Buying the Concept of Art

Pablo Picasso 1962

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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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