Saturday, February 6, 2010

Quantifying the Arts III: Art That Disrupts Economics

Alright, maybe "disrupts economics" is a little bit strong, but via Don Hall comes a work by Caleb Larsen which perpetually tries to sell itself on the internet:
Combining Robert Morris' Box With the Sound of Its Own Making with Baudrillard's writing on the art auction this sculpture exists in eternal transactional flux. It is a physical sculpture that is perptually attempting to auction itself on eBay.

Every ten minutes the black box pings a server on the internet via the ethernet connection to check if it is for sale on the eBay. If its auction has ended or it has sold, it automatically creates a new auction of itself.

If a person buys it on eBay, the current owner is required to send it to the new owner. The new owner must then plug it into ethernet, and the cycle repeats itself.
“A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter” is tangibly linked, via Ethernet, to the intangible world of taste, aesthetics and worth. It doesn’t matter if the work becomes astronomically valuable—you’re legally required to keep putting it up on eBay once a week until someone else buys it. The argument is you can’t own anything conceptual, neither in copyright or theoretical terms, and the artwork’s logistics ensure that no third party—the highly ridiculous art market—can change that.
Don Hall, who recently tried to wrangle with some intellectual property economics here, finds his allure in the last sentence -- that you can't own anything in copyright or theoretical terms.

I am interested in that myself, but there's something else that interests me -- the fact that we're going to construct our own ideas of owning it anyways.

This is, for me, the real magic of the markets. See, people right now are arguing over how to quantify the arts, how to really measure it, because we only have one measure and we don't like it -- the measure of money. And the reason we have a measure of money is because the market has to come up with values for everything. Because it is the basis of all of our transactions, it has to come up with values of money for things that, previously, were intangible (and perhaps a little holy).

So what began as a way for objectively identifying how my cow stacks up against your three or four chickens now has to wrangle with the concept of the value of part ownership in a company, or the value of the future. And it also has to wrangle with value of artistic taste, whether it's in terms of inflated prices for clothing by certain people, or trying to figure what the hell Damien Hirst is on about. As with stock, people have clearly proven that they're willing to own a percentage of something -- so why wouldn't they be willing to own a moment of something?

So what I'm really interested in is how much are people going to bid on a work of art that they will only own temporarily, as opposed to owning a work of art outright? If the artist were truly correct and the concept of ownership doesn't apply to art nobody would make a bid. Instead, people are going to - on the fly - create their own individual valuations for owning a piece.

If, as is the case, Caleb Larsen is receiving the money each time (and finding a Damien Hirst-like way to make art pay), then each buyer is making their own valuation on what the ownership is worth to them. If the box were to somehow auction itself in the name of its new owner, then people would actually buy the box in terms of speculation -- which would be a whole different economic approach.

I'd love to see an economist speculate on those two differing models. I would also love Caleb to post charts containing the different prices it sells for.