Friday 16 October 2009

Dutton on Conceptual Art

Canterbury's Denis Dutton contributes an op-ed in today's New York Times asking whether conceptual art has jumped the shark tank.
Since the endearingly witty Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art 90 years ago by offering his “ready-mades” — a urinal or a snow shovel, for instance — for gallery shows, the genre has degenerated. Duchamp, an authentic artistic genius, was in 1917 making sport of the art establishment and its stuffy values. By the time we get to 2009, Mr. Hirst and Mr. Koons are the establishment.

Does this mean that conceptual art is here to stay? That is not at all certain, and it is not just auction results that are relevant to the issue. To see why works of conceptual art have an inherent investment risk, we must look back at the whole history of art, including art’s most ancient prehistory.
He suggests that works that embody obvious displays of skilled craftsmanship will better hold value over time as we've evolved a preference for appreciating displays of this kind of skill.
The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets. Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.

In this respect, I can’t help regarding medicine cabinets, vacuum cleaners and dead sharks as reckless investments. Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner, and wondering why.
Is there data sufficient for testing of the hypothesis? Are there works created in 1700 that evidenced great skill in fine-tuning the zeitgeist but little in terms of craftsmanship, that were valued (at the time) comparably to works that showed little zeitgeist-skill but decent craftsmanship? We then could look at current auction prices for the two types of works from long ago as one way of testing the Dutton zeitgeist-bubble hypothesis. I am sufficiently culturally illiterate to have no clue where even to start looking.

Alternatively, we could of course set up markets that pay out in a hundred years' time based on the valuation of different works at that point; price differences across different types of art would be informative. I suspect those markets would be rather thin though. Lousy lack of Arrow-Debreu....


  1. "Are there works created in 1700 that evidenced great skill in fine-tuning the zeitgeist but little in terms of craftsmanship, that were valued (at the time) comparably to works that showed little zeitgeist-skill but decent craftsmanship?"

    Anything post-Realist (so from the late 19th century and Impressionism) is that it coincided with the advent of photography, so the purpose of art became something completely different after that. Earlier on the art was produced either to tell a story or represent reality, largely because the literacy level of the population was low. Skill was always a prerequisite because if you couldn't understand what was in front of you with the only referents you had - to reality - then it was all pointless.

    It's only when we got to the 20th century and the avant-garde of conceptual art spawned from Duchamp (who was also a fantastic and skilled artist) when the art world started to think beyond the object itself and the value became... thoughts.

    Hirst's preserved animals might have some value, because how many dead sheep or sharks in tanks are there? Other things, like Emin's bed or the et al bullshit that's currently wasting space in Christchurch Art Gallery, it's a joke started by Duchamp that people miss in their rush to be cutting edge.

  2. " clue where even to start looking..", art is the same way, artists and markets go where they go just because the wind blows there, time has a way of informing us....