On February 20, 1909, Filippo Mariinetti and Umberto Boccioni declared a new aesthetic of speed in their Futurist Manifesto. "We say the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed." The cult of speed is a modern invention. For Futurists as well as many other early twentieth-century artists, speed bordered on a religious experience that transformed vision and changed minds.
The artistic revolution in the early twentieth century was an extension of the Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the nineteenth century. With the emergence of the railway system and the invention of the telephone, telegraph, and stock ticker, mobility increased and the pace of life accelerated. Futurists confidently proclaimed that the goal of art was "to express our whirling life of steel, of pride of fever, and of speed." The increase in speed transformed the experience of time and space. Countless writers from this era used the same words to describe train travel as Karl Marx had used to describe emerging global financial networks. Trains, like capital, "annihilate space with time." Many people riding trains for the first time reported a sense of disorientation that resembles the symptoms of what today is called attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Like parents concerned about the psychological effects of their kids playing video games, nineteenth-century doctors worried about the effect of people sitting in railway cars gazing out windows for hours watching a stream of images rushing by.
For artists, by contrast, the jolt resulting from this transformation of perception released an unprecedented rush of creative energy. Distorted figures in the work of Cubists like Cezanne and Picasso, which were so disturbing for many people at the time, were actually efforts to evoke the experience of motion and speed in forms that remain fixed. Other artists responded to increasing acceleration by trying to slow down time. This tendency can be seen in the paintings of Impressionists like Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet, which are snapshots that resemble Eadweard Muybridge's famous stereoscopic photographs that freeze the movements of people and animals.
New technologies transformed art, and artists, in turn, created works of art that both further transformed human perception and provided an ideological justification for technological change and economic expansion. Artistic modernism is defined by its commitment to the new and, correlatively, its aversion to the old. The new, of course, is old as soon as it appears and thus must be repeatedly renewed. The motto of modernism is, in the words of Ezra Pound, "Make it new!" -- and the faster, the better. The cult of speed that is dedicated to the new is, in effect, the aesthetic version of what Joseph Schumpeter labeled "planned obsolescence," and today is called "disruptive innovation." The obsession with the new new thing keeps the engines of production humming and new products rolling off factory assembly lines.
Fast-forward one hundred years. No artist understood the conspiracy between art and finance better than Andy Warhol. He went so far as to call his New York studio The Factory. In Warhol's Factory, artworks rolled off the assembly line with minimal human intervention. The advantage of machine production is that it is faster than handwork and, therefore, more commodities (i.e., works of art) can be produced for the market in a shorter time. The images and the objects Warhol "created" and hawked were virtually indistinguishable from the consumer products marketed in stores.
Though he was a canny businessman, Warhol never could have anticipated the explosion of the art market at the turn of the twenty-first century. According to reliable estimates, by 2006 the private art market had reached $25 to $30 billion annually. No artist represents revving up of the art market better than Jeff Koons. He expanded Warhol's Factory to a 16,000 square foot production facility, where an army of 120 unnamed assistants turn out works the artist's hand never touches. While Warhol's work has an ironic edge that is critical of the excesses of consumerism, Koons is an erstwhile Wall Street commodities broker who is in it for the money -- big money.
There is another even more important difference between these two hugely influential artists. While Warhol treats artworks as commodities that are bought and sold, Koons regards artworks as financial instruments designed for speculative markets. It is no accident that Koons's most dedicated collector is the notorious hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen, who made his fortune by betting on financial instruments like derivatives, futures, swaps, collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs), etc. In today's high-speed, high-volume markets fortunes are made (and lost) in nanoseconds. Having mastered the art of speculating on esoteric financial instruments, financial engineers extended the trick of the trade to works of art.
The most disruptive strategy so far has been the creation of private hedge and equity funds for buying and selling art. Works of art are securitized in the same way that CMOs securitize mortgages. Just as mortgages are bundled and sold as bonds, so works of art are bundled and sold as shares of a hedge fund. Like investors in CMOs, who know nothing about the actual real estate holdings whose mortgages they own, investors in art held by hedge and private equity funds know nothing about the actual artworks in which they are investing. Indeed, they never even see the works of art. Like high-speed markets where a long-term investment is literally two seconds, the strategy of art hedge and private equity art funds is not buy and hold, but buy and sell, and the faster, the better.
When will we ever learn? Dotcom bubble, housing bubble, art market bubble. In the midst of the recent financial crisis and the subsequent sluggish recovery, the art market has continued to soar. Private hedge and equity funds trade high-end art for high-end investors. Irrational exuberance is, however, contagious. Low-end investors are now "flipping" low-end art exactly like people of modest means were flipping houses just before the collapse of the housing market. If you are willing to slow down long enough to understand what is going on, it is obvious that a meltdown is inevitable. The lesson of the impending crash will be that what is valuable in art as well as in life cannot be measured in financial terms.
Mark C. Taylor is the author of Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left.