Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Discussion: Should I shell out a hundred grand in cash to watch a museum guard slowly strip naked?

Today, this blog is one month old! Since its inception four short weeks ago, it has received over 6,800 pageviews from 76 countries across six continents (someone please donate laptops to the penguins in Antarctica), each post with more hits than the last. I see sixes and an eight. This is good. Thank you, lovely people, especially all the returning visitors and those who, astoundingly, spend more than half an hour on this site (hopefully that means you’re actually reading the posts and pages instead of stepping away from the computer to take an extended coffee break while forgetting to close this tab). Again, thank you. Make sure you share the love and point your friends in this direction!

In the last post, we discussed the many reasons for collecting art. In the same vein but less broad, let’s consider collecting art that is more ephemeral and/or conceptual. Newsweek (they of the hilariously misguided top 10 artists list) recently published a piece profiling collectors who purchase conceptual art, asking their readers if these buyers are “crazy or on the cutting edge.” An excerpt:

When you buy a [Lawrence] Weiner you don’t acquire the lettering itself, let alone the 3-D work it implies. You buy Weiner’s immaterial idea, as a certificate that lets you write his phrase in a room, or come up with the sculpture you think it describes. “When you take ownership, you can realize it any way you want,” says Victor Gisler, the Zurich dealer showing Weiner’s balls-y piece, priced at $160,000. In late June, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put a vintage piece of his on display as part of a major acquisition of so-called immaterial art. MoMA curators are eagerly backfilling a collection that has tended toward the material.

“I think good art is when I can hear the ideas bouncing off each other in my brain. This is where aesthetics are for me—not in my retina,” says Aaron, a 76-year-old lawyer who makes his living suing Big Pharma. “Ninety percent of the money [at Art Basel] is spent on painting,” he adds with a hint of contempt. Whereas the Levines want work that makes you wonder if it’s even art—and therefore might be the art that’s breaking new ground.

From the collectors who own the Tino Sehgal piece referenced in this post’s title:

“What’s interesting is people talking about the work,” says Josée. “You may think more about a Weiner [text piece], over time, than about some canvas you’ve bought… An idea may not be material, but it’s powerful.” She refers to her memory as the “medium” such works are realized in—and then you realize that that’s where most art lives, anyway, most of the time.
Her husband chimes in: “When the work is immaterial, we’re just its temporary holders. Accumulating fancy goods is absurd. We buy works to talk about them, and to stretch people’s notions of what art is… But some people want the opposite: a reassuring object with a big name.”

What do you think? Are these collectors ahead of the game, or are they being duped? Would you buy art you can’t simply hang on a wall?


  1. Personally, I would not buy art that is not material, as I enjoy the material aspect of it as much as the immaterial. Notwithstanding, paying for something immaterial is not a new, you are buying a concept an immaterial creation. Not so different to a service industry. If consultants can sell an immaterial commodity, why can't artists?

  2. That's an apt analogy, especially considering the commodification of art.

  3. hmmmm...


  4. This seems like the logical consequence of Reductivism, which has been a consistent thread in the practice of art for nearly a hundred years. Strip away the illusionism, the craftsmanship, and all the other "retinal" qualities of art, and pretty soon there's nothing left to chip away at but the materiality of it. Soon you're left with just the raw Intellectural Property, which is what one of the collectors profiled in this article (significantly, a lawyer by profession) has purchased. He now has the right to produce the sculpture described, should he wish to do so, and sell it as a work of the artist.

    I'm running into some of the same issues with my digital sculptures, although I've arrived at them through a Maximalist more than a Minimalist work-process. If I sell someone a file with all the data required to produce one of these pieces, I'm selling a similarly immaterial object. But if the customer uses that data-set to construct the sculpture, using a 3D printer, then we've more or less gone back to a conventional transaction, much like purchasing any material work of art. Is this commodification, or de-commodification of art? Is the art piece the data itself, or the thing made from the data? If they never build the piece, but just hold onto the data-set, can't owning it fulfill the function of posessing an art piece for them - stretching the definition of art, stimulating thought, or whatever?

    Andrew Werby

    PS: Congratulations on the first month of your blog, Jenny. It was certainly much easier posting a comment this time than the first time I tried.

  5. A very interesting connection to your digital sculptures, Andrew. There's always, it seems, an interplay between process and product.

    And those are great questions to further the discussion.

    PS: Thank you very much! Glad altering the formatting worked.

  6. Some of the most beautiful and hauntingly memorable shows I have seen recently have been ephemeral drawings. Temporary by nature but lasting indefinitely in memory.I think there is a need for these artists and their work to be supported, shown, and collected. Although they're not buyable as such, there is usually some form of documentation that helps support the artists and the making of work. Performance art is another example.

    In answer to the question, yes, if I had the money I would buy Weiner's balls, but I would probably go for a Richard Long first.

    Congratulations and best wishes on the blog!

  7. I agree, Adriane; I think performance is an important art form--and one that seems to generate much debate--and I try to include it in every show I curate. (However, at my shows, the performance artists have typically marked their pieces as "not for sale." To the performance / conceptual artists who are reading this, I would encourage you to explore the ways in which you can perpetuate and/or replicate your work.)

    And thank you so much!

  8. I suggest to compare the conceptual art with a classical music, the most
    abstract of all art forms.
    Most of the categories, discussed above, such as the definition of "art-not art", ownership, presentation, pricing, acquisition etc, will appear much clearer when one bears in mind the analogy with music.
    Also, it becomes inevitably obvious that there's no apparent need to bring the conceptual stuff into the museums, - it can be revealed and perceived elsewhere, just like the music (in churches, public parks, on-line, and so on)

  9. A good comparison, especially when music's consumption is considered; we purchase (or illegally download) and share music in the form of CDs, records, tapes, mp3s, and whatnot, all manners in which this ephemeral art form is "preserved," in a way. Continuing the likening of music to conceptual art, the latter, then, can also be preserved, shared, and consumed.

  10. Now, I'm not in a position to shell out the amounts of money you have mentioned, but I would shell out a couple of hundred euros for a piece of art that is purely conceptual and has no material representation.

    Which, in a way, is not possible, because the artist or gallery would have to write me an invoice for accounting purposes (tax evasion and such things). It might be digital, but there is always some form of documentation.

    As for the sharing aspect: There already are works in that direction, like some of Paolo Cirio's work, some of David Horvitz' work ... and I'm sure there is even more ... might be worth an article on it's own, actually. May I encourage you to write it? ;)

    Sorry, slightly OT:
    @andrew werby: Was it "Spook Country" in which William Gibson talks about this artist who recreates assasinations in 3D, which can only be viewed if your computer is in the vicinity of the actual location and are then shown on top of what you see in reality? I thought that this linking data to location is a brilliant concept for digital art that comes in form of files.

  11. Ha, thanks for the article suggestion, Tommi. I'll keep it in mind!

  12. RePost from LinkedIn:
    Conceptual Art is a con! Sorry but this is the same thing people whined about the impressionists when they first came around. Just like anything else there is good and Conceptual Art. But Conceptualism is not new nor should it be shocking that collectors will acquire these works.

    In your blog post you reference the artist Tino Sehgal. His work is Relational Art and needs to be experienced to really judge it. Just curious has anyone seen / experienced any of his works?

    I had the fortune to see his Guggenheim show in New York. It was one of the more poetic art experiences I have had. If I had the money I would love to collect his work.

  13. You don't consider Sehgal a conceptual artist, Harlan? I wouldn't really call his work relational, as it doesn't involve some sort of shared activity in which the audience collectively participates, e.g. Rirkrit Tiravanija's shared meals.

  14. I agree with Jenny. You can't summarize Sehgals work under the term relational aesthetics. It quiet different from Bourriauds theory. He produces intersubjective encounter between "actor" and "visitor". This Progress is kind of adaptable...

  15. The top notch among art for me must provide some intellectual challenge to the viewer, it MUST be attractive (do not confuse with decorative!) and make me laugh or at least entertain.

    We all know how hard it is to have all the above conditions met. That's the only art I would be interested in buying because everything else has little or no value to me at all...

  16. Art that meet all those criteria are definitely few and far between, Jan. Which makes the intellectually challenging, aesthetically appealing, and entertaining pieces all the more exciting to see.

  17. Wonderful, that means people like your writing, thanks a lot for the blog it had teach me a lot, thanks


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