Friday, 4 June 2010

Bones, unmade beds and sandals

This piece on artnet seems to me to contain some terrific insights. It surely explains pretty much everything about the absurdities of today's art market. So why do people pay such ridiculously high prices for what are intrinsically worthless objects?
Prior to the Renaissance, and even during it, the supreme objects of popular and official veneration were not works of art: they were the relics of the saints. That is to say, pieces of the saints’ bodies, and objects which they had worn, touched, or with which they were associated. It is in the culture that flourished around such relics that we find the ancient analogue of our own art-world. From early in the first millennium AD and for a period of over a thousand years relics -- essentially useless and worthless pieces of bone or hair or skin, or scraps of cloth, or other random objects – were collected and worshipped with a fervor that is today reserved for art.
They were protected by gorgeous cases (reliquaries) and housed in purpose-built prestige edifices, viewed by tourists in their thousands, traded by kings and emperors, stolen, seized as war booty, held as collateral by bankers and of course faked by unscrupulous dealers. They, more so than mosaics, paintings or sculpture, were what drew pilgrims and locals to the great shrines. They were embedded into webs of discourse (for the relics, as for Foucault, discourse was "everything") and were the focus of institutionalized rituals that emphasized their eternal spiritual power. And here, in the relic-cult, we find huge sums paid for objects whose production costs and material value were zero and whose status, outside of the relevant context, was mere rubbish.

Having a sceptical Protestant sensibility I've always thought the behaviour of the the art market was a bit rum. This article is long and well-reasoned, it relies on lots of good historical research and reasoning and it thoroughly explains the phenomenon for me. So that's one more distasteful thing about the modern world we can dismiss.

And laugh at. As we know, nearly everything we learn about the human experience as it relates to politics and religion has already been prefigured in The Life of Brian. We must now add art as one of its special subjects. When you watch the scene below, substitute the hapless Brian for the knowing Tracy, artfully shedding everyday bits and bobs for her dusty followers to pick up and venerate. Laughing all the way to the juniper bushes.

H/t Tyler Cowan.


Peter said...

Very interesting article, which leads to the question of why we collect things at all. No doubt there is some gruesome evolutionary psychologist somewhere ready to assure us we've been hard-wired by our ancestors' need to sock away nuts 'n stuff for the winter, or perhaps explain it as a status/survival thing like with the Old Testament partriarchs (And the Lord blessed Levi with twelve wives, twenty-four oxen and a full set of Phoenician stamps in mint condition), but I'm not persuaded. It is madness of course, but any more than collecting sports cards, Beanie Babies or toy cars? Trying to rationalize and explain it all is a little like trying to rationalize and explain comedy or sports or big family dinners. The harder you try, the further you are driven from the essence.

Brit said...

V true, Peter.

Isn't art collection at the insane price level essentially a sort of pyramid scheme? As long as everybody accepts the emperor is wearing clothes, then it's a sound investment?

On the less insane level isn't it all about valuing uniqueness?

Peter said...

Chesterton was very good on this subject and a master at skewering pretentious rationalists. He wrote a hilarious piece about a typical modern anthropologist who, having carefully observed how a primitive tribe buried their dead surounded by fruit and other food, concluded they believed the dead could eat. He imagined a future anthropologist, having noted how we surround the dead with flowers (and how distressed elderly ladies become when the ones they ordered failed to arrive), concluding we believe the dead can smell. There are lots of facets of human behaviour that can only be explained by "Because it is a perfectly natural thing to do."

Brit, on the subject of striving for uniqueness, there is a wonderful passage in Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House where he describes the spanking new workers' apartment blocks radical architects designed in the thirties in Europe. They were all about white and light and hygiene, but they were also about equality and uniformity--they were part of the socialist paradise. But no sooner were they occupied than the tenants, mainly the wives, began painting in various hues, putting up bright curtains and hanging plants, etc., to make their little abode distinctive. The collective result was an atrocious hodge-podge, which led to the draconian restrictions that are still with us in apartments and condos. I don't know much about anthropology, but I remember reading that the brightest ones understand the impulse to distinctivness that can be seen in primitive tribes by all except the doctrinaire Margaret Mead types searching for, and therefore finding, a paradise of sameness and equality.

Gaw said...

Peter: I agree - this explanation kicks the can down the road, albeit in an interesting direction.

One thing I do wonder is whether we all engage in about the same amount of social competition with the only difference being the medium of choice. And if this is the case, are the differences in how we express our desires for recognition important? Is one mode objectively superior to another?

Brit: Indeed. The second link takes you to a post I wrote on how uniqueness isn't as valuable as one would assume at the elevated end of the market. It very much supports your pyramid scheme theory.

Peter said...


I'm not sure the "desire for recognition" is driving this phenomenon to the extent you imply. I suppose in the inflated art market it's easy to focus on the ostentatious nouveax riches who just made killings with an IPO or a sports contract, but what of the private collector who doesn't show his art, the traditional aristocrat who locks them up in a back room or the eccentric who sets out to collect the entire works of a little-known artist? What social recognition does a stamp collector get for paying so much to add to his collection?

In the example I gave above about the worker's apartments, I doubt all that decorating was done in order to impress others. Rather, I think it's part of human nest-making.

Gaw said...

Social recognition is inadequate. Perhaps self-assertion is better. With regard to nest-building I suspect we are more magpies that we are sparrows.