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The Humanities and the Price of Gold


It’s by looking back that you can see the seriousness of the fever. At the time, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. Take that gold jewelry stashed away in the back of a drawer and turn it into money — big money. Inherited gold jewelry impossibly out of fashion could be sold for the value of its gold. No need to haggle about the artistic value, all that mattered was gold content. The trade value of the jewelry is simply the value of its gold.

On August 23, 2011 the price for an ounce of gold hit $1,913.50. That was an all-time high, and while the price has begun to decline, it remains at historically high levels. If you look at antique gold jewelry on eBay, you’ll see the prices have moved with the base price of gold. The collectibility of a work, its rareness, or even the acknowledged skill of the artist who created it — all these factors were overwhelmed by the spot value of gold as a commodity. During this period a lot of antique gold jewelry was melted down to create commodity gold bars or coins. Someone told me that in Hong Kong, the jewelry stores price their gold jewelry by adding up two figures, the first is the weight of the gold multiplied by the spot price, and the second represented the aesthetic value of the piece.

The relationship between form and matter becomes strangely clear when the value of the material destroys the unity of an object and creates a new commodity object — ostensibly one without any formal features. Gold, the commodity, doesn’t need to look like anything in particular. Although its usually given the shape of a brick for easy stacking and marked with its weight for easy price calculations. The material seems to shed its visible aesthetic appearance in favor its pure commodity value.


Gold shows us something important here, something that has some truth beyond the buying and selling of gold. I thought about the price of gold when reading some recent essays on the decline and fall of the Humanities in universities around the country. Certain kinds of math and science have taken on the qualities of gold in the University. A university education has always required the declaration of a major area of interest. And now we can easily assign a value to a diploma based on the degree to which it can be traded for employment that at minimum has the potential of paying back the student loans incurred in the process of attaining it. What was a university education has been disrupted by the spot value of one of its component parts.

As with objects made from gold, the university education is no longer a university education. They keep up appearances, but in many cases they’ve been reduced to their commodity value. The decline in the humanities is the process of melting down the aesthetic externalities to get at the pure gold bricks of the spot value of an education.

The humanities have a value, but not in this new object that has been created in the place of the university. Gold jewelry has a value, but not in the context of historically high spot prices for gold. The price of gold is falling, so it’s entirely possible that the old object could re-emerge out of the new object. But, of course, once you’ve melted down your great grandmother’s gold jewelry the damage is done.

Published in art artists capital culture desire difference economics markets money poetry