There are two big spheres of human action — private and public. In private, we look at contemporary art and wonder, not why people would buy it, but why they would accept it if it were given to them for nothing. But if a man wishes to pay $5 for a scribble to place on his wall…if he enjoys looking at it…so much the better.
But that, we believe, is such as great an exception as an honest senator. Much more often, a man buys a work of contemporary art to embellish his own opinion of himself as a hip and progressive fellow. Law, public relations, and consulting firms pay millions to place the most appallingly moronic things on their walls for the very same purpose — to advertise that they are “with it.”
We visited an odd collection outside Utrecht in Holland, a few weeks ago. In one forgettable work, a series of rocks were laid out upon the floor. There was nothing special about the rocks nor about their arrangement — they were spaced out evenly, in rows. Another great work — for it was worthy of a museum — showed us pieces of what looked as though it could have been old hemp rope, or a blond Rastafarian’s dreadlocks. There was no more to it.
Contemporary art rarely has any private value. No one looks at a contemporary portrait and fondly remembers a grandfather. No one looks at a contemporary landscape and dreams of his childhood. No one looks at a contemporary painting and feels the glory of Heaven or the majesty of Earth. Instead, they look at it and say: “What a clever idea.” Or, “What in the world is that supposed to mean?”
No one knows which bits of “art” are worth anything at all. A gimmick may catch on. Or it may not. If it does, the hustlers know they can make a lot of money on it; Cy Twombly’s silly scribbles just sold for $5.38 million. If it had not caught on, on the other hand, the thing would have been just thrown away. No one would get any value out of the thing on a purely private basis.
The problem art hustlers face is finding a way to describe the “art” in a way that makes it valuable. This was the task confronting the cataloguers when they put together last weeks’ sales at Christies and Sotheby’s.
Rome, a work by Thomas Demand is “a picture of an office that has been vandalized,” explained the International Herald Tribune report. But the catalogue found a way to dazzle buyers. “The strange physicality of the photograph’s subject is recognized as paper construction,” began the description. Some poor schmuck paid $176,000 for it.
The International Herald Tribune described Jeff Koon’s Bracelet, as “a painting which interprets the photograph of an outsized gold bracelet set against a shimmery pink backdrop.” But the catalogue promoter had another view: Bracelet, it explained, is about “sexuality”…”spirituality.” Some hopeful punter paid $2.24 million for it.
And of course, there were the old favorites, such as a 1961 drawing by Jasper Johns, in which, according to the International Herald Tribune account, “all the digits from zero to nine [are] on top of one another.” But the catalogue’s description — “Underpinning the pattern achieved is the fact that he has denied the validity of each separate number. They are no longer ‘readable.'” — helped bring the price up to $11 million.
What marvelous tomfoolery! We stand back in awe and admiration. For every man with a million bucks in his pocket, nature has given us an elegant scam to take it away from him.
• “Yes, I’m discouraged,” Jules, 16, began last night, almost bitterly. “I studied hard for that biology test and all I got was a D. Then, I worked hard on that English paper…and I only got a B—. It’s just not worth the effort. I work hard…I stay up late every night doing this work…and I don’t get anywhere. I’m sick of it. My school sucks. My teachers suck. My courses suck. From now on, I’m just going to do the minimum to get by. It just doesn’t matter and I just don’t care anyway.”
A parent has to reply. But he knows not what to say.
He took a shot. He gave him a version of our simpleminded Essentialist Philosophy:
“Jules, you can’t change your school. You can’t change your teachers. You can’t change your subjects. In fact, at this stage in the school year [Jules is in his last year of high school, preparing his college applications]…you can’t change anything but yourself.
“If you allow yourself to take this attitude, you’re going to feel bad about yourself as well as about everything else. You’ll feel bad partly because you’re getting bad grades…but more importantly because you’ll know that you’re not doing the right thing.
“Look, you don’t have any control over what grades you get. I mean, all you can do is to do your best. And keep a positive attitude about what you’re doing. That’s it. That’s all. That’s the whole enchilada. But if you do that, some sort of miracle happens. You feel better about what your doing. You feel better about yourself too — because, no matter what happens, you know that you’re doing the right thing — your best. That’s all you can do, after all. And somehow, someway…doing your best really does produce the results. Sure, there are setbacks…but somehow, the effect of a sustained effort over a long period of time…and a cheerful attitude towards what you are doing and the people around you…gets where you are going.”
“Hmmm…” said Jules doubtfully.
His father has his fingers crossed.
Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century.