Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why Someone Paid $12 Million for a Stuffed Shark

London, 1990. The advertising magnate and art patron Charles Saatchi is standing, incredulous, in front of a large glass case, inside which is the rotting head of a cow being slowly devoured by maggots. Saatchi promptly buys the work, entitled A Thousand Years, and then makes a blanket proposal to the artist. Saatchi is willing to foot the bill for anything Damien Hirst wants to make next.

What Hirst wanted to make next involved putting a fourteen-foot tiger shark in a large tank, pickling it in formaldehyde, and calling the whole thing The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. It cost Saatchi £50,000. Next, Hirst presented a cow and her calf, cut into pieces, and called it Mother and Child Divided, followed by Away from the Flock, which was a dead sheep in a tank.

The shark in the tank drew a predictable (and for the artist, desirable) level of outrage from art critics and the popular press alike. “No more interesting than a stuffed pike above a pub door,” said one critic. “50,000 pounds for fish without chips” screamed The Sun. Of course, the art world being what it is, the outrage soon turned to lavish praise, and Hirst won the Turner Prize in 1995 for Mother and Child Divided. That same year, the piece Two Fucking and Two Watching, which featured a rotting cow and bull, was banned by New York health authorities because of fears of “vomiting among the visitors.” Hirst has gone on to become one of the wealthiest men in Britain.

But there was a problem with the shark. Because it was not properly preserved, it soon changed color, got all wrinkled, and began to decompose, with the water in the tank going all murky. A year after he bought it, Saatchi’s curators decided to skin the shark and fix the skin over a fiberglass mold, though Hirst never liked the effect. When Saatchi sold the piece in 2004 to the American hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen, for US$8 million, Hirst offered to replace the shark. This time, he had the shark professionally preserved, with formaldehyde being injected into every cell in the new shark’s body.

While The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is no longer a scandal, the reconstituted version will cause a new problem for art critics: is it the same piece? That is, is the version of TPIODITMOSL that will take up residence in Steven Cohen’s home in Connecticut the same work of art Charles Saatchi purchased in 1992? And to confound things even further, what if—unbeknownst to Cohen, Hirst took the original shark, the one now stretched over a fiberglass mold, and put it in a separate tank. Which one would we call the “real,” “original,” or “authentic” work? Does the question even make sense?

This is a variation on a conundrum that has annoyed philosophers for centuries, and it is known as the Ship of Theseus problem, thanks to a story told by Plutarch in his Life of Theseus:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Is the ship that was preserved and renovated for years by the Athenians the same ship that brought Theseus back from Crete? Making things worse, a number of philosophers added the following embellishment to the debate. What if, unbeknownst to the Athenians, while they were gradually putting new planks in the ship, someone was collecting the old ones and using them to build a new ship? Which, if either, would we say is the real ship of Theseus?

The paradox works by tugging our intuitions in opposing directions. On the one hand, it seems that a thing is the sum of all of its properties and characteristics. If any of these properties change, then the object is, by definition, no longer the same thing, though it may be related in certain important ways to the prior object. This is what underlies Heraclitus’s famous argument that you can’t step in the same river twice, on the grounds that it is always flowing. For Heraclitus, everything flows, nothing is stable.

Yet this is at odds with how we tend to speak about things. As a rule, it seems that the following is true: in order for something to change, it has to remain the same. After all, how could we say that something had changed unless we assumed that it had somehow persevered and continued to exist as the same thing? Socrates had hair, then he went bald, but he remained Socrates. If I paint my fence, I don’t say that I got a new fence but that my old fence now has a new coat of paint.

The problem of the persistence of the individual through change is one of the fundamental problems in metaphysics, and, as is so often the case, Aristotle provides the best tools for getting a handle on things. He begins by noting that questions like “Is this the same ship as it was before we replaced all the planks?” or “Is this the same work of art before we replaced the shark?” are almost never intended in the strict Heraclitian sense. Rather, we usually qualify the question by asking, in what respects, or for what purposes, has the object remained the same?

What he is getting at is the idea that a judgment of identity is always just that: a judgment call, made in light of some analytical or practical intent. With respect to art, often we are not really worried about whether something is made out of the exact same materials, or even whether it has completely retained its previous shape or composition. Instead, what we want to know is whether it has the same expressive power that the artist intended and the same ability to evoke the desired aesthetic, intellectual, or even just emotional reaction in the audience--Indeed, this is pretty much the answer Hirst himself gave in an interview with The New York Times, when he acknowledged the problem: “Artists and conservators have different opinions about what’s important: the original artwork or the original intention. I come from a Conceptual art background, so I think it should be the intention. It’s the same piece. But the jury will be out for a long time.”

So just how much change can a work undergo before its expressive power becomes compromised? The trouble stems from the basic assumption of connoisseurship, namely, that the individuality of a work can be discerned from its form. But form can change. Works can be renovated and restored, they can be altered, painted over, and “improved” by overzealous or overambitious owners. Even the accretions of time can affect the form of a work, smoothing deliberately rough edges or dulling the original surface.

As much as possible, conservators try to preserve the original integrity of a work, but there are no rules about how much change is allowed, and of what sort. In some cases, historians concede that eventually the authenticity of a work becomes a matter of degrees, leaving us with a work that is half Rembrandt, or one-third Pollock. Further complications arise when we are forced to interpret the intentions of the restorer, as in the case of a painting by Egon Schiele that was bought through Christie’s in 1987 for £500,000. It was later discovered that more than 90 per cent of the work had been “overpainted” by someone who had followed the original design and used the original color scheme.

The case eventually went to court, where the judge ruled that overpainting a work, even a significant portion of it, is fine as long as the intention is to restore the original work. Yet when it was revealed that the conservator had traced over Schiele’s original mauve initials with black paint, the judge felt he had gone too far. This was seen as a deliberate attempt to deceive (by making it look like Schiele had signed the “restored” version) and Christie’s was ordered to refund the purchaser’s money.

A more interesting difficulty arises when the artist’s form is the presentation of a distinctive aesthetic effect, such as Mark Rothko’s resonant fields of color. Many of Rothko’s works, such as the Harvard Murals and his fourteen “blood red on red” paintings in the Houston Chapel, have changed color over time thanks to photochemical reactions in the pigments. In the case of the Harvard murals, the paintings have had to be taken down and put in storage, their authenticity seriously in question.

Yet even these hard cases don’t compare to the problems that arise when there is no “original” work at all, and when the expressive intentions of the creator are not just difficult, but downright impossible to discern.

Walter Benjamin is one of the more quietly interesting figures in 19th-century ideas. He was a Jew born in Berlin in 1892, and his literary career spanned little more than the decade leading up to the Second World War. He is most widely known for his affiliation with the group of neo-Marxist philosophers and critics known as the Frankfurt School, which included three of the biggest heavy weights of cultural theory: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Benjamin left for Paris. But as the Wehrmacht made its way toward the French capital in 1940, he fled once again, aiming to make his way first to Spain, then to Portugal, and from there to America. In August 1940, he obtained an entry visa to the United States, but for reasons that remain lost to history, he never made it. The best reconstruction of events suggests that he reached the town of Portbou, on the Spanish border in the Pyrenees. There, he appears to have committed suicide, probably taking an overdose of morphine.

Walter Benjamin left behind a large and eclectic body of work, the most important of which may turn out to be his massive (and unfinished) study of the Paris arcades of the nineteenth century The Arcades Project was not published until 1999, and scholars have only recently started giving it the attention it deserves. Yet there is one Walter Benjamin work that every student of philosophy, literature, or cultural studies knows inside and out, and that is his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Published in 1936, the essay remains the best statement of our intuitions about the meaning of art, while helping expose our anxieties about authenticity that began with photography and film and continue today in the rip/mix/bum culture of digital collage.

Benjamin argues that there is a straightforward answer to the question of what distinguishes an original work of art from the perfect copy, since even the perfect copy is lacking in one crucial element, namely, its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Only the original work has that unique history, has traced that particular wormhole through space-time. Two seemingly identical objects differ at least in the respect that they have different, unique pasts.

This sounds important and profound. But hang on a second: there’s nothing in the world so common as “uniqueness,” since everything that exists just is what it is, occupying its own particular place in the space-time continuum. By this measure, the most valuable and irreplaceable works in the world, such as the Mona Lisa, are no more “unique” than the cheesiest poker-dogs-on-velvet print. That is why for Benjamin, the sense of awe or veneration we have for an authentic relic or a work of art is captured by more than just its past.

What we value is its aura, which consists in the history and individuality of the object, insofar as it is embedded in what he calls the “fabric of a tradition.” That is, an authentic work of art is an object that was created at a certain time for a specific purpose. To sustain an aura of authenticity, a work of art has to have been involved in a sacred or quasi-sacred ritual function of some sort, such as in a magic or religious cult, or at the center of a community of worship. In secular cultures, the aura is preserved, in a slightly degenerate form, by what Benjamin calls “the cult of beauty,” the secularized but quasi-religious worship of ant for art’s sake. (This is the reason why art galleries are like churches, with the works curated like holy relics: the point is to preserve their aura.)

So to qualify as an authentic work of art, it is essential that it be connected in some way to a community and its rituals, and the further removed an object is from this ritual power, the more the aura withers. This is why Benjamin thought that the early-twentieth-century debate over whether photography and film are legitimate forms of art completely missed the point. The real issue was the way in which these had completely transformed the entire nature of art by dissolving the relationships within which the concept of the authentic work made sense. The two main solvents at work in the age of mechanical reproduction are massification and commodification.

With these new kind of artworks, of which there can be any number of functionally identical copies, the question of which is the original ceases to make any sense. Once the work is cut loose from its place in the rituals of a community, indeed from the need to be in a specific place and time, we see the rise of the simultaneous collective experience—when a movie opens “in cinemas everywhere,” everyone who sees it has the identical experience, across the city, even across the continent.

These new kinds of artworks also marked the transformation of art into a commodity, as it was pulled out of its primary role as part of a (quasi-) sacred ritual and turned(at best) into a vehicle for mass entertainment. At worst, art as a commodity ceases to be valued for its essential place in a living tradition and is turned into kitsch. This is the world of airport gift shops and tourist traps, of “authentic” African masks or Inuit soapstone carvings, the Disneyified paintings of Thomas Kinkade or the rural sentimentality of Andrew Wyeth. Forget the aura; this is the stuff that barely registers on the consciousness as “art” at all. By opening the door to art as a mass commodity, the age of mechanical reproduction created a crisis of authenticity in art.

In the age of secularized, commercialized, mass-marketed entertainment, what plays the role of the ritual in preserving the aura of the work is the artist’s life. Their past, their history, their lifestyle or persona is what provides the ballast that anchors the work in some sort of creative tradition or narrative, saving it from the frothy superficiality of mere commerce. That is why it matters more whether Avril Lavigne was a real skate punk than whether she wrote her own songs, and why we remain fascinated with the work of Andy Warhol, despite the fact that his whole artistic agenda was to blur the lines between commodities and art works. His life itself was a work of art, and when we buy a Warhol or apprehend one in a gallery, it is the aura of that life that we are appreciating.

One logical endpoint of this takes us to the world of contemporary art, where many of the works in and of themselves are so ludicrous in concept and so inept in execution that the old philistine war cry “My child could do that” is an insult to untalented children everywhere. But this objection misses the point, which is that the work itself is totally irrelevant. What is being sold is the artist himself, his persona or, better, his brand. And no contemporary artist has a better brand than Damien Hirst.

Shortly before the Wall Street crash in the fall of 2008, Sotheby’s of London auctioned off 223 of Hirst’s works. When the gavel finally fell on the last lot, Hirst was $200 million to the good, a record haul for an auction devoted to a single artist. Not all in the art world were impressed. The great critic Robert Hughes wrote a magnificently sour piece for The Guardian, in which he declared that the auction’s only remarkable aspect was that it revealed the huge gap between the prices for Hirst’s work and his actual talent. He called Hirst a “pirate” whose only skill is his ability to bluff and flatter the dumb, ignorant, and rich, and blamed him for almost single-handedly creating the cult of artist-as-celebrity. “The idea that there is some special magic attached to Hirst’s work that shoves it into the multi-million-pound realm is ludicrous,” he wrote.

But there is a special magic attached to Hirst’s work. That magic is the spectacularly successful brand known as Damien Hirst. And for those to whom the brand is successfully marketed—hedge fund types tycoons of all sorts, generally anyone else who happens to be cash-rich but taste-poor—it makes his products worth every cent.

In his book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, business professor Don Thompson observes that “there is almost nothing you can buy for 1 million that will generate as much status and recognition as a branded work of contemporary art.” As he says, some people think a Lamborghini is vulgar, and lots of people can afford yachts. But put a Damien Hirst dot painting on your wall and the reaction is, “Wow, isn’t that a Hirst?” The point is, Hirst is not selling art, he’s selling a cure for rich people with severe status anxiety. Hughes says of the shark, “One might as well get excited about seeing a dead halibut on a slab in Harrods’ food hall.” But snarkiness over sharkiness isn’t serious art criticism, and judging Hirst’s work by the criteria of technical skill, artistic vision, and emotional resonance is like complaining that the Nike swoosh is just a check mark.

The descent into the inanities of contemporary art is one natural consequence of the crisis of authenticity caused by mass reproduction of art, and it isn’t even obvious that this is the sort of result that would have bothered Walter Benjamin. He was certainly wary of how the mechanical reproduction of art pushed it into the service of mass and even totalitarian politics. At the same time, he saw that widespread access to art had a democratizing influence, taking its consumption and critical appreciation out of the hands of the power brokers and the elites.

Yet through it all, Benjamin was fully aware of how the production of art remained, for the most part, in the hands of the elites in no small measure because the new technologies of mass art, photography and film in particulars were expensive and technically sophisticated. The next revolution would not occur until artistic production itself was democratized, rendered cheap, accessible, and instantly transmissible, in the age of digital reproduction.

My iPod is packed with thousands of songs I’ve never listened to by bands whose names I don’t recognize. The hard drive of my laptop contains dozens of movies I’ve downloaded and never watched, and if all goes according to the pattern, I will soon have a Kindle or similar reader full of books I’ll never read by authors I don’t appreciate. I’m far from alone in this: in the age of digital reproduction, we treat art as a commodity—cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected.

The old cyberlibertarian slogan declared, “Information wants to be free,” but of course information doesn’t want to be anything. It is just a good like any other, subject to the usual laws of supply and demand. For centuries information was scarce, and the heavy demand for news, culture, art, and other “idea-laden” goods made them expensive. We now live in a topsy-turvy world of information abundance, where a glut of ideas is chasing an increasingly limited supply of demand, in the form of time or attention.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the rise of the “freeconomy.” This is a world where the marginal cost of producing another unit of culture—a song, a news story, a video—is approaching zero. This is the online digital economy that has been wreaking havoc with the business models of newspapers, magazines, and other enterprises that make a living by selling stuff made of ideas, now that those ideas can be copied at a marginal cost only a shade above zero. But one issue that has been somewhat neglected in that discussion is the effect of “free” on art itself, on the nature of aesthetic experience when the only expense is the time it takes to consume it.

In contrast with Walter Benjamin’s era, which saw the mass consumption of art that remained centrally produced, in the age of digital culture it is not just access to art that has been democratized, but its production as well. What we are seeing now is the fulfillrnent of the Rousseauian ideal of every individual as a creative spirit, as millions of amateurs flood the Internet with their own songs, videos, photographs, and stories. But when everyone is so busy creating, who has time to consume any of it? In an economy where what is scarce is attention, the spoils will go to the artist who is best able to command it, even if this requires some rather baroque or contrived setups to achieve. For example, when Moby released his latest album, he booked an entire spa for a day so that journalists could listen to his new album while getting a massage.

A more delightful example of the attention economy at work comes courtesy of a fan of indie folk hero Sufjan Stevens. In 2007, Stevens held a contest in which he awarded the rights to a new song, “The Lonely Man of Winter,” to a New York theater director named Alec Duff’. While Stevens gave him the unconditional right to do whatever he wanted with the song (destroy it, or use it to sell snowmobiles), most fans expected that Duffy would just put it online for all to hear. Instead, Duffy, decided that the only place anyone could hear the song would be in his living room. Sufjan Stevens fans now make pilgrimages to Duffy’s Brooklyn apartment, where he serves tea, plays the song a few times, and then sends them on their way with a bag of cookies, a tune they’ll never hear again already fading in their minds.

Can you see what is happening here? It is the return of the aura, of the unique and irreproducible artistic work. Across the artistic spectrum, we are starting to see a turn toward forms of aesthetic experience and production that by their nature can’t be digitized and thrown into the maw of the freeconomy. One aspect of this is the cultivation of deliberate scarcity, which is what Alec Duffy is doing with his listening sessions. Another is the recent hipster trend to treat the city as a playground—involving staged pillow fights in the financial district, silent raves on subways, or games of kick the can that span entire neighborhoods. This fascination with works that are transient, ephemeral participatory; and site-specific is part of the ongoing rehabilitation of the old idea of the unique, authentic work having an aura that makes it worthy of our profound respect. But in a reversal of Walter Benjamin’s analysis, the gain in deep artistic appreciation is balanced by a loss in egalitarian principle.

After all, not every Suflan Stevens fan can afford to fly to New York City just to hear a song, and not every musician can afford to rent a spa to curry favor with reviewers. It turns out that in the attention economy, a profound aesthetic experience becomes something that is free to those who can afford it or who have the necessary social connections, and very expensive to those who cannot.

The authenticity of a work of art is something that has always been seen as threatened by commercialization, but now it turns out that authenticity is something for which people are willing to spend great sums of money. The aura of meaning that comes from being embedded in the sacred rituals or ancient traditions of a community is an excellent selling proposition—something that has not escaped the attention of marketers and brand managers operating in every sector of the economy.

- Andrew Potter

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