Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Dare of Anonymity : New and Possibly Improved

The discussion on the post exploring the pros and cons of an idea for an exhibition (The Anonymous Show) led to some pretty amazing feedback. Thanks to everyone who has participated thus far.

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:


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!


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:

  1. The experiment’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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).

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?


Labels: art appreciation, art viewing, narrative


Anonymous Gam said...

maybe the exhibit could be known as the umbrella works ...

...somewhere in the Indian ocean, there is a social function fulfilled by the "umbrella lady" . She goes from house to house and acts as a facilitator for arranged marriages. Does more of a match making role between potential partners. So, in some ways the exhibit would be foregoing the usual falling in love with art based upon reputation for example, and would explore the possibility of a viable art relationship based upon other factors, with the role of "umbrella lady" falling to the Winkleman gallery.

all teasing aside, it sounds like a show with long term possibilities. Even putting into highlight some of the roles fulfilled by gallerists.

6/01/2010 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

I also thought it would be a very difficult sale if the identity of the artists can never be unveiled.

The addition of the a two year delay and option for returning is brilliant. It assures the buyer of the gallery's faith in the artists work, guarantees the sale and eliminates risk for the buyer, while also assuring the quality of work in terms of the artists standing behind it. The time delay maintains the purpose of the show and protects the anonymous work from being judged on second look based on name. However, there seems to be a bigger risk taken on part of the gallery (and the artist) - is it common practice to guarantee a buy-back?

6/01/2010 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

It would be impossible to keep anything secret.

6/01/2010 11:19:00 AM  
Blogger mikesorgatz said...

The only truly accurate way to measure the effect of brand on artwork is to conduct two separate sales of the same work. In the first sale the artist's identities are anonymous and another where they are known. Buyers can only participate in one of the auctions. At the end the prices would be compared, artwork going to the highest bidder. Hopefully the possibility of losing the piece would encourage buyers to spend more freely at the anonymous auction and offset some of the brand influence on known/unknown artists.

6/01/2010 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

If collectors want to play the Anonymous Show game, they should just attend one of the MFA exhibitions and buy something.

It amounts to the same thing, and knowing their name and degree is just part of the leveled out playing field. In the end, it's all about trusting your aesthetic judgment.

6/01/2010 11:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Frankly, I don't really care about collectors and if they'd be buying my work. I understand artists
who need that, I'm just not in that bag.

I'd be more interested in a show where a curator must decide what pieces to show among anonymous offers (no cv, no bias). Once the show is up, the curator would have the task to defend their choice without knowing who (the hell) are the artists.

That would be fun!

Cedric C

6/01/2010 11:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is one example of someone coming close to this experiment:


Works signed on the back but exhibited anonymously. All sold for the same (low) price. It isn't a juried show, either, and there are several thousand works exhibited.

It was done on a lark a few years ago, and has grown into an event that has a great deal of (local) notoriety. It is worth noting the works submitted and exhibited come from 43 states, and 22 countries, so it isn't entirely provincial.

I don't mean to pump the exhibit, but this is one instance along the lines of what has been talked about.

6/01/2010 02:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

for the SO project, I wonder of the effect if the same story /theme was used on two different items. And then if the same theme was written by two different story tellers...

6/01/2010 02:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...sorry if I am being uncouth here, but Cedric when you use such wording as.. I don't really care about ... it sounds like a put down towards collectors. I am certain you are aware that sometimes when artists express interest towards collectors it isn't necessarily egotistical gimme gimme approval and money, it may be reflecting an interest towards the collector themselves or reflect their concern for the artworks potential audience.

My apologies if I have misread the language, but I don't wish your wording to reflect on you if that wasn't your intention.(as well as being concerned about putting down groups who are part of our art endeavor) again I mean no disrespect, I just want to be sure you realize how the words might be misread. (sorry to appear to be ragging on you today)

6/01/2010 03:26:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Evertson said...

I find the concept an interesting take on the collector artist dynamic. What is the real value of that transaction? Can they both find satisfaction with out the opportunity of narrative beyond the work?

6/01/2010 05:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Two things:

Location location location

To elaborate- if a show as suggested happened in say- Tuscaloosa it would have a different buying public and a different social climate regarding the art. Even if it happens in Chelsea in NYC, it would depend on who visits. If a clientele with an encyclopedic knowledge of art visits the gallery they will look for references of past art movements but ultimately a nod towards what they feel is inline with their belief in the future direction of art. If it is a less art-literate clientele they may look for more aesthetically pleasing work, but even this will be guided by a knowledge of past liked artists. Most likely it will be some balance between the two, and maybe the oddball who sees something that strikes her/her fancy for its awkwardness.

Those artists locked-out of the gallery world have nothing to lose, those artists in galleries may feel it unfavorably disrupts their known style that they have spent years developing.

A narrative- true or false constructed by the client or by the artist is an important part of what creates a desire for the work. Without a dialogue the work is an uprooted meaningless object floating in space.

6/01/2010 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

I hate to admit that it's not _quite_ as appealing to me, simply because risk goes back to the gallerist/curator and artist, and the collector doesn't "need" trust their eye alone in the end because of that fact (though the chance of them doing so does increase). I understand why you would do it this way (as you explain), and I can't think of a better solution than that which you pose, but I wish I could.
I'll keep thinking on it / reading. I don't think it's a bad compromise, and understand the predicament of the potential of, as you say, "benefit art" - I'm just slightly less enamored of it this way.

6/01/2010 09:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Without a dialogue the work is an uprooted meaningless object floating in space."

I cannot disagree with this statement more. The work MUST be able to STAND ALONE, if it cannot, it is not good work. The further away from this the less quality we will see in artwork. This is the state we are at today. We need to get back to work that can stand alone on it's own visual ground.

6/02/2010 03:50:00 AM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

OK, I've been thinking about this a bit, and have an idea or two.

First I should say that I think the 2 year revelation period is great. It gives the collector time to live with the work, and the artist time to follow that work in their trajectory of thinking and making. It's something to look forward to for both of them, and the collector can follow-up and see what came before and after, perhaps even becoming a collector of the artist's work at large.

But, second, I find the return policy disconcerting. It feels like it defeats the purpose of the show a bit. I understand that it increases the potential of sales and lessens the "trust your eye" factor that some collectors might find scary, but it also means they can hope for the best but not have to worry about it, really, because there will be no questions asked if they return the piece; they can even guess who the artist is and then bring the work back if they are wrong. I understand that most collectors would probably have more integrity than this, but even the possibility of a return post-revelation lessens the impact of the show, conceptually. Here are two other possibilities.

One is that you could allow returns up until the day before you release the artists' identities. You could even contact the collectors a week or two in advance, giving them a "last chance." It's a bit scarier for them, but also a bit more fun, a bit more risky.

Another possibility is (and you could do both of these) a follow-up show with the same artists, No Longer Anonymous, 2 years later, perhaps showing the older and newer work side by side, or telling more about the artists' narrative inquiry (publication?), or even inviting a series of artist talks - to make up for what was not told before. Here it opens more possibilities for dialogue and exchange, and tells collectors what they saw (or didn't).

6/02/2010 05:13:00 AM  
Anonymous gam (humbly) said...

an aside here:
...I have had a bad case of foot in mouth disease - Cedric it was I who misread your comment. Sorry.
also a mea culpa for promoting a stereotype that insults a very important group of people with the term ragging on
and apologies for comparing the gallery professions to umbrella people, and for comparing umbrella ladies whose efforts directly affect couples lives more then many pieces of art to that domain.

I'll keep my foot on the ground for a while now.

-we now return you to our regularly scheduled program

6/02/2010 06:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I hereby declare that minor planet # 12258 "Oscarwilde" is from now on a work of art, and for as long as a conscientious human being is able to assess my claim, it shall no more be reffered to as being merely any floating space object.

Cedric Caspesyan

6/02/2010 09:55:00 AM  

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