The art of the beholder

By accident rather than design several of the shows I saw at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe dealt in one way or another with the way art acquires monetary value and bestows fortunes on some and misfortune on others.  Tom Wainright’s ‘Banksy – This Looks  a Bit Like An Elephant ‘ narrates the impact on a homeless man living in a disused water tank in the Hollywood Hills of having his home transformed into an art object courtesy of a few words spray painted by living legend Bansky.  However whereas the urinal that Marcel Duchamp transformed into one of his first ‘ready-mades’ was uninhabited, Banksy’s act of transubstantiation allegedly (the facts are disputed see here for example resulted in the water tank’s resident, Tachowa Covington, finding himself turfed out of his makeshift home when the lawyers move in to realise the art work’s instantly acquired value.

‘Banksy…’ deals with the (we must assume) inadvertent destruction of a man’s home due to the midas touch of an artist who takes delight in poking fun at the mechanics of the art market but thereby further serves, intentionally or otherwise, to increase his own market value.  Meanwhile Long Live the Little Knife at the Traverse told the story of two con artists who are forced by circumstance (or so it seems) to turn their skill at dissembling to the world of forged art, relishing the opportunity to seemingly get away with the equivalent of insider dealing and systematic price manipulation without committing a crime.  A witty commentary on the concentric circles of greed that encompass the upright denizens of the art world, oligarchs and petty criminals alike, Long live… is a deft reminder that in the Peter Pan world of contemporary art, just as in global finance, the belief that something is valuable means that it is valuable, but only as long as there is someone who continues to believe enough to keep the price balloon inflated.

David Harrower’s Ciara, also at the Traverse, turns the art/money relationship on its head as the narrator, brilliantly played by Blythe Duff, unfolds her back story, one that has brought her into the world of dealing art to the legitimate, and not so legitimate, newly wealthy. She shows people who know they want art but don’t know what to buy, what they should want and the price tag provides the assurance that it truly is art.

All three shows deploy, to a lesser or greater extent, the familiar notion (e.g. as developed by the great french anthro/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that the ascription of value to artworks is a social practice that can’t be derived from either the content or the uniqueness of the art work itself.  Why does the forgery that no-one but the most diligent curator can spot suddenly lose its value to the person who bought it?  While it may retain its pleasingness as a work of art it has lost its exchange value, its confirmed value to others.   Long live… explicitly references this 9less than straightforward question, sometimes called the Van Meegeren problem. The irony, as Banksy… tells it, of Tachowa Covington losing the home which, until the artist spray painted it, had only use value to him and practically zero value to anyone else, is that in an instant it acquired tremendous monetary value simply because of who spray painted it.  That the imaginary values of traded art can, like the complex derivatives whose unraveling forced tens of thousands out of their homes, impact on the all too real lives of people without the tools to magic up value from a spray can is a very modern parable.

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