The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art has provoked this exceptionally long review/rant from Portfolio’s Felix Salmon. The post is too long to summarize. Beyond Salmon’s nitpicking, it is noteworthy for the barely contained strong feelings Salmon clearly has. He seems to take art very seriously, which is good. But, perhaps, too seriously. To Salmon, art is an asset to be measured by its price. But the long rise in prices leaves him uneasy:
It does seem to be the case that we’re in the middle of a massive art bubble, and that there’s a real risk that in a decade’s time you won’t be able to sell your $500,000 ten-painting portfolio for even $50,000.
(. . . .)
If you had to sell that $50,000 painting the day after you bought it, what’s a reasonable sum that you might expect to be able to receive? (To put it in automobile terms, how much of a painting’s value is lost when it’s driven off the lot?)
(. . . .)
In the meantime, if you’re a fan of today’s neoconceptual art, but there’s no way you can afford it, take heart: it’s pretty easy to make your own “Damien Hirst” spot painting, or “Noble and Webster” dollar sign, or “Lawrence Weiner” wall stencil. It won’t be worth anything financially, but aesthetically it’ll be functionally identical. It’s yet another paradox of contemporary art: owning it is ridiculously expensive. But simply having it on display? That can be incredibly cheap.
Salmon isn’t the only one to have found Thompson’s book provocative. Economist Tyler Cowan uses this NY Sun review to make the exact opposite point to Salmon’s last; namely, that one conceptual work is just as good as another:
If you think that one inanimate shark is as good as another, your understanding of the art market is, as they say, dead in the water. . . . it’s not just about the work of art; rather, the value placed on a particular work derives from how it feels to own that art. Most art dealers know that art buying is all about what tier of buyers you aspire to join, about establishing a self-identity and, yes, getting some publicity.
( . . . )
Many people recoil from the contemporary art market as the home of pretension and human foible, but as expensive pursuits go, the art market is a relatively beneficial one. The dead shark cost $12 million to buy but, of course, it didn’t cost nearly that much to make. So the production process isn’t eating up too many societal resources or causing too much damage to the environment. For the most part, it’s money passing back and forth from one set of hands to another, like a game — and, yes, the game is fun for those who have the money to play it. Don’t laugh, but we do in fact need some means of determining which of the rich people are the cool ones, and the art market surely serves that end.
But even this piece of reasoning strikes us a missing the point. What seems to enrage or bemuse observers is mostly besides the point. No one can know why any two persons will buy art. There are surely many overlapping reasons, some noble, many base. But why a person would assign great value to a painting or sculpture or installation piece is truly not knowable. All that we can see is the dollar figure attached to their desire to own it. And even this is a relative value for one man’s $1 million is another’s small sum.
The art market fascinates us because it is an economic arena that has no use value that we can see or understand. Yet it remains a store of great value. In that sense, value is ineffable. And maybe that’s why so many treat art as if it were secular religion. But, enough of this mystical conjecture. Surely Don Thompson is worth reading if he can excite so man passions.