Texts and reflections

Through the looking glass: what the metaverse reflects about the verse

Recently, there has been a lot of noise in the media about the astronomical prices reached by some crypto art works and the advantages introduced by the blockchain technologies in the distribution of works and the safeguarding of artist rights. 

Apart from the discussions around this specific market’s volatility and the haze of subsystems it is starting to generate, its emergence (or rather, its current normalisation) raises interesting challenges relating to established concepts and notions in the art system -the definition of the collection and its motivation, the role of galleries and the systems for the inclusion and exclusion of artworks-, through tools which, facilitating its commercialisation, are created precisely to get around the institutional network that feeds the hierarchies of traditional values. Though not aspiring to define each area in detail, what are the potential acquisitions and challenges associated with these propositions?

Generative tools, acquired by the use of computers, introduce an element of variability that has been experimented with since the sixties, with a pioneering Spanish example in the workshops of the Centro de Cálculo de la Universidad de Madrid, now Universidad Complutense, from 1968. The use of computer algorithms can also add a new dimension if, beyond the generation of multiple results, it converts the constant evolution of the piece and its unlimited “growth” into an essential part of the work. Additionally, the current means of interaction between artist and collector through a “connected" piece offer certain possibilities, already explored by some works such as Human One by Beepl, better known for having reached 69.5 million dollars at auction in 2021.

However, neither its material nature nor its reproduction entails substantial new questions. On the one hand, the challenges to the absence of a materiality have already been tried and tested in the proposals set forth by the dematerialisation of conceptual art at the end of the sixties. And perhaps excepting the absence of an original that is reproduced -since it is generated using a code rather than a matrix-, art with or in digital medium does not conceptually pose any challenge not already inherent to the works in an organically multiple format such as graphic art or all those deriving from the use of new media including photography or video. There is undoubtedly better distribution and, given there is no difference between the copies, they are all identical, if this is to be considered a value. But certain underlying issues in the approaches used in the most radical crypto art call for reflection on the perception, rather than the reality, of the art system.

Crypto art integrates many of the principles that drove the precedents aforementioned or their subsequent uses after the sixties: the democratisation of art practices also in the distribution of the work, seeking a decentralisation that was aimed to avoid the traditional institutions of validation and strengthen the artist’s individual capacity to control their work. On paper, the new media enables the realisation of many of these principles whereas fifty years ago they were rather a gesture or a mere denunciation. Their practical implementation, though still tentative, reveals far more about how the art system is perceived while their marketing is moving towards a normalisation that would rein in their radical dimension as it has contained the excesses of their precedents, turning remains into art works.

Crypto art is art in a digital format which includes a cryptographic token embedded in the code of the work itself in a unique and unalterable way, registered in a blockchain: a distributed notarial and, above all, accounting registration technology.

The token linked to the work’s code introduces digital scarcity whereby a digitally sourced asset has an immutable and permanently limited verifiable supply. That is, that something that is by nature multiple and freely circulating has a set number of “originals”, generating an artificial scarcity of assets considered “authentic”. Other assets with digital scarcity, such as Bitcoin, are also transferrable and capable of proving their scarcity, but the Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs) associated with the works of art are unique and indivisible as opposed to the fungible nature of the virtual currency.

The traditional definition of a collection (Pomian, 2003) describes a group of objects stripped of their usefulness or value, removed from the circuit of economic activity, contained in spaces specifically created for their protection and in display, whose purpose is to act as an intermediary between the visible and the invisible. The autonomy of the contemporary work of art, observed by Focault in Manet’s Olympia as the first work created for the museum, eludes the first of these requirements with works created specifically for a more or less normalised form of institutional recollection. This statute is shared by crypto art, whose exhibition in the new media does not essentially question their public availability. But the notion of digital scarcity of an asset which remains accessible introduces some novel elements.

Digital scarcity endows digital objects with a new authenticity that renders them collectable objects under the above-mentioned premises: the video of a basketball dunk becomes a collectible whose authenticity is verified by an NFT in a normalised system like any card series (FIFA World Cup™, for example). Thus, it becomes a rival good, an asset that can only be possessed and consumed by a single user (or a limited number of them). But, as digital objects embedded in digital media, it is still possible to access them in their original format, even if they now have an “owner”.

The dual nature of cultural heritage establishes that certain assets, due to their cultural, artistic or historical value, are subject to conditional ownership in order to preserve the general interest. In Spain, the Constitution guarantees this right of access to culture as a fundamental right. Works of crypto art maintain their public accessibility eluding the confinement of the work, the removal from economic and material circulation: the selfish seclusion imposed by a collector until an eventual classification as Cultural Heritage may rehabilitate some access.

In addition to this endowment of “scarcity”, the use of blockchain technologies also implies other potentialities not solely limited to digital assets. Blockchain technology establishes a shared (distributed), programmable ledger with cryptographic security. The system certifies, similarly to a notary, the authenticity of the object through a decentralised and transparent system which may be associated with different agreements between the parties involved in its transaction.

This component of transparent and public authentication and the possibilities of tracking any aspect agreed in the transaction render it a potentially useful tool for the real implementation of many traditional demands relating to the moral and economic rights of the artists. Blockchain may be used to register the private documents drawn up by galleries and artists in the first market enabling compliance of the droit de suivre that European legislation in general recognises or any additional clauses relating to exhibition conditions also included in the intellectual property laws, almost impossible to implement fully in reality. Although the absence of a specific market regulation may limit some applications, possibilities, such as shared ownership (a sort of participation in the work) are already being tested and it remains to be seen whether they will be accepted outside the still closed circle of the initiated.

These approaches turn the spotlight very relevantly on the commercial exchange of works, as an investment value, which may explain why the auction houses are the first art system players to engage in their trade. Deep down, aside the hyperportability of the “object”, the benefits of eluding third party mediation through these alternative and open accounting records that claim to avoid the asymmetry of the information, constitute validation systems solely subjected to the market interests. Not only is there an endeavour to avoid the traditional art galleries, whose dimension is reduced to mere sellers of merchandise, but also museums and academic institutions.

By trying to avoid museums, academia and galleries, it becomes clear that these institutions are not perceived as relevant in the transfer of capitals beyond the economic dimension. As Bourdieau states, it is naive to ignore the universal economic reductionism, but an exclusively economistic view excludes the specific efficacy of the social and cultural capitals and the transubstantiation of the value of money in these immaterial forms of capital, necessary in society as we know it. It is not only that the economic value of a piece is determined by its prestige and validation in the academic and museum circuits, but the elusion of these validation systems puts forward other types of exchanges in which art is reduced to a private experience in a closed circuit that replaces skin with code and knowledge with experience or mere consumption. Which is relevant, if we are still talking about art.

The reductive task of the gallery to a mere economic player, although fundamental, forgets their important role in the accompaniment and maintenance of a long career, as well as guidance in the process of constructing a collection discourse. The work of a museum, apart from acting as a deposit and its obligation to preserve, is to guarantee effective access to its collections: the mediation that establishes the physical relationship between the subject and the object, but also a mediation which provides with the tools for analysis, through discourses elaborated and re-elaborated at the academia. It is paradoxical and significant that many of the proposals being produced in the heart of the crypto art environment to avoid the hyperinflation of these works, for instance, include introducing a third party to curate the selections proposed by crypto art galleries... that already exist! Is this a challenge to the usual construction and selection role of “traditional” institutions or a desire to replace one value system by another?

The pandemic has once again brought the metaverse to the fore. Its previous developments linked more to leisure, had enabled recreations through which we bore the tense wait of confinement in a sort of pixeled reflection of the real world. The possibilities of these spaces largely remain to be explored, but it is perhaps worth reflecting on how their current establishment, beyond their function as an instrumental alternative in recent months, may also respond to a change in relationship models, going from the universal to the individual. 

These new models substitute the transaction in the plaza -a market, but also an agora: the community’s natural place of bond and negotiation-, with private experiences from the domestic intimacy of our screens. Consoles we use to inhabit spaces that reassert identity, guaranteed by algorithms, constituting atomised communities in a multiplication of encapsulated public spaces very far removed from the assumptions of universality that constitute the founding values of European society. In this specific realm, the notions articulated by the recollections of the traditional museums, on this side of the looking-glass. On the other, it is almost impossible not to imagine the pipe smoke of a new Cheshire cat who very smilingly wishes us to live in interesting times.

Rocio Gracia Ipiña holds a PhD in Art History. She is adjunct professor at the Universidad Complutense (Madrid) and a visiting lecturer at the School of Architecture of Universidad de Navarra (Pamplona).

For further reading…

Pomian’s definition of collection (“The collection: between the visible and the invisible”) along with other interesting classic reflections on collecting can be found in Susan Pearce’s work, Interpreting Objects and Collections, Routledge, 2003. Baudrillard’s reflection is from 1968 in “A Marginal System: Collecting” in El sistema de los objetos, Siglo XXI, 2010 and Foucault reflects on Olympia in relation to the work by Flaubert in a prologue to The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

On crypto art, the definitions and current discussions and applications of the Blockchain technologies in relation to art or the creative industries can be read in Amy Whitaker, “Art and Blockchain. A Primer, History, and Taxonomy of Blockchain Use Cases in the Arts”, Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts, vol. 8, no. 2, summer 2019 and her collaboration with Lauren van Haaften-Schick in “From the Artist’s Contract to the blockchain ledger: new forms of artists’ funding using equity and resale royalties” in Journal for Cultural Economics, 2022. In “Crypto Art: A Decentralized View” by M. Franceschet, G. Colavizza; T. Smith; B. Finucane; M. Lukas Ostachowski; S. Scalet; J. Perkins; J. Morgan and S. Hernández, a multifaceted view of the state of the issue including crypto art artists, collectors and galleries, in Leonardo, no. 54 (4), 2021. Finally, Rachel O’Dwyer analyses the implications of digital scarcity in “Limited edition: Producing artificial scarcity for digital art on the blockchain and its implications for the cultural industries”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol. 26(4), 2020.

Texts and reflections History

The Spanish art sector has been calling for stronger measures to stimulate cultural “patronage” (mecenazgo) for decades, a patronage seen as a manna from heaven with the power to cure all the ills of national art: the precariousness, the lack of international impact, even the quality of its proposals. Although in reality, patronage is not actually what they’re referring to and that, perhaps, is part of the problem.

Law 49/2002 on incentives for the stimuli of activities of general interest, termed as “patronage” in its title, normalised this confusion between two actions that protect and enable the normal development of culture and art, but with very different interests: philanthropy, aimed at the common good and patronage, of an entirely personal interest, which nonetheless forms the economic backbone of the art sector through collecting.  

Philanthropy, that “call to service as an operative sentiment that goes beyond obligation and duty” (Pérez Diaz, 2000) is an essential tool for civic participation in the construction and configuration of society, to which it responds and serves selflessly. Its actions have evolved from the former charity organisations prior to the social State, including culture in addition to social care and education to the list of needs to be met to ensure a civic, free and democratic existence for the citizen. The object of its interest is, therefore, to complement and diversify the State’s action, with the possibility of expanding the needs that society establishes as basic for its development and harmony.

In patronage however, according to the Spanish definition of mecenazgo -the protection dispensed to a cultural, artistic or scientific activity of the arts- dark private passions are at play. The form of patronage of interest to us here, collecting, is a speculative exercise comprising the construction of the identity of the subject who collects through the objects collected. It is nonetheless important to remember that this selfish (and somewhat onanistic) activity is also the source of much of our public happiness, not only through the constitution of privately owned museums and foundations, but because many of our major public collections derive from the legacy, gifting or donation of these assets, which turning lead into gold, transform the individual interest in general in its openness through social projects.

Moreover, collecting is a source of regular and continuous income for artists, sustaining and extending the sector from its grass roots, with particular and meaningful importance for contemporary creation. This traditional task of collecting, an intermediate space between the emergence and the consolidation of the museum, was largely blurred in Spain by the proliferation in the nineties of municipal and regional institutions which in the years of the boundless budgets led us to believe that modernity was necessarily public, disfiguring the economy of a sector that in leaner years saw its supplies cut off.

A study in 2006 highlighted the ambivalent perception of philanthropy in Spain, acknowledged as a social virtue that promotes civic values but perceived to be absent in the framework of citizen coexistence. Perhaps the ambivalence of this perception was due to the fact that all that is expected of the rich person and the business person is for them to contribute to the common good by paying the bill but without participating in the choice of menu. And as for the collector, such frivolity!, let them donate their tithe to the museum and pay for the inauguration banquet, we know far better how to spend it...

This fiduciary view limits and drains the fundamental function and content of philanthropy in a democratic society, which is to participate in its construction. Furthermore, it inhibits the very stimulus to collect which forms an essential part of the normal exchange and development of art, in the same way that contact with their public and the promotion and sale of their works is essential to a writer or a musician. Artists need the contrast and validation imposed by collecting and the projection guaranteed by international collecting: it is not merely a question of subsistence, but of the critical and competitive development of their practise and the possibilities that open up beyond the occasional institutional commission.

The culture sector, as well as the third sector, need to extend the measures aimed at stimulating philanthropy, not only for its financing but also to foster an independence of the political comings and goings and their episodic and occasionally artificial ideological interests, by diversifying and extending the subjects of general interest of a plural society. And the art sector needs, moreover, measures to stimulate patronage that include and perceive it as a fundamental part of the machinery and development of creation, both because the collector is an active agent in the dialogue with the artist and because it constitutes their main, diversified and plural economic support.

Rocio Gracia Ipiña is Phd in History of Art, associate lecturer at UCM (Madrid) and a visiting lecturer at the School of Architecture at UNAV (Pamplona).

For further reading…

The quote by Victor Pérez Díaz is from his paper “Sociedad Civil, esfera pública y esfera privada. Tejido social y asociaciones en España en el quicio entre dos milenios”. The study referred to, El sector no lucrativo en España, directed by Ruíz Olabuenaga, was published by Fundación BBVA and is available here.

Hostility to the audience is one of the key coordinates of modernism, and artists may be classified according to its wit, style, and depth. […] For through it is waged an ideological conflict about values —of art, of the lifestyles that surround it, of the social matrix in which both are set. […] By cultivating an audience through hostility, the avant-garde gave it the opportunity to transcend insult (second nature to business people) and exercise revenge (also a second nature). The weapon of revenge is selection. Rejection, according to the classic scenario, feeds the artist’s masochism sense of injustice and rage. […] One negative exchange is basic: the artist tries to sell the collector on his obtuseness and crassness —easily projected on anyone material enough to want something— and the collector encourages the artist to exhibit his irresponsibility. Once the artist is assigned the marginal role of the self-destructive child, he can be alienated from the art he produces. His radical notions are interpreted as the bad manners expected from superior tradesmen. Brian O’Doherty, “Context as content” originally published in Artforum, November 1976, vol. 15, no. 3. Quote from Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space, University of California Press, 1999, pp.73-74.

In the mid-seventies Brian O’Doherty described the traditional relationship between the artist and their public (in reality, the collector) as an inevitable confrontation in which both play roles assigned by their rebel status, on the one hand, and obtuse materialism on the other. For him, as the text goes on to reflect, this bond consists of an ongoing “stress test” of the social order through radical artist proposals destined to failure given the reigning comprehension processes of an art system that “has evolved to barter success for ideological anesthesia”. A hostility that has undergone a transformation since the postmodern era in which O’Doherty was writing, when his condition as public was determined by irony and farse as the exhibition space was no longer that intermediate limbo between the artist studio and the bourgeois salon but, in our understanding, a self-sufficient exhibition space no longer in need of foreign bodies: the institutionalised art space in which the artworks do not aspire to transit, and risk ending up in the scrapyard.

O’Doherty’s revelation in the seventies was to discover the connotations of the white cube, comparing this liberating conscience to an act that falls apart revealing the trick, with the risk of cynicism undermining the excitement. In a connoted space “the wall becomes a membrane through which esthetic and commercial values osmotically exchange [...] The walls assimilate; the art discharges.” The art system of the nineteen forties he is referring to, is the market-dominated populous and changing context, while his, in the seventies, is marked by a series of institutions that have expanded their field of action to the present, in which the noisy party dance has morphed into an elegant pas a deux between the artist and the museum. Institutionalised art is a practise that is conscious, and even critical of the market processes, is not dependent on anyone, allowing it to entirely commit itself to its ultimate fulfilment: art for art's sake. An art with a public unbiased by mercantile intents and therefore filled with genuine interest, a public that no longer possesses (or possesses by proxy), that is pure intelligence as opposed to these empty “businessman” figures whose sole notion of art is tainted by greed.

The vision of the homo economicus hovers over his interpretation. It became popular in the early seventies in the financial pages of The New York Times, where O'Doherty was an art critic, when Milton Friedman denied that companies had any responsibility other than making profits. This was a theory already refuted back then by those who conceived the company as an entity with a necessary capacity for social responsibility and response. However, it is also tinged with a conception that takes us back to the Romantic somnambulism of an artist who, in search of the “pure monologue”, must refuse to please their public. Romanticism initiated this hostility towards the public in the same moment in which they demanded themselves to be contemporaries, elevating above the mundane to observe with a degree of depth impossible at ground level. Thus, the artist, forced to look constantly into the abyss of the present, cannot allow themselves any other reflection than that of their own ego, a public yet to comeand those select few who are an extension of oneself: the happy few who share their vantage point, neophytes and accomplices in the practise of seeking and dictating the future from the present.

To complete their lofty task, the Romantics needed to free themselves of the world, freeing themselves of its inhabitants in the process. Sensing the hostility of the public, the painters demanded state support in the 19th century, asserting that the recently conquered freedom through the market was not satisfactory to the majority, in addition to being random. Art, they claimed from their truth as initiates, must not be a luxury subjected to the capricious taste of individual fortunes: the State must protect it.  With time, this argument would serve to drive the creation of museums of living artists, renovating the now public state patronage. And it also serves to build an absolutist kingdom in the museum, where the art system is conceived from a public State perspective and is therefore for the public… but without the public. The audience is however granted the possibility of sublimation through insult, that is, only if it agrees to its role of ignorant and vulgar materialist.

To a degree, the new institutionalism constitutes the ultimate fulfilment of this promise of art freed from the mundane, that responds to nobody but itself, based on a relational practise —art of prospective futures based on collectivised presents. A practise based on the traditional acknowledgement of artistic production as the space in which man can relate to the world through the aesthetic object. This new space grants a sovereign artist laboratory conditions for the correct experience of their work: limited entry (natural selection) and trick cards generated by rules set unequivocally by the artist in games in which the spectator was invited to participate. In relational art, the public is the very material of the art, the body of work: the workforce. The art in these exhibition spaces is delivered to the public, which relates through it, but cannot negotiate the rules of play as the conditions for a dialogue among equalsare not established. This conversation, absent from the exhibition rooms, does take place in the commercial galleries, far from the sterilised museum test tubes, in spaces with street doors that also let in the pollution and noise from the outside. There, art is forced to confront its discourse because the collector’s selection issues a judgement not to be ignored. It is a space for discovery, like the museum, but also a space for exchange: a space in which these bodies are present and cannot be neglected.

Both parties form an art system that shapes the artistic value based on the close and necessary interdependence between museum and market. In this system, the market becomes an element of contrast and proportion in the validation, working as a necessary counterweight of verification beyond the collusion of the happy few. A healthy market allows for diversity of proposals and a strong institution the positioning and foundation of its own values.

This relationship between the artist and the collector, which for Brian O’Doherty is the negotiation “between principles and money”, constitutes a zone he defines as “militarised” in which the confrontation is conflict. Thus, he saw Duchamp’s gesture in 1938 of suspending coal bags from the ceiling of the exhibition space as an act of belligerent hostility towards the public. And again when four years later, in addition to converting the room into a giant spider’s web, he also paid two children to bother the audience of an exhibition. Duchamp’s action certainly succeeded in bothering the contemplative view of art but what it sought to alter were the art works of his colleagues rather than a spectator perhaps already familiar with prounenraums and merzbaus. In Duchamp it is not the public that becomes the material of the work but rather the art itself and its practitioners. What the Frenchman proposes is a space for contemporary art that is not of passive contemplation: it is a mental battlefield that challenges us to look like we have never looked before at what we would have never looked at.

The bourgeois that Duchamp aimed to scandalise was not the public but the art system that he so often hijacked. Because, in reality, Duchamp’s discomfort was never with the market, which he renounced as an artist, but in which he participated as a dealer: his relationship with collecting was based on complicity and fulfilment. Because his collector was a guest at the adult table, with the capacity to respond: a participant spectator with a privileged access.

Duchamp measured the relationship with the public with the “art coefficient” that mediated, in the subconscious experience of creation, the leap from intention to realisation, refined “as pure sugar from molasses” by the spectator, who ultimately determined the aesthetic value of the work. The creative act, according to Duchamp, does not solely pertain to the artist: the spectator completes the work by bringing it intothe world, deciphering and interpreting it through its revelation, by exposing it to light. It is therefore a spectator who addresses the artist in the present and grants them meaning, allowing posterity a final verdict that must also rehabilitate forgotten souls. Art is the subject that looks at us and the object we construct by looking at it: a two-way relationship that the collector can indulge completely, ending with the appropriation a process of projection and substitution in this materiality. Selection not as vengeance, as O’Doherty sees it, but as the consummation of a dialectic process in which the collector completes the work through possession as the ultimate form of (re)interpretation.

Walter Arensberg —friend, ally and great collector of Duchamp, along with his wife Louise—, was one of those spectators present in the artist’s present. On Duchamp’s instruction, he would finish With Hidden Noise in 1916, introducing an object unknown to the artist into a ball of twine pressed between two brass plates. The noise made by this object when it hits the metal plates provides the music for the transubstantiation of the inert matter into a work of art through the action of a new spectator. It is in this shared authorship that hostility becomes a requirement, turning instead in confidence and transforming the artist’s solipsism into productive dialogue.

Rocio Gracia Ipiña holds a PhD in Art History. She is adjunct professor at the Universidad Complutense (Madrid) and a visiting lecturer at the School of Architecture of Universidad de Navarra (Pamplona).
For further reading…
The quotes by Brian O’Doherty are from “Context as content” in Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space, University of California Press, 1999 (pp.73-74). The article by Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits”, was published in the New York Times on September 13th, 1970 and Guillermo Solana speaks of the romantic somnambulism in “El romanticismo francés. El monólogo absoluto”, Historia de las ideas estéticas y de las teorías artísticas contemporáneas, vol. I, La Balsa de la Medusa, 2000, pp. 303-317.
In the article by Karin Orchard in Tate Papers (“Kurt Schwitters: Reconstructions of the Merzbau” no. 8, 2007) there are numerous images and a brief introduction to the merz spaces conceived by Schwitters between 1927 and 1937 and the 2010 reconstruction of the proun room (pronenraum) by El Lissitzky in 1923 can be viewed on the MoMA website.
David Hopkins speaks of Duchamp’s installations of 1200 Bags of Coal and Mile of String in“Duchamp, Childhood, Work and Play: The Vernissage for First Papers of Surrealism, New York, 1942”, in Tate Papers (no. 22, 2014). Marcel Duchamp’s conference “The Creative Act” from 1957 was recorded by Aspen Magazine in 1967 (November, no. 5+6) and it is at Ubuweb. To recall the trajectory and life (a work in itself) of Duchamp, it is always a pleasure to return to Calvin Tomkins whose book Duchamp: A Biography of 1996 was reviewed and re-published by MoMA in 2014.

Companies with Culture: Grupo Huarte, three postcards and some quotes

I do in fact believe that in the coming, critical years for Spain, and for the business and economic world, we will either join the ranks of those countries capable of standing alone, though modestly, or be added to the endless list of nations in need of guardianship, and to a large extent this will be determined by the drive of the entrepreneurial mechanism as a whole and, therefore, the psychological motivations that feed it. Juan Huarte, “Open letter” in the edition of Arquitectura magazine dedicated to Félix Huarte, deceased on April 12th, 1971.

A reflection that is both gloss and call to arms, written by Juan Huarte on the death of his father, about the essential role companies need to play in the critical period Spain was going through at the time, with a glimpse of tentative democracy mentioned only in whispers as that time in the future when it will be possible to choose one political system or another.

At this time of serious reflection, spurred by his loss, he encouraged modernising the notion of company, arguing that as part of civil society it must be a driver of change, going beyond the profit-driven dogma, that simplifies and defines the complex business world. To that end, Huarte continued, the Economic Theory was already suggesting more in-depth approaches through sociological studies on their real motivations, for a true understanding of their authentic conduct as part of a system.

The man in the machine

First postcard: While in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) the robot is about to supplant Maria and promote discord, on the set, the actress who animates both Maria and the robot has removed part of her armour, suffocating from heat, and is assisted to drink from a straw. "Brigitte Helm in Metropolis sips on a Drink in Between Takes" by Erthstore.

In contrast to the idea of the company as a machine, operated for a single purpose and according to the sole direction of an inexistent economic man, the idea of a company as a complex entity, a living web of individuals that bring it to life and whose interests, in cooperation or conflict, contribute to its functioning and development, was already taking shape in the seventies. This was the philosophy behind Juan Huarte’s words when he spoke of the profound psychology of the business world, that which includes human motivations and enables a company to be seen as a social construct, an association of people, wills and skills to fulfil a set of purposes. A company that knows all those involved in its operations and acknowledges its dependence on them and may, therefore, commit to processes of responsibility and response that structurally radiate the principles and values of the organisation to all areas of the company.

… it is an exemplary company in terms of the team spirit of brotherhood pervading it, not only within the construction Company, but within the entire Huarte structure and all of its parts.

It is something that admires the predominant spirit in this sector, that many may find negative because it is a family spirit, but I consider it a good legacy. (Jose Antonio Corrales and Ramón Vázquez Molezún).

While hierarchical and market exchanges certainly do take place in a company, so do other affective logics that are not necessarily rational or determined by the organisation. And it is these logics above all that make up the particular “atmosphere” of each organisation, forming unique characters that constitute a singular and distinctive culture. This familiarity that the architects Corrales and Molezún recognised in Grupo Huarte comes through in the tone and contents of the magazine H-Noticias, created by and for the employees, the first edition of which is dedicated to the personal success story of the patriarch, Don Félix, as the founding myth. The company culture motivates routines and resolves concerns, requires engagement and a consistent conduct and, as a result, delivers meaning. A construction of a meaning that in Grupo Huarte was largely based on the values of its founder, to whom his son attributes three innate traits: guileless ingenuousness, an enormous enchantment ability and huge respect and support for the value of individuals.

The maker

Second postcard: A full-page black and white photograph. In the foreground, a children's playground and, behind a barrier of bushes, an imposing building of rounded shapes rises above the dull, small buildings nearby. Torres Blancas rises in a dystopian snowy landscape like a science fiction dream: a building full of seemingly "wasted" accessory and curved spaces and large landscaped balconies that open to the outside. A building designed for other efficiencies, conceived for the inhabitants of a world that does not yet exist. These images of Torres Blancas under a snowfall illustrate Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oíza's text "Elogio del constructor" (pp. 44-45) in the magazine Arquitectura del COAM, issue 154, October 1971.

The definition of ingenuous in the Spanish dictionary, “born free and has not lost his freedom”, serves Juan Huarte to draw a comparison between the businessman and the artist, who share a journey in which imagination and a vocation for specific things overlap. The businessman, like the artist, is a man of action who only heeds his own inner voice and for whom external factors are overcome solely with their own creative force. An upright doing, as a maker (“hacedor”) as defined by the architect Sáez de Oíza,

…the makers of things are those who from the dark solitude of their dream, but even more so their office of doing, feed the continuous fabric of human progress, unlimited progress, to give feet to change, brakes to the sea or wings to the wind. 

… the figure of the man who executes, makes things happen, enables the dream.

An authentic identity mirroring that of a company is thus described, the expressive dimensions of which produce enormous activity, in this case. A deployment that is always born of the purely entrepreneurial and spreads, occasionally also with an entrepreneurial expression, to cultural projects in very different fields. The magazine, H-Noticias, dedicated its contents to this sphere of interests bound to its main business model, architecture and engineering, in which Grupo Huarte and the family also offered patronage, decisively supporting the new languages of architecture through commissions of outstanding architects such as Sáenz de Oíza, Jose Antonio Coderch, Fernando Higueras or Corrales and Molezún. Architects of their own lives in their dwellings, and also makers in that new world promoted by the magazine Nueva Forma by Juan Daniel Fullaondo, with the patronage of the Huartes, supporting research into new techniques and materials to foster the drive towards industrialisation and the integration of the arts into industrial design. All echoing those early vanguardist ideas that also led to the creation of the company Muebles H, for the production of designer furniture to renew the old-fashioned everyday context of a Spain under a dictatorship.

An active patronage says Ramírez de Lucas, implemented in their lifetime, with a view to acting in the present through that enchantment capacity that multiplied both his interests and his business, as Juan Huarte explains

… this innate psychological characteristic is what explains the birth and style of Grupo H. Today, Huarte is not just a construction company, but an industrial group comprising forty-five companies and almost 15,000 collaborators, operating in sectors as diverse as precision mobile mechanics, steel transformation, paper and packaging, foreign trade or food.

An enchantment capacity observed in its music patronage, that begins on a local and individual level delving into the unexplored and producing some of the most interesting episodes of Spain’s recent culture. Hence, the initial support of the traditional choral society, the Orfeón de Pamplona, is completed with its sponsorship of the Chair of Gregorian Chant in the city’s Conservatory and later on support of the Alea group, founded in 1963 by Luis de Pablo as an experimental laboratory and centre for the promotion of contemporary music and non-western music types while also promoting creation by commissioning compositions from contemporary musicians. This line of action culminated with the commission to Luis de Pablo and the artist Jose Luis Alexanco of the Encuentros de Pamplona in 1972, an international meeting of creators paying homage to the patriarch, marked by an extreme modernity that would change the atmosphere and streets of their city just a few days before the Sanfermines festival with the same collective spirit.

Company methods based on a transfer and feedback that, according to Corrales and Molezún, include

…all forms of development, research centres and a whole series of things, deriving from construction, that require an elasticity and independence all of their own, from the economic to the professional sphere.

An engagement that affects the material execution and the company organisation and seeks to change the context through a form of patronage that expresses the will of all those profoundly concerned with the present and engaged with the future of the society they live in. Thus, the interests of both the family and Grupo extended to meet the needs of contemporary authors by founding the publishing house Editorial Alfaguara in 1964, under the first direction of Camilo José Cela, and creating the film production company X Films, under the direction of Jorge Grau, driving experimental film production together with pieces by artists such as Basterretxea, Sistiaga and Oteiza. And their unwavering support of contemporary art, both with the individual collections of all family members and through the support of public spaces, such as the Sala Negra with Fernández del Amo, director of a precarious Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo, allowing him to focus also on informal art, building the structure for art to play its role in the modernisation of the country.

The sense of the common good

Third postcard: In the last images of a documentary, three elderly men talk on top of a hill on a cold morning. They chat while pointing to the landscape with an evident complicity, the result of an old acquaintance. They are Juan Huarte, Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oíza and Jorge Oteiza outside the workshop of the latter. Elderly and with awkward movements but with a steely gaze, they turn to the Navarrese landscape where the last project that brings them together, the Oteiza Foundation in Alzuza, will soon be built. The documentary was screened at the ICO Foundation's exhibition, Sáenz de Oíza: Artes y Oficios, 2020.

A company like Grupo Huarte knows it forms part of a broader structure, with the capacity to impact the society it operates in and seeks a central role in social construction. A company with culture, the individual decision to adopt certain behaviours that make up a collective identity of relationships and bonds. An identity that other companies cultivate with their own version of this vision which, based on the beliefs and values develops internally, and the organisation may choose to convert into an ideology.

All we see is the tip of the iceberg, its outer aspects, those manifested in actions and artefacts, such as the brand or corporate identity, expressed in the resulting cultural phenomena that include its philanthropic actions (social or cultural) or acts of patronage as an art collection, that reflect those corporate or social behaviours deriving from a relationship that sets its course by both its own interest in and its belonging to the group.

…its profound respect and support for the values of others […], that deep psychological characteristic is what explains the birth and style of Grupo H.

This has been rendered possible solely by that capacity to collaborate and foster the value of very different men, which would also explain how the Grupo’s collaboration, following in the style of its creators in fields other than the industrial, such as the Visual Arts, Architecture, Music, etc., is built on that profound and sustained support of specific figures, a support that enables them to take off and give wings to their work and their own personality.

Certainly, the exceptional nature of the names heading up all the undertakings mentioned reflects the last trait Juan attributes to his father and, therefore, the company organisation. The belief in individuals but also a value that goes further, in that inventor capacity the critic Santiago Amón attributes to Félix Huarte, capable of discovering in the ordinary a whole universe, or better still, a fertile corner in which to approach and penetrate the universal coherence that serves as a foundation for things and relations.

In this increasingly complex world, says Juan Huarte, everyday doings are in close interdependence with the functioning of the system as a whole, and each day is decided on the basis of that interdependence. In this world, Santiago Amón’s  businessman inventor is capable of finding meaning precisely in the heart of the collective fabric because the inventor exists alongside the intellectuals, the artist, the traveller… all of hem men in possession of both common sense and a sense of the common good.   An inventor of new circumstances with the vision to intuit, in advance,

…the stimulus that, in other dimensions of human activity and in line with a new collective conscience, demanded new forms of action, creation, invention. […]

He was a protagonist of life, man and creator on everyday ground, his own master, possessed of common sense […] He made the logic of the experience that lights up the discovery of things his own with his hunch for its first and remote brilliance, his profound sense.

The businessman as an inventor who is rooted in the common, to build on that “respect and support for the value of individuals” who by necessity must be the primary virtue of those who know that in the particular angle (from this, that, this, that and that point of view) of the universe lies the formula for its discovery, its comprehension.

Rocio Gracia Ipiña holds a PhD in Art History. She is adjunct professor at the Universidad Complutense (Madrid) and a visiting lecturer at the School of Architecture of Universidad de Navarra (Pamplona).

For further reading…

All references in the text are taken from the Arquitectura magazine, num. 154, edited by COAM, published in October 1971 in homage to Félix Huarte. The full version is available for consultation here, as are the rest of the magazine’s back editions. Quotes are included from the “Open letter” from Juan Huarte (pg. 8-9), from Carmen Castro’s interview of Jose Antonio Corrales and Ramón Vázquez Molezún (“Los arquitectos critican sus obras”, pg. 25-30); the “Elogio del constructor” by Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oíza (pg. 44-45), the reflection on patronage by Juan Ramírez de Lucas (“Los Huarte: Un mecenazgo activo en la vida española”, pg. 84-92) and Santiago Amón’s beautiful reflection on the common based on the figure of the businessman in “Requiem por un inventor” (pg. 72-77).

This sense of the common good in economics can be expanded on in the book by Jean Tirol, Economics for the Common Good, published by Princeton University Press in 2017. And to complete the discovery and analysis of these psychological motivations that feed the company, Human Foundations of Management. Understanding the 'Homo Humanus'

We like to believe that we collect for sense and sensibility reasons but we also collect to be able to close the door to our homes and plunge, Uncle Scrooge style, into the swimming-pool filled with the coins of our passions. We collect to learn to live and die, because we yearn to form part of something bigger than our own capacities and because the great beyond demands a hope chest composed over time with great care.

We collect in an endeavour to understand and understand ourselves. As children, we gather dishevelled pigeon feathers, rounded river pebbles and seashells from the beach. We stored our marbles in a bag and, in the privacy of our rooms, spread them out on the floor to contemplate their differences -petrol blue, cat eyes, galaxies…-, we remembered which sweet shop we bought some in and when we won others, maybe even from whom. Baudrillard tells us that we materialise “every desire, plan, need, every passion and relation” in the objects of our collections.

We collect to surround ourselves with things that stimulate our minds and our senses, and to enjoy them in private. Like Uncle Scrooge, we collect to be able to dive into our possessions/passions and enjoy them in private at the end of the day. It is not enough to see them in museums, to leave them among the shelves and boxes of the old-man bookshops, the junk dealer’s or the antiquarian’s; we do not want them to remain on display in the galleries and if they must be returned to their packing cases, let these rest in our attics. Possession is a big part of collecting because we need to take these objects out of circulation and enclose them in our mental space to endow them with a unique and different coherence of which only we are the meaning.

We collect to overcome our own expiry and insignificance; because a collection in which only we see the meaning works the miracle of giving us not only a better life but also a better death. Admission to a good party always requires payment and in the end, it is not that different to negotiating with Cerberus, Xoloitzcuintle or Saint Peter: the advance transactions for the care of souls also withdrew assets from circulation, placing them in the care of mortmain, “dead hands”, in exchange for intercession. Thus, charities were equipped in the same way that sepulchres and tombs were filled with the most exquisite treasures and even humans as possessions, that the dead would ultimately take to the great beyond, or rather, the grieving sacrificed from the here and now. A sort of squandering similar to that in which Bataille detected the production of a value that removes us from the merely material and returns dignity to us through a transcendental act of giving.  The very nature of the gift makes retribution obligatory and not in kind but in love, including acknowledgement. The pursuit of a pre-eminence also signals a desire for belonging: I want to see myself in your eyes that see me. And there is no doubt that the foundations and some collections do award other life, saving us from death by oblivion and granting us a better life in the memory of others. Maybe even an improvement in the afterlife, who knows. The Mellons and Rockefellers, Lázaro Galdiano, Maria Josefa Huarte or Placido Arango know it. Patricia Sandretto and José María Lafuente sense it.

And we also collect because we long to participate in the creation process, to go beyond contemplation. Because we do not conform to the role of mere spectators and endeavour to create by delegation, as Marina says. Any contemporary art collector knows this, those who visit the galleries because they know that there, they see the art in process with the artists present. And speaking. Contemporary art is the best collection of who we are, in all our circumstances, glory and misery, here and now, because it speaks to us, through the “eternal language of art”, using words that only we can discern all the nuances of. Collecting contemporary art is vertigo, like the theatre where things smell, the floor creaks and we hear the actors breathe: a front row seat in the making of the future heritage.

We collect, in short, because we are alive and want to stay that way, even when we are dead. Because, despite the difficulties, crises, and pandemics, we do not want our lives to be reduced to the solely physiological and material. And because we need to look in a mirror that reflects the thousand images of what we are back at us.

Rocio Gracia Ipiña holds a PhD in Art History. She is an adjunct professor at the Universidad Complutense (Madrid) and visiting lecturer at the School of Architecture of the Universidad de Navarra (Pamplona).

For further reading…

The article by Marina and references to Bataille on the theory of “the gift” by Mauss, taken from Pardo, are collected in the Cuadernos de Arte y Mecenazgo of the Fundación La Caixa, the fourth edition of which, “Los cauces de la generosidad. Ensayos histórico-críticos sobre los fundamentos del mecenazgo” was edited by Professor Calvo Serraller. It contains reflections on the ethical and philosophical implications of collecting and philanthropy with texts by the art historian himself and the philosophers Victoria Camps, José Antonio Marina and José Luis Pardo. All editions of Cuadernos can be downloaded here.

The quotes by Baudrillard are from “A Marginal System: Collecting” in The System of Objects (1968). Many of the reflections on collecting that inspired this text directly or indirectly, are based on his theories from which they also stem those of Krzysztof Pomian, Susan Stewart, James Clifford and Susan Pearce, who edited an interesting compilation in 1994 in Routledge, that included the above-mentioned authors, in Interpreting Objects and Collections.

In this section we will share past and present texts, news, analysis, personal and foreign experiences and other complicities.

The first contribution to this section is an excerpt from the short text in which Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) speaks about book collection and the ceaseless and futile longing of the collector in trying to complete and apprehend a collection.

  • I am unpacking my library.  Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of the crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood - it is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation- which these books arouse in a genuine collector. For such man is speaking to you, and on closer scrutiny he proves to be speaking about himself. Would it not be presumptuous of me if, in order to appear convincingly obejctive and down-to-earth, I enumerated for you the main sections or prize pieces of a library, if I presented you with their history or even their usefulness to a writer? I, for one, have in mind something less obscure, something more palpable than that; what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of  a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection...

    Excerpt from: Walter Benjamin. Illuminations. Essays and Reflections, Unpacking My Library. Talk about Book Collecting. Schocken, 1969