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October 16, 2009

Jumping the Shreck — Or, why that Jeff Koons vacuum cleaner might not be the best long-term investment


Denis Dutton, in his superb New York Times Op-Ed page essay today, peered back into the distant past and then forward into the dim future to posit that conceptual art doesn't have the inherent capacity to remain art over deep time.

You might want to reconsider your bid on Damien Hirst's medicine cabinet (above; est: £100,000-£150,000 [$161,100-$241,650]) at tonight's Christie's auction in London.

Excerpts from Dutton's piece follow.


Art's link with money is not new, though it does continue to generate surprises. On Friday night, Christie’s in London plans to auction another of Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinets: literally a small, sliding-glass medicine cabinet containing a few dozen bottles or tubes of standard pharmaceuticals: nasal spray, penicillin tablets, vitamins and so forth. This work is not as grand as a Hirst shark, floating eerily in a giant vat of formaldehyde, one of which sold for more than $12 million a few years ago. Still, the estimate of up to $239,000 for the medicine cabinet is impressive — rather more impressive than the work itself.

No disputing tastes, of course, if yours lean toward the aesthetic contemplation of an orderly medicine cabinet. Buy it, and you acquire a work of art by the world’s richest and — by that criterion — most successful living artist. Still, neither this piece nor Mr. Hirst’s dissected calves and embalmed horses are quite “by” the artist in a conventional sense. Mr. Hirst’s name rightfully goes on them because they were his conceptions. However, he did not reproduce any of the medicine bottles or boxes in his cabinet (in the way that Warhol actually recreated Brillo boxes), nor did he catch a shark or do the taxidermy.

In this respect, the pricey medicine cabinet belongs to a tradition of conceptual art: works we admire not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept. Mr. Hirst has a talent for coming up with concepts that capture the attention of the art market, putting him in the company of other big names who have now and again moved away from making art with their own hands: Jeff Koons, for example, who has put vacuum cleaners into Plexiglas cases and commissioned an Italian porcelain manufacturer to make a cheesy gold and white sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp. Mr. Koons need not touch the art his contractors produce; the ideas are his, and that’s enough.

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.

The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art... 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.

October 16, 2009 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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I dunno. I wouldn't mind being the last guy holding, for instance, a Marcel Duchamp "Readymade" (or even his "Urinal," though that might be kinda heavy). Excerpted from an auction site:

Lot 1, "Air de Paris," was based on a glass bottle that Duchamp bought as a souvenir for his friend and patron Walter Arensberg and had filled with "Paris air" and the original is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The 4 15/16-inch-high glass bottle, which has a glass hook, is inscribed and dated 1964 by the artist. It has an estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. It sold for $167,600 including the buyer's premium as do all prices mentioned in this article.

Lot 2, "Hat Rack," is a 9 7/8-by-18-by-18-inch wooden hat rack with six curved racks. The original, now lost, was produced in 1917. When the artist was asked why some of his readymades were suspended from ceilings, he said, according to Mr. Schwarz, that "it was to escape from conformity, which demands that works of art be hung on the wall or presented on easels." It has an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000. It sold for $288,500.

Posted by: Mandy Katz | Oct 16, 2009 4:04:35 PM

Jeez, I coulda told ya that. But then nobody listens to me.
Wait -- has that been done? As an artsy concept, I mean? "The Unlistened To" kind of a thing. I could sit on a concrete block in a vast space and mime talking -- let's see... maybe 4 hours a day @ $300 an hour, keep the exhibit going for 3 months... okay, I'm in. Now all I need is some sponsors and benefactors and patrons and customers and stuff... Or, it could be tweaked to "The Unpaid Unlistened To" to add some artistic depth. Yeah, now I'm in my element -- that jacks it up to $500 an hour, I figure. How about "The Unknown Unpaid Unlistened To"? This could get big...

Posted by: Flaurtsyfartsy | Oct 16, 2009 2:31:26 PM

Agree 100% with Mr. Dutton. Where it possible, I'd agree even more. This whole Damien Hirst phenomenon (and it is a phenomenon of the incomprehensible kind) has to be the biggest scam ever. That man must go to sleep each night laughing til he cries, thinking about someone buying his golden fleece or his shark in a tank and now this medicine cabinet... for the lack of artistic effort it took to create (conceptualization, artistic rationale, and execution) he must surely be self-congratulating on the absolute con he has pulled off with his supposed art. What utter hogwash his works are.

Posted by: Miles the Art Critic | Oct 16, 2009 2:26:58 PM

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