Buying the Concept of Art

Pablo Picasso 1962

Image via Wikipedia

Since I have taught Aesthetics since 1994, little that occurs in the strange world of art surprises me. One of the more recent trends is the selling of the ideas of artists, as opposed to the selling of an actual work of art. For example, Lawrence Weiner put a $160,000 price tag on his idea  of “2 Metal Balls + 2 Metal Rings (Set Down in the Groove).” For the $160,000 you do not get any balls, rings or a groove. Rather, you would receive a certificate that permits you to write the phrase in a room or create/commission the sculpture that you think it happens to describe.

Works, if that term can be used, were also sold by Sol LeWitt before his death. While he did create art objects, he also created “works” that were just vague instructions for creating a piece. For example, “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.”

Tino Sehgal tops both DeWitt and Weiner. Sehgal does not even offer a certificate or set of instructions, he apparently just makes odd things occur and permits no recording of the event. These “works” are sold for cash in front of witnesses, but no documentation is provided. One of his “works”, which was purchased for around $100,000 is the concept of a museum security guard slowly undressing. Naturally, the money does not buy an actual security guard or an undressing, merely the concept as put forth by Sehgal.

On the face of it, this sort of art seems to be either an amazing scam or a profound, but sincere, delusion (or perhaps something else). First, the “art” described does not seem to amount to anything that would seem to actually be worthy of being regarded as art. At the very least, it surely cannot be regarded as meaningful or significant. As proof,  I can easily create something on par with Weiner’s “art”, such as “three wooden cubes and six ceramic hoops, placed within a depression.” For those who think what Weiner does is art, they can prove it by offering to buy my work, bargain priced at $1,600. In the case of Sehgal, there seems to be nothing artistic about a museum guard undressing. After all, they presumably do that at the end of the day anyway and, of course, strippers have been doing that sort of “art” for quite some time (and for far less money). Second, even if these things are art, the prices seem clearly absurd for what the purchaser acquires. The concept of a museum guard stripping down hardly seems worth $100,000. For those who think so, I would gladly sell the concept of a philosopher stripping down for $1,000. I’ll even top Sehgal by providing a certificate of authenticity.

That said, an argument can be made that this sort of art is, in fact art.

Imagine, if you will, that you have found a Picasso in your attic. You make arrangements to auction it and then get a thrill as the bids escalate ever upwards. But, then the dream is shattered. The multi-million dollar painting turns out to have been done by your uncle rather than Picasso. True, it is brilliantly done and, the experts agreed (before finding it to be a fake) that it was better than all of Picasso’s other works. But, since it was done by Uncle Ted and not Picasso, it is only worth $10.

But, in a strange turn of events, you find what seems to be a duplicate of the painting in your attic and the experts confirm that this was painted by Picasso, who happened to have copied Uncle Ted’s painting for fun. This painting sells for millions, since it is deemed a genuine Picasso. As a small joke, you donate Uncle Ted’s painting to the museum that buys Picasso’s painting and ask them to display them side by side. When no one is watching, you switch the labels and are amused to see how people react.

If this intuition play has merit, what makes the difference between the two works is nothing about the works, but rather about who created the work. That is, the Picasso painting is great and valuable because it was by Picasso while the other painting is lacking in value because it was done by Uncle Ted. As such, what is being sold is not so much a work of art but the artist who created the work. If this is true, then the artists who sell their concepts are being treated essentially the same way that other artists are being treated: what matters is not what is being sold, but who created it. The work itself, one might claim, is not particularly relevant.

Another argument that can be used is based on analogy to the sale of other ideas, such as patents. When a company or person buys a patent, they are not buying a specific widget, gizmo or even a specific piece of paper. Rather, what is is being bought is the concept that has been patented. Such concepts can be very valuable indeed. Likewise, when someone buys the concept of an artist, they are doing the same sort of thing. Of course, patents generally tend to provide something useful that required some actual thought and effort to create and the value of a patent generally depends on what can be done with it, as opposed to what name merely happens to be associated with it.

Overall, I regard the sale of these “art” concepts as either a brilliant scam or a sincere delusion (possibly both). But, perhaps I would change my mind if someone bought my great work, “Philosopher Undressing.”

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16 Comments.

  1. I saw a Lawrence Weiner artwork at MOMA recently (and write about it in my next tpm column). It was called “Gloss white lacquer, sprayed for 2 minutes at 40lb pressure directly.” Basically, a splat of paint on the museum floor. The amusing thing is that they had to have a guard stand next to it full time so no one would accidentally step on it. So–a splat, but treated like the Mona Lisa. The thing is, the incongruity was really fun and interesting. We talked about it for a long time and came up without our own Weinerian projects. Mine is “pile of cheerios poured on floor with nearby box.”

  2. s. wallerstein

    Some people have an enviable ability to convince others that
    what they have to say or what they produce (as art) is special or valuable, when by normal standards, it isn’t.

    There are, as you say, artists who sell their ideas for more than
    many people earn in 10 years.

    There are political and economic gurus who pontificate and earn fortunes with ideas and theories that I or my mother ( age 94) could tell them free of charge.

    What is the secret? I do not know.

    Maybe there’s a gene which convinces others that one is special or that one’s ideas are especially creative.

    I lack that gene, sadly.

  3. it seems a bit foolish to buy vague art concepts, after all most art is theft. but modern art has become more conceptual in recent years less about aesthic in my opinion. art has become less of an expression of beuaty but rather an expression of some concept. modern art intends to destroy beauty and uses art as a language that is ussaually misunderstood. ideas can be copyrighted like patents as you said i just think that because the artists ideas sound a bit foolish and absurd, thier ideas dont deserve such value.

  4. Although I see what you’re getting at, the thought-experiment leads to some problems. The fact that Picasso was copying off of Ted, and everybody finds out, makes Ted’s work interesting for Picasso admirers. This will make them of comparable worth.

    Also, the idea that something is “art” should not be conflated with the idea that something is valuable. Art is about presentation, not value.

  5. My contribution to this debate is my *idea* of my contribution to this debate:

    Two paragraphs about aesthetic objectivity, a lengthy argument concerning the expansiveness of an artwork in spacetime, and an inappropriate concluding witticism impugning the virtue of Whistler’s Mother.

  6. Love your discussion of the problems with this approach to art. The “concepts” are far too easy to come up with and don’t seem to contribute anything to the experiences we associate with the aesthetic.

    Not sold on this column going into the Picasso/Uncle Ted example, though. It’s thoughtful, but it veers toward the concept of justice – are we treating the work appropriately? The artist? – and whether or not our concept salesman is being treated justly by us.

    What I wanted to see treated is something along the lines of “how did the experts determine Uncle Ted’s work was better than Picasso’s?” Every art movement seems to have some sense of “standard” associated with it, and the standards that define one movement can clash violently with the standards that define another. The Fauves probably would not find life easy in a Vienna dominated by Rococo. So the issue for me is whether the concept salesman has caught on to something that really is beyond our ken, which we’ll only appreciate much, much later.

    I think that line of inquiry generates some obvious answers – the concept salesman resembles one making a bad joke more than an artist challenging our way of looking at things. But it does force us to ask how the Impressionists and the Academy ever coexisted, how aesthetic modes of viewing evolve.

  7. Generally speaking it is best not to think too much about money when it comes to art. People buy and sell art for all sort of reasons that are nothing to do with the art itself. The art market is very much something apart from art, just as the market in a company’s shares often has nothing to do with its day to day operations. In both cases, the market can distract attention from what is really going on. Unless you are actually looking to buy an artwork there is no reason to worry about its cost when you see it in a gallery.

    Of course, the artists are interested in the art market. They depend on it for income but it probably seems as weird and baffling to them as it does to us. Artists are spend a lot of time trying to work out what the limits of art are and one way of probing the boundary is to see what you can persuade an art dealer to pay for. The money is nice too, of course. Other artists, push the other way and deliberately try to make art that is as unsaleable as possible. Land art, public murals, performance art and process art are all examples of this. Whatever the success or failure of the art in other ways, its attempts to make itself unsaleable tend to fail. There is always some way to get a secondary artefact of the art into a gallery and then sell that.

    Purely conceptual works of the sort discussed here should really be impossible to sell no matter how good they are as artworks. Such a conceptual work exists only as an idea. If it is put up for sale then the artist must say what that idea is. Many may attend the auction but only one bidder can win. Even so, all at the auction, and all who read about it, will take away a copy of the idea/artwork in their minds that is no less perfect than the copy in the mind of the successful bidder. In fact, there is every possibility that some will have understood the concept better than the person who has paid for it.

    Ideas are information and information can be infinitely and perfectly replicated. We acknowledge the creator of the idea but it is hard to see how an idea can be bought and sold as a commodity or protected if it is ever exhibited. It could be argued that every person who goes to an art gallery and sees a work of conceptual art, and understands the idea, walks out of the gallery with a stolen copy of the work in their heads. Of course, most conceptual art has a physical form and most conceptual artists and collectors are happy for the public to take away the concept so long as they leave the physical form behind. That won’t work if the art is purely conceptual and has no physical form.

    As the article says, sale of these works is more like a patent or a copyright. Intellectual property is a fraught enough issue in itself these days. Nobody wants “art trolls” carrying on like patent trolls. Fortunately conceptual art, when it has no physical form to copyright, does not seem to fall into any of the categories protected by IP legislation and any trolls will be out of luck.

    If the law is no help then it seems that the only way to sell a pure conceptual artwork in a way that guarantees the buyer exclusive ownership would be for the artist to reveal the work to nobody but the purchaser, and even then only after he has paid for it. In turn the purchaser can never exhibit it or even reveal what it is that he has bought for to do so is to give the artwork away. Even worse, he must wait for the artist to die before he is secure in his absolute ownership of the artwork.

    Such a fiasco could well be staged as an artwork in itself with the would-be purchaser actually becoming part of the work, whether he realises it or not.

  8. I find myself unable to contribute to this blog as the words “F*****g Madness” do not form a part of my philosophical vocabulary.

  9. If a bunch of rich people, sycophantic critics and indifferent daubers want to form a clique, call themselves postmodern art experts and exchange works of no intrinsic value, at hugely inflated prices, then by all means let them.

    As long as it’s done in private by consenting adults, and not forced down my throat…my tax dollars are not used to support it…and I am not required to confabulate novelty with quality.

  10. @Jean
    >pile of cheerios poured on floor with nearby box

    You owe me $2 million!

    If it isn’t outrageously expensive, it just isn’t art my dear.

  11. Emily C,

    That seems like a good working definition of “art.” Terrible waste of Cheerios, though. :)

  12. Bob Hartman-Berrier

    In the computer software realm, such ethereal concepts are copyrighted and patented, and then used as the basis for big lawsuits when another company instantiates the concept 5 years later.

  13. Hmm, let’s not go down that path. Patents were original set up to facilitate the spread of ideas – some guy thinks up some solution to a problem which is applicable to your project, saving you research and time – you pay him a little for the help. These days there’s money to be paid in hijacking the hard work of others, much in the same way that you buy a hot coffee then sue for spilling it on yourself…

  14. Thirteen words constituting self referential concept on philosophy blog.

    PRICE TAG: Two cents

  15. » Buying the Concept of Art Weblog - pingback on June 1, 2012 at 11:34 am
  16. Those still interested in this thread might do well to look into Dave Hickey’s metaphor of “Air Guitar” and Arthur Danto’s ideas about “indiscernibles” in art. Danto’s use of Warhols “Brillo Box” is quite fun, though I’m guessing most analytical skeptics will remain unconvinced.

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