Yellow, Red, Blue Oil Painting by Rothko

The economic crisis of 2008 changed the way that many markets operate, their pace, size and reach. However one market that has not slowed is the art market. In November, Sotheby’s enjoyed the most successful night in its storied history, selling almost $375 million worth of Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art.[1] Like many markets, the art market is based in word of mouth and on the knowledge and history of previous sales. There is an aura created around an artist and their works based on these prices as well as in relation to supply or, uniqueness of the works of art based around ‘security.’ As Adam Davidson argues, “art isn’t gold, or any other commodity in which units can be evaluated objectively.”[2] Yet, is the way that the art market functions really that different from other markets? What is it about the art market that has allowed it to remain relatively insulated from other markets and experience growth during this downturn?

In order to examine the way the art market functions I want to look at two examples, and in particular to explore how key determining factors (such as uniqueness and ‘security’ of investment) alter the works of art and how they are sold (or not) within the current art market.  I want to firstly focus on the works of Mark Rothko. In 1967, a red Rothko sold to the National Gallery of Berlin for $22,000.[3] Over the last few years, Rothko’s work has sold at auction at extremely high prices. For example in May 2012 Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow sold for nearly $87 million.[4] There are many explanations for Rothko’s increasingly high sales. One is the suggestion that Rothko was born in Russia and that is works are being bought by new wealth in Russia.[5] Another notion is that the large size and blocks of bright colors appeal to people as objects to hang in their homes and, as such, his work is easily recognizable. The high prices of Rothko’s works have fuelled even higher prices in later auctions and have been supported by the inclusion of much of his work in permanent museum collections (Tate Modern, National Gallery of Art and the Museum of Modern Art). His works are now deemed ‘safe’ for investment at a moment in time when many investments are not.

As a contrasting example, we can look at the work of Damien Hirst. During the early 2000s, Hirst’s works were increasing in value amongst investors. One of his highest selling works, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (a shark suspended in formaldehyde), sold for $12 million.  More recently, however, Hirst’s work has been resold with an average loss of thirty percent.[6] According to Andrew Rice, Hirst’s fall can be traced “to a $200 million auction staged in 2008, on the day Lehman Brothers collapsed. Hirst sold hundreds of works directly to bidders, defying the custom of restricting supply.”[7] Collectors were unhappy and art dealers warned of dilution. In 2009, a statue entitled Trust sold for $150,000 when it had been purchased for $450,000 two years earlier. A spot painting entitled Decaprin was sold for $600,000 in 2011 when it had been bought for $1.1 million in 2008. Here, we can see that in a space that is defying the odds of success in a time of economic crisis, a distinction is formed between those artists whose work is considered a ‘safe investment’ and those that are not.

The idea that the art market does not operate like other markets might be misguided. Yes, it is ‘booming’ at a time when other markets are not doing so well. However, the way that it functions is in many respects much like other markets, based as it is on an aura of value in a speculative economy. Investors find refuge in the art market because certain works of art are guaranteed a return and, in most cases, these works of art are unique and irreplaceable. Here, we can see that the value of art in the age of financial crisis is based, like other commodities, in the cultural and social value associated with it.

Further Readings

Aronson, Steven M.L. “Rothko and Pollock Still Going Strong”

Corbett, Rachel. “1 Tomboy For 100 Old Masters? An Illustrated Guide to the Asymmetric Art Market”,

Davidson, Adam. “How the Art Market Thrives on Inequality”,

Ferro, Shane. “In the Debate About the Art Bubble, The Dealer is the Missing Piece”,

Fontevecchia, Agustino. “Christie’s And Sotheby’s Going For Their Biggest Auctions Ever As Art Market Stagnates”

Hernando, Elisa. “Art Market Crisis?”

Rice, Andrew. “Damien Hirst: Jumping the Shark”,

Tully, Judd. “Sotheby’s Scores Its Biggest Night Ever With a Smashing $375-Million Auction”,

Vogel, Carol. “Record Sales for a Rothko and Other Art at Christie’s”,


An image from Bridle’s Dronestagram

In a recent article, Brad Allenby and Carolyn Mattick argue that the ‘rule book’ of international warfare needs to be rewritten to include of the use of new technologies, in particular drones.[1] Drones sit in an ambiguous legal space because they are unmanned aerial vehicles that are often used to fly in a restricted airspace. Compounding this problem is that the use of drones is largely undocumented as a matter of national secrecy. Nevertheless another layer of technology, social media, is now providing a battleground for visual accountability. On the one hand, I want to draw attention to the use of Instagram to highlight the use of social media to inform – and critique – the use of drones through layered representations of their targets. On the other, and competing with this critique, we must look at the use of drone target visuals released by governments to communicate the drones precision and safety. These examples are a way of demonstrating how social media produces a visual politics that can be used to highlight the use of these new military technologies. This contestation for visual accountability may be the social inroads to in fact see the target. The target I am alluding to here is not what the drones see but the frameworks that that legitimatize the actions of these drones.

Image making has held a close relationship to the communication of the experience of war and violence. Susan Sontag wrote about the her experience of viewing pictures of concentration camps:

Nothing I have seen – in photographs or in real life – ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about.[2]

Here we have a powerful touchstone for how images can have a deep impact on the perception of events. It can make a conflict real in a way that is otherwise unimaginable. The images of war act as evidence and provide a context with which to critique and contest the actions of those participating in the war. Thus the presentation and transfer of these images (to whom and for what reason) become a critical place to examine not only the content of these images but the acts of war that they present.

In an account developed in October of 2012 called Dronestagram, journalist and artist James Bridle used Instagram to show the places that drone attacks had been carried out. In creating the images, Bridle gathered an interfacing collection of social information from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and then used Google Maps Satellite to locate the exact places of the drone attacks. What seems to be the most effective aspect of Dronestagram is that the images from Google Maps Satellite give a birds eye view of the locations, as if taken from the drone itself. The captions (authored by Bridle) include information that further cements the nature of the images such as the number of people who died as well as the name of the location and the date of the attack.

According to Bridle, “these technologies,” as the interfacing set of digital media, “are not just for ‘organising’ information, they are also for revealing it, for telling us something new about the world around us, rendering it more clearly.”[3] Through Instagram and the images on Bridle’s account, we can see how social media and photographs can be used to highlight an aspect of political warfare that is largely unseen. Here the gaps both in physical distance from the attacks (which are largely in Pakistan and Yemen) and knowledge of the use of drones, are bridged through the visual and act as a critique of the use of these new technologies of warfare. Thus building a visual framework of evidence for understanding the use of drones in conditions of war.

At the other end of the visual accountability spectrum we have the use by governments to legitimize the use of drones. A recent example of this being the video of an Israeli drone hitting a car with one of the leaders of Hamas, Ahmed al-Jabari, inside. Revealingly these images were uploaded to YouTube by the Israeli Defense Force on the 14th of November, 2012.[4] As articulated by Gabriella Blum in an article by Wired, the video is aimed to deliver three messages:

A warning to militants in Gaza (we can get you anywhere, anytime); an appeasing message to the Israeli public (we will not remain helpless in the face of repeated rocket attacks), and a reassuring message to those concerned about the use of targeted killings, especially for its potential collateral damage (we can do this with utmost precision).[5]

Here, the images of war are taken to social media like never before (the use of drones by the U.S. is largely undocumented). The uploading of the drone video by the Israeli Defense Force acts as evidence to build the argument for the use of drones: their accuracy and precision. Therefore, assisting in building the framework that legitimizes the use of drones where there is no international law; it is the people’s court of social media.

For the social media generation, these visual contestations become the witnesses to the acts of war. Essentially the images uploaded by Bridle and the Israeli Defense Force are the same images (both aerial shots of locations of drone attacks). However, one was released by a government as in a supportive context, the other by an individual as a critique of the use of drones. These images have an effect on the perception of the events and the use of these new technologies. Where there is no law, there is the power of the visual battleground of images to build the framework of understanding and critique. The target is in sight, and with the knowledge of these visual frameworks through social media, we can understand the complexities surrounding the use of new technologies in warfare.


[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography  (New York City: Picador 1973).

[3] Dronestagram: The Drone’s-Eye View,, Accessed: 11/15/2012

[4] Israel Defense Forces YouTube,, Accessed 11/15/12

[5] Israel posts YouTube video of strike on Hamas leader,, Accessed 11/15/12


Other articles of interest:

Israel’s Social Media Warfare Reaches Historic Low/High with Instagram Duckface,

The Tweets of War,

An image uploaded by ‘zigzagzilla’ to the review section of the ‘Avery Durable View Binder’ on provides a number of feedback spaces. These kinds of spaces are the communicative loops that situate digital consumption. Recently we have seen a number of variations in the form of these reviews. Critically, these reviews include ones that take the form of explicit social commentary and go beyond the particularity of a simple product review. This practice drew me to the thinking about economies of review, as parables for digital communication and consumption. Can such reviews challenge spaces of consumption, transform them, go beyond their commercial logics? If so, could we be reviewing these goods not just on their functional or symbolic usefulness, but on how their production is embedded in social, political and ecological vectors?

In the early days of staff would write the reviews of the books were being sold.[1] Over time Amazon developed an agreement with publishers and newspapers to copy their reviews of books onto This method evolved into the system of feedback we know today whereby customers themselves are able to create an account and write reviews. Not only can you review products, but also review specific comments of other reviewers. In addition, other customers/reviewers are able to rate the review according to ‘helpfulness’ and, as a result, the reviewer will be ranked in relation to other reviewers. The top 1000 reviewers often receive perks from Amazon such as discounts.

I would like to now distinguish four ‘types’ of reviews. The first, perhaps most obviously, being the ‘genuine’ review that is written by a consumer with the interest of informing the public about the product. Here, “self expression” and “enjoyment” seem to be the driving factors of review writing.[2] Reviewers of this sort do not appear to earn a income from their reviews, but see it as a way to express their opinions about a product in a space where others can used their advice in order to make decisions regarding consumption.

Secondly, there are those product reviews that are written by someone related to the product itself. A well known example of this type of ‘fake’ review was when author R.J. Ellory was ‘outed’ by another author, Jeremy Duns, for writing five star reviews for his own books on Amazon. This practice, called sock puppeting, is not only frowned upon but also goes against Amazon’s customer review guidelines.[3] Here, the benefit of the reviewer is both social and commercial (if you can get away with it). The aim for the author or producer is to sell more of their product and therefore, gain both monetary benefits as well as social capital from the increase distribution and discussion of their work.

Thirdly, and perhaps more subtly, reviewers are given products from companies on the condition that they will provide good reviews for those products online. Although Amazon asks reviewers to state whether or not they have received the product for free, the admission of this aligns with a lack of authenticity regarding the review. Here, reviewers not only receive benefits for their labor with the free merchandise, but because they are writing positive reviews, they tend to be ranked higher on the ‘helpfulness’ scale.[4] As a result, there is more possibility of receiving additional discounts from Amazon for their labor.

A fourth form of review has also appeared over the last few years. That is, ‘social commentary’ customer reviews. Although these are usually humorous and sarcastic, these reviews often have a political and social commentary associated with them. For example, in the Presidential debate on October 16th, 2012, candidate Mitt Romney, when asked how he was going to improve conditions for women in the workforce, stated that he had received “binders full of women” in order to employ more women when he was Governor of Massachusetts.[5]  In the aftermath of this comment, the Amazon review section for one type of binder (Avery Durable View Binder with 2 Inch EZ-Turn Ring) has received almost one thousand reviews since the debate. One such comment by a reviewer named ‘LeeBo’ read, “As a wife and mother, I LOVE this binder. It keeps me in my place, allows me to get dinner ready on time, AND costs 72% of the more masculine version.”[6] In addition, these reviews usually rate the product either very highly or very low on the ‘star’ rating scale. ‘LeeBo’ rated this binder as five stars and 1,518 of 1,582 people found her comments helpful. Therefore, these comments effect the rating of the product on the site as well as alter the reviewing space to one of social and political commentary.

Could these spaces of review be a prominent site to critique digital consumption, and its underwriting material realities?  To answer this question, I would like to propose a fifth economy of review – the political review. This act can be considered more a tactic than a commentary. This political review thinking is spawned off the prior example of the ‘social commentary’ review. The political review would be one that speaks to the practices of the company that produces the product being reviewed: how it pays its workers, ecological ramifications of materials that are being used, how the products position theoretical, sociological and ethical issues. Here, the public (who are considering buying the product) would be made aware of the conditions under which the product is manufactured and distributed through this kind of commentary. Paid or rewarded digital labor in the review economy is excluded here because it necessarily needs to speak to functional and symbolic utility as the commercial economy of review.

The feedback system of is aimed at informing the community of consumption and what products will be bought by who and why. It seeks to provide data for producers on what products are popular and those that are not. The political review could too alter how reviewers inform others of production practices and allows for alternative ways of acting politically within this digital commercial space.

[1] Hazard Owen, Laura. “What Shoppers Don’t Realize About Amazon’s Reviews”,, Accessed 10/17/12

[2] Ibid.

[3] Amazon Customer Reviews Guidelines,, Accessed: 10/17/12

[4] Hazard Owen, Laura. “What Shoppers Don’t Realize About Amazon’s Reviews”,, Accessed 10/17/12

[5] As Governor, Romney’s Eagerness to Hire Women Faded,, Accessed: 10/17/12

[6] Avery Durable View Binder with 2 Inch EZ-Turn Ring, White,, Accessed: 10/20/12

Source: Talking Points Memo

In his 2011 article New Media, Web 2.0 and Surveillance Christian Fuchs argues that our life on the Internet, specifically as embodied in the practices and ideology of Web 2.0, is being expropriated as a “form of personal mass dataveillance.”[1] For Fuchs, social networking sites, such as Facebook, are prime sites to explore this shift. The ‘dataveillance’ of these digital social spaces present us with a complex matrix of motivations, communication logics, and economic interests – represented in individual users and ‘social’ platforms themselves. Driven by notions of ‘friends’, Fuchs sees Facebook as a Foucaultian “panoptic sorting machine.”[2] Of particular interest to him is the notion of economic surveillance; in other words, the ways in which everyday practices of our web lives are being captured as information capital. But what sort or notion of autonomy sits at the heart of this critique? The lingering question is: Are we condemned to social lives of digital exploitation?

Implicit in Fuchs’ argument is a well-versed problem. On one side are the Web 2.0 evangelists. These span the political economy spectrum. The commercial political economy of the Web 2.0 offers advances in understanding efficiency in markets, the targeted consumer as an advance in the delivery of wants and needs, and the ‘hive mind’ as the post-industrial telos of the invisible hand. Then there are the non-commercial social sciences/humanities orientated approaches to Web 2.0. Here we see the rise of the so-called Digital Humanities. The ‘big data’ of Web 2.0 provides the empirical content for social movements in the digital social. Both the commercial and non-commercial forms of these data become ‘intelligent’, mapping actions, and movements.

On the other – and this is where Fuchs’ augment kicks in – there is a critique of Web 2.0 grounded in a critical political economy approach. Fuchs details a range of economic barriers to this world of Web 2.0. For example, the unequal digital skills of users’ material barriers, such as access to hardware (personal computers and communication devices). He also emphasizes the expropriation of what has become ‘social labor’ through the unpaid value creation by users. For example, returning to Facebook under the guise that the social networking site is ‘free.’ In terms of both cost and accessibility, however, Facebook is not free, per se; and the site adeptly uses social labor to expropriate great value in the economy – Facebook’s IPO is a perfect example (in spite of its post ‘public’ devaluation). In fact, this is a parable for not just Web 2.0, but life in the Internet as general.

But there is a reoccurring problem for this kind of thinking. While the economic character of the Fuchs critique holds, it simultaneously poses a problem for thinking about individual and social autonomy from the system of capitalist exploitation. This is a problem felt keenly by those who support Fuchs’ kind of argument. So, one might ask, how is it possible to engage in this space and not be exploited? One recently building method is to become ‘anonymous’. Many users are now choosing to provide fake names when registering with Facebook. Carl Franzen of Talking Points Memo noted last week (09/20/2012) that nearly 8.7% of users have accounts with fake names.[3] Furthermore, Facebook knows that this kind of practice is occurring. In the same article, Franzen discussed Facebook’s methods for ‘smoking out’ the fake name accounts. He noted that some users received random ‘surveys’ with prompts to confirm or deny whether or not their friends were using pseudonyms. According to Franzen, “Facebook declined to specify the size of the survey,” and Facebook’s spokesperson noted that the company wasn’t “using the data” for “any specific action.” It should also be mentioned that other social networking sites such as Google+ have distanced themselves from restrictions on pseudonyms.

So, what does all mean? To be clear, this example is used not to falsify Fuchs’ argument. Rather, it is to sharpen the critique of ‘what is to be done,’ for those who agree with Fuchs. This oppositional behavior – to become ‘anonymous’ – in fact does nothing to withdraw them from the information economy of Facebook. Thus social actions remain the same, as does the informational collection of these actions. As Fuchs stated, studies are needed to “show how web 2.0 surveillance works, what its risks are, and what actions can be taken at the political level.”[4] Even being anonymous cannot hide you from these systems.

[1] Fuchs, Christian. 2011. “New Media, Web 2.0 and Surveillance”, in Sociology Compass, 5/2, 138

[2] Ibid, 138

[4] Fuchs, Christian. 2011. “New Media, Web 2.0 and Surveillance”, in Sociology Compass, 5/2, 145