Thursday, May 16, 2019

Valueless Art

There is a crew of the usual suspects going on and on about Art Institutions taking dirty money (and, no, Mr. Smith, it's not just a handful of irrelevancies) and scoring victories here and there. Nobody takes Sackler money any more because of OxyContin, and Photo London (whatever that is) cut ties with the Kingdom of Brunei because, whoa, it turns out they're terrible people, who knew?

Accusations are flying that this is mere window dressing, because if you dig down you find other tainted sources of money, and so on.

All this strikes me as terribly naive. Any pile of, say, a million dollars and up, is going to have quite a bit of blood on it. If you're running some institution, festival, contest, whatever, that requires more than about $10/year to operate, you're going to be running it on dirty money. The trouble isn't that these institutions are not adequately vetting their donors, the trouble is that money is generally pretty messy.

The usual woke suspects have not yet realized that you can dig anywhere, in any direction, and find something to complain about in any source of money. This is not to suggest that the complaints are not legitimate, of course they are. Billionaires are odious people.

Berger wrote in 1969 about the history of Revolutionary Art. It turns out that some of the Art designed to critique Capital and The Wealthy turned out to be rare and valuable. The Wealthy bought it up with gusto, because the point is to own valuable objects. The fact that the artifacts revile their owners is of literally no consequence. Indeed, it's probably a little delicious. If you made a limited edition of T-shirts with Swarovski crystals on the collar, the words EAT THE RICH on the front and a picture of a guillotine on the back, and sold them for $1200 a pop, wealthy socialites would wear the shit out of them.

Money is tainted. And. Money validates the artist. This reaches down to the lowest levels of Art. Suppose you get a book deal with someone fancy, you pony up your $10,000 or $20,000 and you get an edition of 400 sumptuous volumes made, priced attractively at 40 euros each. This validates the artist, because it is a real object, heavy, and while not particularly expensive, it is being offered for sale for real money. A cast of minions have worked on the thing, significant amounts of money have been pushed around. It's real. The artist has accomplished some sort of success, albeit limited. If you look closely, some of the money probably had someone's blood on it.

My solution, which dovetails perfectly with the two facts that (1) my art isn't very good, and that (2) I cannot bother to go try to drum up an audience for it, is to make art that has no cash value. Work that is infinitely, cheaply, reproducible manages to escape the clutches of Capital fairly thoroughly. The Wealthy don't want it, it's neither rare not expensive. Any peasant can bang out of a copy for himself, that's no good.

Photography, by its very nature, fits into this model beautifully. Indeed, it is quite painful to make photography into a Rare and Expensive object, and always ends up being a bit of a scam. Gursky may sell his enormous rare prints for a few million a pop, but paintings (which are actually rare, rather than pretend rare) sell for an order of magnitude more.

I propose going the other way. Make your pictures small and as close to free as possible. Give them away.



  1. This has been going on since the first cave painter learned his|her|they patron was a serial rapist and part-time cannibal.

    1. Indeed.

      As my thesis adviser would frequently write in the margins of my various drafts: "Has this a point?"

  2. "I propose going the other way. Make your pictures small and as close to free as possible. Give them away."

    I do already: I publish large images online that anyone is free to look at and download without compensation to me or anyone else. (I have not owned a color printer in years.) And no verbiage to obfuscate.

    Happy I am.

    1. T., Profligatographer, Your Name Here, etc., etc.,

      You're a very fine photographer, IMHO, but I do wish you'd settle on a single ID... It's very confusing for us simple-minded folk!

      But, yes, of all content, photography wants to be free quite badly. Perhaps not as much as the bloviations of bloggers, but getting there...