Martin Gayford

Luxury Goods: Absolutely priceless

The utter uselessness of art is part of its beauty, says Martin Gayford

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A couple of weeks ago I attended a reception in the Banqueting House on Whitehall to mark the opening of an exhibition by the American painter Cy Twombly at the Serpentine Gallery. A vast and lavish buffet was laid on tables down the length of Inigo Jones’s grandest room. Wealthy collectors drank champagne with Turner Prize-winning artists beneath Rubens’s only surviving ceiling. Lord Palumbo gave an exquisitely embarrassing speech in which — as has been widely reported — he repeatedly muddled the name of the principal guest, Cy Twombly, with that of the owner of Condé Nast, Si Newhouse (who was not there). Altogether, it was a highly satisfactory evening, and a neat demonstration of the power and prestige of art. There we all were, gathered in the room where Charles I once greeted ambassadors, in order to honour an artist whose finest work was derived from graffiti on walls and scribbles on blackboards. I hasten to add that the paintings Twombly created from those sources were magnificent. But nonetheless his work is a graphic demonstration of the ability of artists to make something out of what is apparently nothing. That is what makes art — among other things — the ultimate example of luxury goods.

All luxuries, as we were taught by the economist Thorstein Veblen, are designed for conspicuous consumption. That is, they are bought and displayed partly just because they are expensive and useless, just as certain male birds develop hugely elaborate tail feathers in order to demonstrate to lady birds that they are fit and strong enough to sustain all that useless weight. Some luxuries still have their uses. A mansion may be unnecessarily big, but you can still live in it. A couturier dress might cost as much as a car, but it is still wearable. But art is absolutely and utterly useless. That is, in a way, part of its beauty. And avant-garde artists are especially good at making that point.

In 1959 Yves Klein — a precursor of much that goes on today in the cutting-edge community — began to market his Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility. These took the form of receipts for imaginary territories, priced at 20, 40, 80 and 160 grams of pure gold. When one of these was purchased, Klein handed over the certificate, took the gold and ceremoniously threw half of it into the river Seine under the eyes of the buyer and other witnesses (the rest he kept). So taking part in this transaction might have had some of the attractions of gambling for the addicted gambler — the sheer purging pleasure of destroying money. A Hollywood writer who bought a top-of-the-range 160-gram immaterial zone reported that ‘no other experience in art’ equalled ‘the depth of feeling’ he had experienced at the sale ceremony. The unexpected pay-off is that the receipt for that immaterial zone probably constituted a shrewd investment, since Klein is now a highly rated figure in the history of postwar art. It probably appreciated rather faster than the actual gold would have done.

This is the strange thing about art — it is totally useless but it can rise in value much faster than any useful thing. The catch is, it is likely to be fatal if you think of it as an investment. Occasionally I walk past a house in a neighbouring street which has a Damien Hirst spot painting visible though the window. It has been there for years, and so was bought when such items were quite cheap, rather than priced in six figures, as they are now. But to get bargains like that you must at least half believe that you are throwing your money away.

A couple of years ago the Tate bought a can of Carlo Manzoni’s ‘Merda d’artista’ — the artist’s canned excrement, neatly labelled — for £22,300. There was a bit of a stink about this in the press but, as art-world insiders know, to protest is absurd. Manzoni’s ‘Merda’ is a Modernist classic, and was probably cheap at the price. Obviously, it would have been much more economical to get the stuff direct from source in 1961. It would have felt more like flushing money away, though.

In fact, with contemporary art, you probably are — metaphorically if not literally — chucking your cash in the river or down the lavatory. Only if you do it anyway, just for the hell of it, is there the faint chance that eventually it will all come back ten- or a hundred-fold. So what should the aspiring collector of avant-garde immaterial zones and similar luxurious trifles be looking out for today? Let’s set aside such obvious commodities as paintings and prints — although, as always, there are plenty of good young painters around. For the last 35 years and more, art has taken just about any conceivable form — including actions on the part of the artist, feats of endurance, bodily effluvia and masochistic suffering. All of these — or their traces — are avidly collected.

Film and video art is a fairly conventional sector. Tapes can be editioned like prints, numbered and docketed — although, as with some forms of print, there is no technical reason why they should not be run off in infinite quantities. The limitation, of course, makes them collectable. Last year an exhibition of early examples — grainy footage of whiskery early 1970s artists walking round in circles, muttering to the camera and taking their clothes off — showed to great acclaim in New York and London. It was drawn from the collection of an American couple who followed this style of art from the beginning.

At the Cy Twombly reception I ran into a French collector who goes in for more up-to-date art of this variety. He has, he told me, more than 800 film and video pieces, but had recently met a rival who owned 3,000 (‘I felt utterly crushed’). But how, I asked, does he actually enjoy his possessions? Well, he confided, he has a dark space and a state-of-the-art projector of the kind one would find at Tate Modern — but if he is feeling lazy, he just looks at them on a video monitor. In fact, he said, one of the charms of video art is that you don’t see it all the time. What he liked to do was invite some friends around — fellow video-art fans — and have a viewing session. Although this man hadn’t done so, I suppose you could commission a video portrait of yourself like Sam Taylor-Wood’s of David Beckham. That would really be smart.

So there you are. There is no form of art that cannot be traded, collected and enjoyed. Even performances survive in the form of films and photographs. The difficulties that go along with preserving, say, a piece such as the sculpted animals formed from carpet fluff by the artist Tonico Lemos Auad only add to the fun.

I considered including a few specimen prices, but the grander galleries don’t give them out — and anyway, if the price seems important, you just shouldn’t be buying this kind of thing. On the other hand, if this kind of extravagance appeals, you could make a start by investigating a few galleries such as White Cube (44 Hoxton Square, N1), Haunch of Venison (Haunch of Venison Yard, W1), Victoria Miro (16 Wharf Road, N1), Lisson (67 Lisson Street, NW1) and Anthony Reynolds (60 Great Marlborough Street, W1).

To do the thing properly, however, you should do as Charles Saatchi does, and spend hour after hour trawling through the little galleries. An iron law applies here. Just as the free lunch is a mythical entity, any truly spectacular conspicuous consumption requires a great deal of hard work.