The Art Of Selling Art

Preface: My eleventh to thirteenth grade art teacher, Mr. Ciolek, is a very talented, kind individual who has taught many a hopeless case how to paint and draw beyond their wildest expectations. Just thought I’d get that out before I start.

And now a few thoughts about that bane of society, that great misfortune which has befallen the 21st century, so-called “modern art”:

Meet my nemesis. Readers, say hello to Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. Pretentious piece of crap, say hello to my readers. Bottle Rack is what is known as a readymade. The more observant ones among you may have noticed that it also happens to be, well, a bottle rack. Readymades are a great way for artists, and I use the term very loosely here, to make a fuckton of money. You take a piece of equipment –  lampshade, fork, bathtub, toothbrush, used condom, pretty much anything will do –  sign your name on it and then sell it for a truckload of money. The beauty is that you can go into a shop, buy more of the same item, and rinse and repeat until you are filthy rich. That’s pretty much what Marcel Duchamp seems to have thought when he came up with his idea for Bottle Rack, which is nowadays considered to be the first “purebred” readymade.

Here’s how it went: In 1915 Duchamp wrote a letter to his sister in which he gave her instructions on how to dispose of the inventory of his studio in Paris. He mentions the old bottle rack and tells her to sign it in his name and sell it. Marcel, really, too cheap to sign your own signature? But the trend was born. Bottle racks, bathtubs, chairs… you name it.

And that was the beginning of the end for 20th century art: the readymade. Suddenly it was no longer important if you could paint or draw or work stone. It was enough now to own a pencil and a few bucks (or buckets) and to know where the nearest home improvement store was. Born was a movement that would spawn Beuys’ Fat Chair and Man Ray’s Indestructible Object and ultimately also Damien Hirst’s Pickled Shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. (No, I’m not dismissing the damage done by the gradual movement from realism to abstract art that happened in painting and sculpture around the same time, but that’s a different story.)

Why have I got a problem with this? Mhm… let me see.

It all started in twelfth grade, in art class to be precise. We’re doing presentations on a selection of important styles, movements and works. And one of those is the readymade; to be more specific, Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. I knew it then, I know it now, it’s the day I meet my nemesis. A turning point in early 20th century art. I suffer through the presentation. All I want to do is shout: Why is this art? Why? I don’t get it. Didn’t then, don’t now.

Christoph Ciolek, our teacher, does. His eyes are glowing, he is truly riveted: Rembrandt, van Gogh, Picasso – they are all forgotten in the face of the glory and artistic talent residing in the person of Marcel Duchamp. After the presentation he announces – quite proudly, as if he expects us to burst into spontaneous applause – that our next art project will be to produce a readymade. The rules are simple: create a work of art based on an everyday object that you alter slightly. Find meaning in the mundane. Be artistic and deep, philosophical even. Be… artsy.

At this point I briefly consider killing myself. The urge deepens as I see how all my classmates actually do burst into spontaneous applause. (The reason for this becomes clear after class, when they discuss how to achieve the best results with the least amount of effort – buying and re-painting IKEA furniture is fairly high up on the list.)

Four weeks pass and the time of the project presentation draws neigh. Everyone is terribly busy being pleased with themselves.

And here they come:

1. A lamp (IKEA), its lampshade plastered with Subway napkins. It apparently symbolizes how fast food takes away our knowledge (enlightenment, get it?) of what’s healthy and what’s not.

2. A table (IKEA), with one leg sawed off, which is all about the instability of our upcoming student lives.

3. My own rather uninspired shoe that has a plaster copy of the sole of my foot stuck to it. I didn’t bother coming up with an explanation, so Mr. Ciolek does it for me. It is, apparently, about getting back in touch with nature after being coddled by technology for too long. Interesting, didn’t realize that.

4. A few teacups with plants in them. No idea what they were about, probably something to do with child labour in India.

5. The only good one, a toy gun manipulated to look like a flying dove… which is dismissed as too dreamy. I weep, despite the good grade that I got for my shoe.

What I take away from this class are two things: knowing how to approach an empty sheet of paper and that a true artist can sell anything, as long as he manages to keep a straight face. And that is after all what a lot of modern art is about. None of these people are good at anything. Many of them, just like Marcel Duchamp in 1915, don’t even touch their art personally, they pay other people to create art for them (yes, Damian, I’m talking to you, now put that skull down and be embarrassed like a good kid). Art is about doing the newest, most unthinkable things until these revolutionary ideas have actually become standard. Then you keep doing them and just pretend to be revolutionary. It’s all about keeping a straight face, love. When have you last seen a modern artist put effort into something? I can’t find the quote right now, but I believe it was Pablo Picasso who once said that in order to paint like a child one must first learn to paint like an adult. And you can see that he was good. There’s talent in all those abstract and cubist paintings. Some of his pencil drawings are spectacular. With a lot of his contemporaries and those who came after I’m not so sure of that. I’m not just talking about readymades anymore. I’m talking about how art just went down the drain in the 20th century. Just look at this guy, Alexej von Jawlensky, a particular favorite of mine. Notice how anything he made after 1919 looks kind of the same and… shit. The head to the left is one of about twenty virtually identical pictures that he did around 1930. Needless to say that they’re all considered timeless classics. One story among many. Here’s another one: Mark “fields-of-color” Rothko. An abstract expressionist. What was he trying to express, I wonder? Maybe that he really liked colored boxes. You know what Jonas calls these? Wallpaper. Ugly wallpaper. Where are the Rembrands and the Van Goghs and the da Vincis? Why can’t anyone just paint a landscape anymore? Because that would be boring, profane, old-school. Hell, it would almost be like actually dealing with the world that we live in. Can’t have that. Art has become afraid of saying anything other than: life is shit, nothing is certain and I’m not sure if the universe actually exists, what’s this “science” thing you speak of. Art isn’t dealing with life anymore. I don’t usually make political statements on this blog, but I assume that this decay in the meaning of art is also to a large part due to the fact that art has become nothing more than an investment opportunity, a toy, for the super-rich. Art sells for as much as never before. Art has become almost akin to stock options. To be sold and bartered and kept until it’s worth a few millions more. This gives us works such as this one: For the Love of God, by Damian Hirst. A platinum cast of a genuine 18th century human skull, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. It sold for 50 million British pounds. I can’t even begin to say how wrong or pretentious this is. (Although, for some reason, the thing my minds keeps coming back to is this: Why an 18th-century skull?) And Damian Hirst didn’t even touch the bloody thing.

And that is what I realized that day in art class. If you can only keep a straight face and come up with a really, really good story, then you can sell anything. Or maybe an art critic will be nice enough to come up with a story for you. Like with my shoe. Or like Gertrude Stein did for an understandably baffled Picasso:

Those who attempt to explain a picture are on the wrong track most of the time. Gertrude Stein, overjoyed, told me some time ago that she had finally understood what my picture represented: three musicians. It was a still-life!

But that, I fear, is a story for another blog post. Critics, be it of paintings, movies, or literature, are a subject I’m also keen to write about. For now I merely ask: Whatever happened to works like this one? Or maybe the one below. That I’d put up in our living room.

11 thoughts on “The Art Of Selling Art

  1. As someone whose viewpoint can be summed up with the old adage “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”, I find it extremely encouraging to hear this viewpoint expressed by an ACTUAL artist. Nearly every time I have expressed any form of disdain for or even confusion about any form of “abstract art”, I have been laughed at and dismissed as simply being too closed-minded or too obtuse to be able to appreciate the true meaning underneath. An example I frequently refer to is one I still remember seeing decades ago at our local museum. It was a large, metal, perfect black square, with smaller metal perfect black squares protruding from it in a 4×4 grid, all even and symmetrical (clearly created by a machine), except the bottom right one was painted blue. I never understood how this was supposed to be art. When I look at a detailed landscape or still life I could spend hours looking at all the colors, and marvel at the artistry involved in creating it. When looking at the “piece” I just described, the whole work is laid bare at a quick glance, and I feel nothing, and there’s nothing to ruminate about except “how could anyone possibly consider this art”?

    I took some music courses in college, and I feel like I had some similar experiences to what you had in your art classes. One of my professors was positively enamored with John Cage and Philip Glass. To him, these two were clearly avant garde geniuses who had left all other musicians in history behind in the dust. To me, every single “piece” I was exposed to was extremely unpleasant to listen to. One of Cage’s more famous and endlessly-talked about pieces consists of around 4 minutes of total silence. To me, calling silence music is absolute nonsense, akin to calling an empty picture frame a painting, or an empty pedestal a sculpture (which I’ve no doubt have probably been done by now). But apparently the idea that music should be pleasant to listen to (or able to be listened to at all) is ignorant and closed-minded, so I just kept my mouth shut, and eventually stopped going to class.

    To this day, I tell people these stories and am amlost universally met with derision at clearly not being able to understand “true art”. It is quite heartening to hear similar sentiments from someone I consider a “true artist”. I came to your site today at the prompting of your hubby, to wish you a happy birthday and express my appreciation for the work you’ve done on the Lands of Dream. Your art is beautiful and magical, drawing me fully into the Lands of Dream and making me want to stay there forever. And if that isn’t what art is supposed to do, I don’t know what is. Thank you a thousand times!

  2. I don’t think “mainstream” is a bad thing in general. I think the internet makes publishing of most kinds of art very easy and if you are lucky you reach the people who are not satisfied with mainstream output and like your creations. If you are very lucky you get them to pay for it. I don’t mean you should throw away your ideals, I wouldn’t do it by myself. I write what I like to write even if only a small amount of people want to read it but I don’t have to make a living of it (although it would be great to could do so).
    I don’t see a way to change the perception of art and culture in general without increasing education and rising awareness for it. Nevertheless we won’t get rich people to pay for art on which they can’t benefit financially because they are only interested in art why they can benefit financially of it. We have to make things for people who are interested in art because they benefit emotionally or intellectual of it.

  3. I think I misunderstood some of your explanations, sorry.
    Although I think readymades are not the problem we should deal with (I don’t think they are a problem anyway). A big problem is that politicians (and some other parts of society) think they don’t need to invest in culture. The newest case of insanity was announced yesterday for north rhine-westphalia where archaeology won’t get funding after 2015. It’s crazy and not in a good way. Society should be aware that culture is its foundation and not some thing it could save money from when it runs short!

    Communism is another topic which we could discuss even longer but I think we should leave it now 😉

  4. “That’s also right but you don’t get any rich douchebag to pay for real people’s art by posting on the internet. You can get money from rich douchebags by doing things for rich douchebags (like skulls with an obscene amount of diamonds glued to it) but you would betray your ideals.”

    Ideals are a tricky thing. Being poor is not a political position or a cultural statement, nor is it conductive to the production of art. In many ways, the idealisation of non-mainstream/outsider art serves to maintain the status quo by creating a pressure valve. It suggests that the mainstream is *inherently* bad/unartistic/etc., thus placing the focus on creating new categories and groups rather than fighting for fundamental change.

    Thus for many the solution to “this painting is beautiful, but its subject matter is imperialist” is not to paint beautiful paintings with better ideas, but to stick a chair on a podium and call it art, while imperialism lives on.

  5. I think you misunderstand me. I don’t think the value of art is measured by how much people pay for it. Neither do I think that only people who make money off their work are artists. Both is as far from what I think as you can get without using a boat (or a space rocket).
    But both Anna Anthropy and Jonas are struggling to make a living, and that is a reflection of how only certain types of art are valued by, to put it bluntly, rich people. And there are certain trends in society that seem to dismiss a) art that is (and I’m being awfully general and vague here, I know) meaningful and b) art that doesn’t have financial success. Meaningful is scary and so the critics are afraid to write about it and the public stays away because it gives them headaches. And you would be surprised how often we’ve heard lines like “if you don’t make any money you can’t be awfully good now, can you?”.
    And no, I don’t expect to change the world by writing about the “evil” of modern art on my blog. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to write about it or that I might not make one or two people think.
    Lastly: I’m familiar with the idea of a basic income gurarantee and I don’t think it is a particularly bad one. A revolution, preferably a communist one, would be better, but if we can’t have that, then something like “Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen” might be a nice start.

  6. 1. That’s right but has nothing to do with the quality of a piece of art itself. What you wrote earlier would mean the quality of art depends on the bank account of the artist. This is not true.
    2. It depends on where you look. I think phenomena like street art, poetry slams, independent game making and other things are new ways of artsy expression by real people for real people (look at Anna Anthropy or your husband!). It doesn’t bother me that Banksy makes much money. He was lucky to make something rich douchebags hype for a while.
    3. That’s also right but you don’t get any rich douchebag to pay for real people’s art by posting on the internet. You can get money from rich douchebags by doing things for rich douchebags (like skulls with an obscene amount of diamonds glued to it) but you would betray your ideals.
    History is full of artists which are born privileged or being very poor. That’s not a new phenomenon. If you don’t like the way it is you have to support ideas like basic income guarantee (called “Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen” in germany) or alternative payment models like crowdfunding (what you obviously do by starting one with your husband) or Flattr. These ways are not perfect but they are everything we have right now.

  7. Several points:

    1. I do think it matters who makes how much from their art, since it defines what we value as a society and who gets to survive as an artist and who doesn’t.
    2. Has art improved? Have we actually learned something? Readymades and the like set out to challenge our understanding of what is art, but instead they have replaced art.
    3. “To do better” isn’t always possible in a world that is dominated by this limited understanding of art. Artists need to be able to live, whether or not they make money off their art is significant. Criticism and analysis are important steps towards changing that.

  8. Well, rich douchebags are not interested in art but in financial investments, that’s why they are rich douchebags.
    When we were taught about Duchamp and Dada at school our teacher wasn’t looking for a deeper meaning in readymades (I think most of them have none). She only asked us why they are treated as art and pointed us to the social and cultural context they were created in. I’m a fan of some ideas of Erwin Wurm but I would never ever pay thousands of dollars for his art (even if I had some money). We shouldn’t tie our understanding of art on whether or not today’s artists could take profit on it. Also: Artists like Henry Moore barely touched their big sculptures but they are still art for me.
    I think the only way to deal with this is to do it better, to make things for people and try to touch them by expressing ourselves. Being grumpy doesn’t make it any better.

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