The Dare of Anonymity : New and Possibly Improved
In thinking through why I thought this show might be a good idea, I was stuck on one central goal...to provide a context in which collectors (and others) would have no choice but to focus on the artwork at hand, no other information about the creator of the work being offered. As an experiment, I think it's still a worthy idea. But in thinking it through in practical terms I began to become a bit uncomfortable with parts of it. None the least of which was the potential quality of something an artist would be willing to sell without receiving acknowledgment for it. It wouldn't make sense if it only included the kinds of works most artists are willing to donate to benefits.
Also complicating the idea for me was the value of a narrative.
David Carson (artist, entrepreneur, and all around neo-Renaissance man) kindly forwarded me a link to this great discussion on the Significant Objects project. Here's how the SO project worked:
In her discussion with SO creator Rob Walker, the article's author Rebecca Cullers asks some very insightful questions getting at whether, beyond just the narratives, it's not the celebrity factor (writer's name recognition) that accounts for the increase, but the SO project seems to have accounted for that (or at least the results are inconclusive).
A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!
FIRST PHASE: THE EXPERIMENT
Significant Object’s first “volume” of stories — by Sheila Heti, Nicholson Baker, Lydia Millet, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, and 95 others — ran from July to November 2009. SO v1, as we’ve nicknamed that first volume, was a quasi-anthropological experiment whose hypothesis was: “Narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones.” The experiment’s parameters were as follows:
- The experiment’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.
- A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!
- Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.
- The winning bidder is mailed the significant object, along with a printout of the object’s fictional story. Net proceeds from the sale are given to the respective author. Authors retain all rights to their stories.
- The experiment’s results — photos, original prices and final sale prices, stories — are cataloged on this website. The project’s curators retain the right to use these materials in other venues and media. For example: Maybe we’ll publish a book.
The results of our experiment? If an increase in the thrift-store objects’ “value in trade” can be accepted as objective evidence of an increase in the objects’ significance, then our hypothesis was 100% correct. We sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51, all of which went to SO v1’s contributing writers.
But I've gotten a bit a head of myself. Let me back up for clarity. Cullers writes:
It's an idea that writers adore: the notion that a good story can impart value to an insignificant object. Already desirable or at least useful objects—booze, coffee, everything ever written up in the J. Peterman catalog—can obviously have their value increased through a robust back story. (It's called advertising.) But what about objects that are undesirable? That are poorly made, useless or ugly? Can they ever become valuable or sellable?Even as I read that I could hear certain voices snickering to themselves and insisting that "Of course they can, how else do you explain our contemporary art market?" (but we've been all over that...). What interested me in this story, in relationship to The Anonymous Show idea, is finding some way to acknowledge the part narrative clearly plays in imparting value to art works. (And I believe it does : Had the Mona Lisa never been stolen, would it be as famous/valuable, or just another among Da Vinci's works?)
Therefore, to address both the original goal, the quality issue, and the narrative issue, I began to wonder if the show might not be improved upon by noting that anyone who purchased a work from the show would be told who its author was (complete with bio and full narrative) in two years time. At that time, if the collector wished, the artwork would be bought back by the gallery for the same price. No questions asked.
The most interesting part of this delay, to my mind, would be to see who, having spent two years contemplating the work they bought because it appealed to them, would be unable/unwilling to part with it. Should the piece they chose turn out to have been created by someone famous, I would expect them to want to keep it (rather than lose out on two year's potential increase in value). Should the work turn out to be by someone they didn't know, would they still have fallen in love with it even more and refuse to part with it (it will have by then also taken on its own, new narrative)? Or would they, not recognizing the name of the artist decide to deaccession it?