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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Friday September 05 2008

I have for some time held to the Two Rich Lunatics theory of modern art, which says that it only takes two rich lunatics to bid against each other to turn a tin of faeces into a hyper-expensive Work of Art.  But I now realise that only one of the lunatics has to be a genuine lunatic.  The other one might simply be speculating that if he pays x squillion quid for some piece of junk, the genuine lunatic might later pay him 2x squillion quid.  Nothing lunatic about that, if he can make it work.  Ergo, if another lunatic pays x divided by 2 squillion quid for a piece of junk that the original lunatic likes, the second lunatic might be happy to pay him x squillion quid.  Again, very rational, if rather hazardous.  Thus, it actually only takes one lunatic, to create an entire market for some particular type of junk.

But then what happens is that quasi-lunatics, who combine economic rationality (i.e. noting that certain types of lunatic art can be rational investments) with artistic lunacy, i.e. with muddling together the price (value to others) with the value (to themselves), going with the herd, telling themselves that they see that certain something that the original lunatic saw, and that whatever it is is indeed worth (in some objective sense) all that lunatic money, and there you have it.  Modern Art.

It reminds me of those films which have scenes set in Louis XIV’s court, where one immensely (in this case) powerful lunatic has a caste of hundreds all running around doing completely lunatic things, the head lunatic himself being dressed as a giant chicken.  The point being that none of them thinks they’re doing anything lunatic.

The above thoughts were provoked by reading this (which I found being quotulated here):

“Who pays $12 million for a decaying shark?” Thompson asks. The short answer is insecure rich people who want “prove to the rest of the world that they really are rich.” And that they are cosmopolitan with good taste: “A great many people can afford a small yacht,” Thompson says. “But art distinguishes you.”

The best thing about Thompson’s book [link added] is that it demystifies the art world by walking through its arcane financial customs and by insisting on an economist’s appreciation for the subjective theory of value. He recognizes that value is dependent on context. Objects themselves have no intrinsic worth; what we’re willing to pay at any given time is a result of the stories we tell ourselves.

Saatchi and many of the artists he promotes are particularly good about telling stories and creating myths about what is hot, compelling, subversive, or visionary. As Saatchi has said, “There are no rules about investment. Sharks can be good. Artist’s dung can be good. Oil on canvas can be good.”

Subjective theory of value.  This is exactly what this guy also said.

Actually, thinking about this a little more, what I really think is that Modern Art is Very Complicated, fuelled by at least half a dozen big causal tributaries, of which the above considerations are only one.

For instance, one of the benefits of Art Worship is that it supplies big, quiet public spaces to wander about in and talk in quietly, which a lot of people like, and which becomes ever more treasurable as music invades all other inside spaces.  This is a consideration quite distinct from whether we have any particular regard for the Art on display, which I often don’t.

For instance, I like Tate Modern.  I like going in there.  It’s an intriguing building, which makes a most agreeable contrast with outside London.  The stuff in it is mostly very silly, certainly most of the stuff in there that I’ve seen.  Or so I think.  But this does not diminish my pleasure in visiting the place.

Not the least of Tate Modern’s appeal, for me, is that, percentagewise, not that many people share my taste for largeness and quietness, with Art added.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 05 September 2008

Another Big Consideration is the rise of photography, thereby pushing the painters into other things.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 05 September 2008

And another is the modern media, dating from the mass printing press of the 19th century.  Modern Art (no claim to originality here) thrives on shock value, but there had to be a big machine to register and amplify shock.  Otherwise Modern Art would have just had a polite veil drawn over it.  He’ll grow out of it, etc.  The modern media have turned adolescent shock into an industry.

Which is not to say that it is an easy trade to follow.  Many have tried.  Only a select few have made much of a success of it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 05 September 2008

And another is the First World War, which knocked an amazing amount of the stuffing out of polite society as previously known.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 05 September 2008

And closely related to that is the rise of socialism, communism, etc., which cunningly hoovered up all that adolescent rebellion and institutionalised it.  And amplified it.

At the heart of Modern Art is a quite self-conscious and deliberate attack on the very idea of being able to make sense of things by making accurate representations of reality.  A lot of abstract art makes me feel as if I am being got at.  This is because I am.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 05 September 2008

I think that will do for now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 05 September 2008
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