This Great Society - Writing

 


Sarah Beck: Apple Jacks

Illustrations: Sarah Beck

 
 

There is a large art gallery adjacent to my university. This gallery survives on government grants, entrance fees and donations. The gallery was in the news recently because it had undergone major layoffs. These cost-cutting measures were blamed on poor attendance. Months later the gallery was in the news again when it was reported that the CEO of the gallery collected $981,000 in salary and taxable benefits last year. Two thirds of his nearly $1-million income was a bonus. This bonus was awarded for his overseeing the completion of the gallery’s renovations.
I hope he’s using some of his money to buy art.
When buying art, one should make a choice based on the work’s price relative to the price of the property it will be displayed in. This is a rule developed by a man named Tobias Meyer. Meyer is an auctioneer at a place called Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s auctions luxury goods, notably famous and expensive artworks.
The only painting I have in my apartment was free, which likely holds true with Tobias’ law of proportion. Curiously, my painting is of dollar signs.
It looks like this:

Illustration: Sarah Beck

According to Donald Thompson, author of The $12-Million Stuffed Shark, the bestsellers on the art market are paintings that feature pretty women or children. The colour red is most saleable, followed by white, then blue, yellow, green, and black. Horizontals always sell better than verticals, brights over pales, and flowers over fruit. Water adds value if it is calm, and cows always do poorly 1. Noted.
Thompson’s research reminds me of the Russian painters Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, who used census figures to paint. They decided to make country-specific paintings, creating a best and a worst for each. Using the census, they polled the citizens of various countries. Average people were questioned about what they most wanted and least wanted in a painting for purchase and display in their home.
No rock was left unturned. Citizens were asked questions that included framing, sizing, and beloved signifiers. The painting they produced for America was the size of a dishwasher and featured George Washington. George Washington is also on American paper money.
American paper money looks like this:

Illustration: Sarah Beck

The following is a list from Thompson’s book. It is a list of jobs held by the top 20 active collectors of contemporary art. They are listed below by their source of income and in order of their purchasing power:
Luxury goods
Investment banking
Financial services
Retail
Hedge funds
Construction
Financier
Investments
Textiles
Magazines
Venture capitalist
Advertising
Supermarkets
Stockbroking
Financial services
Retail
Industrialist
Casinos

A cursory look at this list tells me that the major movers and shakers know how to make an investment. Like all investments, there is a need to protect the financial value not just of purchases, but of institutions that support the structures that guarantee those values. The advertiser on this list is a person I can readily identify and suggest to be in a unique position to promote and increase the value of his collection. In fact, I am certain he has been accused of it.
Artist Andy Warhol started his career in the advertising business. In fact, he was a commercial illustrator with a penchant for drawing shoes. Warhol knew a thing or two about brands, and changed the art world when he brought brands into the gallery with his Brillo boxes.
Brillo is a brand of scouring pads that were commonly used in American homes when Warhol was alive. Most Americans, particularly housewives, would be able to recognize a Brillo box. A Brillo box used to look like this:

Illustration: Sarah Beck

Today the packages look like this:

Illustration: Sarah Beck

Warhol’s Brillo boxes, according to philosophers, asked the audience to contemplate the following: if two objects are the same, yet one is art and one isn’t, what is the difference? I suggest the difference may be, in part, financial. Brillo packages cost $2.99. A Warhol Brillo box costs $350,000.
Later, Warhol started painting money. He said it was because he loved it best. He also suggested that perhaps we should just hang money on the wall instead of art. Warhol suggested that the art market and commerce were having an effect on one another. As the art market became more commercialized, commerce became more artistic 2.
This is old news today.
Artists since Warhol have assumed brand-like personalities, an amusing détournement after brands spent decades adopting the tropes of people, carrying personality, value, and distinctness.
Contemporary artists have become brands unto themselves. The British artist Damien Hirst is the richest living artist to date. Unlike the fools before him, he was determined to see financial payoff before he died. Not only is his work commercially popular, but it is also outsourced like all contemporary management. This means more output. He has been careful to diversify, buying up the work of younger artists. His association with them strengthens their brand and improves his investment.
The Louis Vuitton brand has similarly lent its aura to artists, inviting cutting edge contemporary artists to design purses. These limited edition purses have sold very well. Louis Vuitton, aka LV, are designers of luxury goods, most notably purses and luggage. Their product is one of the most counterfeited items in the world. Contemporary art and design share overlapping features, certainly when branding substitutes for critical judgment in all culture markets, be it purses or art 3.
A new phenomenon of our decade is the purse rental service. Luxury purses cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 to buy, so rental services cater to a young woman’s desire to participate in the luxury good economy for a fraction of the price. Once she tires of her rental purse, she can exchange it for another.
Recently, the news reported that a horde of young ladies had been sleeping in the streets of Toronto. Despite having been there for several nights, they weren’t homeless. They were camping outside H&M to be first in line for the launch of Jimmy Choo’s H&M line. Jimmy Choo is a brand of luxury women’s shoes. Jimmy Choo shoes can cost between $400 -$1500. H&M Jimmy Choo shoes would be cheaper. These young ladies wanted a piece of the action.
I wondered about how these lower priced luxury items would be differentiated from their more expensive counterparts in the minds of their owners. Physically, there are price-point markers built into every stage of a brand so higher priced versions can be differentiated from lower ones. Otherwise, who would pay for the more expensive version? A discerning consumer can certainly spot a Gucci bag made illegally or on the cheap. Does it matter if it’s the real thing to the person who owns it?

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of luxury goods is their markup. Only the highest of the highest end—and I mean limited runs of perhaps several hundred—were ever made by couture standards.
‘Couture’ is a word that no longer holds its meaning. Originally, there was a council in France that had to approve and certify an item to be couture based on its high standards for workmanship, worker equity, and skill. The council allowed only those items deemed couture to make claim to the couture name and the couture price.
These days, unless you are buying an absolute top-of-the-line bag from Gucci (after waiting patiently on a list), the purse you buy was produced in China, or in a sweatshop in a country far more obscure. This is true of all luxury labels. The majority of their expensive products are produced in factories alongside jeans—inexpensive jeans and T-shirts. This does not cost a lot of money.
I suggest that the luxury goods market lacks transparency and regulation. Donald Thompson, an economics professor, has similar feelings about the art market. He calls it the largest unregulated and least transparent market in the world 4.
Recently, I read in the news about an organized crime ring in New Jersey. This ring involved multiple mayors, rabbis and a large network of people from all sectors of society in black market trade. The trade being conducted was in human organs, a rare and exclusive market for those who can afford to pay.
Masquerading as construction workers, the ring demonstrated an expertise in convincing hospitals that organ sellers were concerned relatives eager to donate those same organs to their ailing loved ones. If the organ provider suffered a change of heart they would be held at gun point and convinced anew of their convictions.
Human kidneys were purchased for $10,000 then sold for $160,000. This is a 1600% markup. I read that one transaction transpired with the help of a box of Apple Jacks. Apple Jacks is a cereal that does not taste like apples. Its box looks like this:

Illustration: Sarah Beck

The prize stuffed inside was $97,000.
As with most schemes, you’d have to be pretty creative to pull it off. You’d also have to be pretty creative to dream it up in the first place. The genius of this particular operation was twofold. Rabbis, including one dubbed “The Matchmaker,” convinced Israelis to sell their organs. They would fly to America, concealing the black market trade by using their own bodies as delivery envelopes.
The other intelligent thing the ring did was to diversify. This approach is simply good business, especially in a high-stakes market. So what else are people willing to buy from rabbis besides black market organs?
Louis Vuitton purses.
Demand and desire for an object has little relationship to practical reality. A coveted object frequently lies beyond our means and is occasionally rare. In an art market flooded with work of varying caliber, it is the experts who determine which ones are the most desirable, even if these decisions defy logic.
After his death, the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board was created to address an increase in forgeries. But what is a Warhol forgery?
Warhol adopted the tenets of mass production, using hangers-on as labour in the production of his work. He called his studio “The Factory.” His Factory approach challenged traditional notions of art production. Acting as a type of assembly line for all that bore the Warhol brand, production included such items as silk screens and films. Works were produced en masse and used as currency to reimburse both paid and unpaid workers. His outsourcing helped multiply his output. Some works were signed, some were not, and some were signed by his mother.
The authentication board accepted the absurd task of guaranteeing each Warhol it encountered. This seems like a cruel joke in light of Warhol’s intention of questioning art and authenticity. This board, whether evaluating for insurance or sale purposes, marks the back of each piece with a permanent evaluation of its ruling.
When tricked, the board proved inconsistent by contradicting its own judgment. To make matters more complex, the board does not provide explanations for, or revisit (without trickery), its decisions. This is additionally complicated by the board’s conflict of interest as it is also responsible for selling works in the same market as those it rules on. Yikes.
Remember—without experts, there could be no fakes.

 

 
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