Reportage by Matthew Clair
I recently came across an article by Mike LaBossiere in The Creativity Post. The article, titled "Buying the Concept of Art" explores the recent trend of artists selling their ideas (what I will term "extreme conceptual art") rather than tangible creations. LaBossiere provides, among other examples, the example of an artist who sold the concept of "a museum security guard slowly undressing" for $100,000. To be clear, the artist did not sell a photograph of a security guard or even the left-over clothing of an undressed guard; the artist simply sold the idea.
So, why would anyone buy such a concept? LaBossiere hypothesizes that we are buying more than just the concept; we are also buying the fact that the concept was envisioned by a notable artist. The value, then, is not in the concept alone but the concept as a concept created by a certain artist. In a sense, we are buying a piece of the artist, and the concept only has as much value as the artist him/herself.
LaBossiere's exploration of art as concept reveals disquieting implications. If art (not just extreme conceptual art, but all art) gains its value to some degree from the value of its creator, then one must wonder what sort of inequality exists in the valuation of art. Would, for example, a Big Al Carter piece sell for more if Big Al had not been black and unrepresented by a gallery? Or, would it sell for less? When artists become petit-celebrities of a sort, does their art increase in value? Should it, particularly if the quality (however measured) has not? And, perhaps more importantly, how do our cultural biases play into the determination of value for pieces of art labeled "tribal" or "folk" art?
The mechanisms of economics, value, scarcity, demand and willingness-to-pay have always played in to the value of art objects. My concern, however, is a normative one, not an explanatory one. My question, in short, is: Should we continue to base (a very large part of) our valuation of art on the artist rather than the value of his or her art alone (however defined)?