societies, i.e. extremely closed entities, the problem does not exist: practice and moral entity are seen as insoluble unity, not least given from outside: god and a unfathomable nature.

Can we say this had been just, a legitimate system – coherent, cohesive but based on the principle exclusion of the many, based on ignorance which necessitated the reliance on rules coming from an external force? Can we say it had been just as it provided even some care for the other – looking after the totally excluded [6] while they had been denying their rights as persons?


All this changed subsequently, requiring that the split between the human, in principle and by nature controlled by the evil, needed to be tamed: this role was given to the state, but also proposed to be a matter of self-control. Importantly, this kind of self-control had not been seen as matter of submission under strict rules – instead we have to think about perfection. Money did not really matter simply because it had been available in cornucopia and subsequently for the upper ruling class – looking at the centrality of politics and administration a rather large group – no problem. Though being on the one side a hierarchical, strictly ordered system of The Court Society (see Elias, Norbert, 1969: The Court Society; Collected Works of Norbert Elias; 2; Dublin: UCD Press, 2005), we find on the other hand self-control as the obsession with perfection: purity and beauty as values, suggested to be rejuvenated reborn. Thus Renaissance had been as progressive as it had been conservative. Dealing with rich societies and societies, we are at the very same time by no means looking at capitalist societies – on the contrary, the economic system of the Renaissance had been based on an entirely irrational worldview: still somewhat arbitrary power as proclaimed by Machiavelli’s Plan B, based on speculation with usury capital, fundamentally based on hierarchy rather than following principles of rationality. – And surely we can say that we are all in some way profiting from it: the occidental cultural treasure had been erected on the floorboards of this system.

Can we say this had been just, a legitimate system – admittedly striving for purity, beauty …, and meaning this in all honesty also as beauty and purity, decency of thoughts, the strive for virtú, but accepting at the very same time arbitrary oppression and exploitation? Can we say it is a just system while it allows admitting sins and extending them by establishing the option of a personal bailout: the sinful process by which the church generated money? Can we say it is a just system, overlooking then that the sinner had been allowed to define the price to be paid, and that the sinner had been allowed to make personal use of the beauty which he presented as tribute to society.


Only at a later stage we may say things are getting closer to the ground: craftsmen claimed that the value of their work would not only be acknowledged but moreover they pushed themselves towards the centre of the economic process: the “new we” emerged – a “capitalist we” which consisted structurally of the “me”, now also defined in positive law: the egoistic contractor for whom actually nothing counted but the validity of the contract. Law, written by human being of equal status, defining what is right – with all this humankind enters a circular system: the law defined what had been right and the other way round it had been rightful what actually had been seen as legal. Immanuel Kant’s definition is relevant here, looking in his Metaphysics, there in the § B of the Introduction into the Doctrine of Right (Einleitung in die Rechtslehre § B) at the

Inbegriff der Bedingungen, unter denen die Willkür des einen mit der Willkür des anderen bei einem allgemeinen Gesetz der Freiheit vereinigt werden kann.

Epitome of the conditions, under which one’s arbitrariness can be united in a general law of freedom with the arbitrariness of somebody else.

The background, as elaborated in the Metaphysics, is outlined right at the beginning:

Der Inbegriff der Gesetze, für welche eine äußere Gesetzgebung möglich ist, heißt die Rechtslehre (Ius). Ist eine solche Gesetzgebung wirklich, so ist sie Lehre des positiven Rechts, und der Rechtskundige derselben oder Rechtsgelehrte (Iurisconsultus) heißt rechtserfahren (Iurisperitus), wenn er die äußern Gesetze auch äußerlich, d. i. in ihrer Anwendung auf in der Erfahrung vorkommende Fälle, kennt, die auch wohl Rechtsklugheit (Iurisprudentia) werden kann, ohne beide zusammen aber bloße Rechtswissenschaft (Iurisscientia) bleibt. Die letztere Benennung kommt der systematischen Kenntniß der natürlichen Rechtslehre (Ius naturae) zu, wiewohl der Rechtskundige in der letzteren zu aller positiven Gesetzgebung die unwandelbaren Principien hergeben muß.

It has it’s foundation within this worldview as matter of defining by way of formal self-reference what actually had been in question. Morality had been fully replaced by formality and it’s self-reference, entering a circle of permanent tautological justification.

Leaving the circularity aside one has to acknowledge that especially Immanuel Kant is well aware of the wider problem, stating in his Metaphysics

Man nennt die bloße Übereinstimmung oder Nichtübereinstimmung einer Handlung mit dem Gesetze ohne Rücksicht auf die Triebfeder derselben die Legalität (Gesetzmäßigkeit), diejenige aber, in welcher die Idee der Pflicht aus dem Gesetze zugleich die Triebfeder der Handlung ist, die Moralität (Sittlichkeit) derselben.

The pure compliance or non-compliance between an act and the law, without considering its incitement, is called legality (Legalitaet [Gesetzmaessigkeit]); but that, where the idea of the obligation of the law is also the incitement of the act, is called its morality (Sittlichkeit).

The problem then can be captured in the following

– Can we say this had been just, a legitimate system – questioning even the requirement of moral thought and justification? Can we say that this had been a just, legitimate system that serves formal justice without allowing for any translation into material substance? Can we say this had been a just society, a legitimate system although it seriously and systematically fails in providing a substantially based and oriented societality. The social is left to small groups: peers acting voluntarily and warm-heartedly – or even with a freezing hand of personal control, but as such it is in the iron grip of the hinges that hold the gates of the cage which had been presented by Max Weber?

All these systems are in actual fact “just” and “legitimate” at least in their own terms, not least as they defined themselves the criteria on the basis of which they allow to be assessed. Here is in my view as well the source for both, the fundamental difficulty of social science to detect the mechanisms behind the processes of valuation and the lack of piety when it comes to “living” certain values. In a current work I refer to this, writing

Usual approaches to social policy are characterised by taking some kind of problem as given – so the original idea had been to talk about precarity and poverty. Of course, we can well take at least poverty as a problem and social policy challenge – with precarity it looks a little bit different as it is seemingly a new issue and as such actually not yet defined as policy issue. In any case, there is the danger that we simply replicate structures without considering the underlying societal structures and patterns – this means not least replication without understanding what the actual problem is. In other words, in many cases ‘looking at the seemingly obvious’ means looking for policies of system maintenance.

(Herrmann, Peter, forthcoming: Social Policy – Production rather than Distribution; Bremen/Oxford: EHV)

And one neglected, though hugely important fact is the fundamental continuity and change of the role of the individual – here in particular of interest in the more recent history, namely the two last stages confronted with the question of rightfulness and legitimacy. We can follow Franz Borkenau who highlights the important role played by the individual during the Renaissance and also later in capitalism. It is not that the one era had been more individualist than the other. Important is that

[e]goism of the isolated individual is fundamental for Renaissance AND Reformation. The first sees it in the context of harmonious beauty; not because the life of the time and social stratum had been filled by such beauty – on the contrary –, but because it strives towards a life as landowning money-lenders, following the ideal a balanced aestheticism, standing against the life of ordinary people. Calvinists are nothing else than egoistic individuals, but THEY are, consciously against the ideal or the Renaissance, a life of irrational effort. The financial bourgeoisie profits from this degradation of feudalism; therefore it has to idealise this world.

(Borkenau, op.cit.: 160)

This difference has not least huge consequences for the topic we looking at. Justice and legitimacy are not least a matter of valuation. We may search for a simple answer that defines values as matter of subjective assessment – subjective as subjection under the play between an eternal and natural process of fighting and dividing and merging forms.

But this doesn’t really help us any further. What many see today as greed or egoism is by no means subjective failure, individual – possibly pathological – misbehaviour. This valuation is part of an objective process which is well captured by Walter Benjamin in his work on allegories.

The question posed in the heading

Is what is real also allowed?

stems from a very specific background. Working on this course – and on written reflections of the course – meant as well to investigate at least a little bit the issue of “value” and here I mean the issue of prices. Just a few amounts – when searching an image of Edvard Munch’s The Sceam, I stumbled upon an article dealing with the recent sale of one of the Munch’s work which went recently to auction. The article, published in the Huffington Post, stated “Munch’s Painting Is Not The Most Expensive Work Of Art Ever Auctioned”. This piece of arts had been ousted by others. Here the list:

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Portrait Du Docteur Gachet” sold at Christie’s for $82.5 million in 1990, according to U.S. News and World Report, which translates to $142.3 million today.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Au Moulin de la Galette” sold for $78.1 million at Sotheby’s in 1990, according to the New York Times, which translates to $134.6 million today.

Pablo Picasso’s “Garçon A La Pipe” was sold by Sotheby’s in 2004 for $104 million, according to BBC, which translates to $124.3 million today

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” sold for $119 million at Sotheby’s on May 2, 2012.

Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture was sold by Sotheby’s in 2010 for $104 million, which translates to $109.5 million today.

Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves, And Bust” was sold by Christie’s in 2010 for $106.5 million, according to the Associated Press, which translates to $111.7 million today.

Pablo Picasso’s “Dora Maar Au Chat” sold at Sotheby’s for $95.2 million in 2006, according to the New York Times, which translates to $106.4 million today.


Should we allow this? Are these legitimate “valuations” – legitimate just because they are real, just because there are people who have this money at their disposal and who are able and willing to pay this money? Of course, one can give various answers, on saying that it is ridiculous: not only the fact of paying so much money but already the fact of having such an amount disposable. Another point had been made by William H. Gross, stating

“When millions of people are dying of AIDS and malaria in Africa, it is hard to justify the umpteenth society gala held for the benefit of a performing arts center or an art museum,” he wrote in his investment commentary this month. “A $30 million gift to a concert hall is not philanthropy, it is a Napoleonic coronation.”

(Quoted in Strom, Stephanie, September 6, 2007: Age of Riches. Big Gifts, Tax Breaks and a Debate on Charity; in: New York Times)

Michael Findlay – I found part of Gross’ statement initially in his book The Value of Art – argues by suggesting a third possible answer.

In the United States, however, there is no shortage of philanthropy for medical cures (with all the attendant gala award ceremonies, …; and I believe art is an essential part of our society, one of the things worth saving lives for.

(Findlay, Michael, 2012: The Value of Art; Munich/London/New York; Prestel: 96)

But all this remains at least for the present author dissatisfying. The reference that had been made to Bejamin’s allegories gives us a hint – allows us to determine the direction I which we have to search for a satisfying answer. And so does the analysis referred to earlier: Borkenau’s look at the dimensions of individualism. The problem of putting a price tag on such works of art is linked to the fact that art is, though surely still being linked to reality, and surely aiming on a critical reflection of reality is part of the overall process of dissolving the socio-economic entity. The necessary breakup of the ancient and medieval structures, the establishment of the individual as personality in his/her own rights seems to lead to the fatal conclusion of the loss of the social as inherently relational process of appropriation.

Thus, value – even the most outrageous price tag on a painting – is real and legitimate to the same extent to which these conditions are accepted. A reform is not possible – and a change necessary – and the real question is: what do we allow? To which extent can we integrate today practice as a new force into society, a practice that goes clearly beyond consumerism?

Criticising individual behaviour, condemning the loss of values, condemning of greed may all be to some extent reasonable – though it should make us thinking that much of that criticism comes from people who occupy well saturating positions: having much more than we really need, not having enough to keep up with those who have so much that monetary power easily translates into some kind of worldly omnipotence.

But those arguments fail to address the real problem, namely the challenge to re-occupy the social. This challenge contains another challenge: to move further the way of inclusion rather than maintaining the current or returning to the overcome exclusion. For this, the knowledge of arts and it’s history is surely more important the knowledge of market mechanisms. And this means to understand the value of fine arts in their historical context. Walter Benjamin begins his writing on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) by quoting Paul Valéry who says in his Pièces sur l’Art from 1931:

Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.

(Valéry, Paul, 1931: Pièces sur L’Art, Le Conquete de l’ubiquite; from: Benjamin, Walter, 1936: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)

We find an important point, made by the Paul Valéry on another occasion, namely writing on The Method of Leonardo da Vinci. There he states

L’échange perpétuel de choses qui la constitue, l’assure en apparence d’une conservation indéfinie, car elle n’est attachée à aucune; et elle ne contient pas quelque clément limite, quelque objet singulier de perception ou de pensée, tellement plus réel que tous les autres, que quelque autre ne puisse pas venir après lui. Il n’est pas une telle idée qu’elle satisfasse aux conditions inconnues de la conscience au point de la faire évanouir. Il n’existe pas de pensée qui extermine le pouvoir de penser, et le conclue, – une certaine position qui ferme définitivement la serrure. Non, point de pensée qui soit pour la pensée une résolution née de son développement même, et comme un accord final de cette dissonance permanente.

(Valéry, Paul, 1919: Introduction a la Méthode de Léonardo da Vinci. Deuxième Édition; Paris: Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Française: 28)

Surely, all this is not least also a continuation of the general critique of political economy – and the issues around commodification. And in this light it is not just about finding new rules for a distribution that is more just. Rather, it is about a new mode of production that secures rights.

All the reflections on arts ay well help to understand the subtleness of the topics at stake.

[1] English translation from http://www.spotlightongames.com/interview/eggert.html – 5/24/12

[2] It is an interesting general feature of media reports: the human side. Surely a double edged sword: doesn’t it suggest that they really just want to do the best …, for us ….?

[3] Though it is actually not really the last, many others could be added.

[4] The German squires and later the German industrial magnates

[5] As it is well-known, Niccolò di Bernado dei Machiavelli’s “second main work” had been the Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio, unfortunately little recognised: To cut a long story short, Il Principe can be seen as Machiavelli’s “plan B”, the alternative to his favoured , rather republican “plan A” presented in the Discorsi.

[6] In particular for the ancient Greek it is important to acknowledge that slave owners had been obliged to treat their “property in respectful ways“.



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