Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1989
Is Cheap The New Black? So reads the title of Jörg Colberg’s latest post on how lower photography price points don’t facilitate increased experiential knowledge of the medium. There’s probably an argument to be made for this even if I don’t agree with it—certainly, we tend to treat the cheaper objects we own with greater disregard—but I’m not sure I follow Colberg’s logic.
A while ago, I read an interview with British art duo Gilbert and George, and the issue of pricing came up. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but the interviewer asked them about the fact that the high prices of their art works made them unaffordable for many people. George’s reply: You could always buy a book. I’ve read and/or listened to many of their interviews, and I know he wasn’t trying to be facetious or cynical. I think he has a very valid point (of course, given that a) I love photo books, b) my wall space doesn’t allow the hanging of one of their pieces, and c) I don’t have the spare change for any of their pieces you could argue I have no other choice).
But when one replaces a (n affordable) book for a (n unaffordable) photograph there is no kind of cheating involved. You’re not being cheated out of the experience of having a photo on the wall. Instead, you are being offered a different way to experience the photography – and art is about experiencing, isn’t it? Or at least it should be?
Putting aside my dislike of Gilbert and George (their work is not as accessible as they claim), to my mind, describing a book as an entirely different art experience places an awfully positive spin on the value of reproductions. Sure, as Colberg notes, books save space, but then so do cheap prints. (I’d really like to see a bookshelf-like storage solution for prints. Flatfiles are expensive, and it’s hard to flip through them casually.) Frankly, I’m not sure why in this scenario a book offers a valuable alternative aesthetic experience when you’re shelling out money for both of them. Aren’t “free” aesthetic experiences, such as museum or gallery openings, just as, if not more informative?
Not to flog this dead horse, but we don’t call catalogues “supplemental exhibition material” for nothing. The original experience of the art work is generally more valuable, not merely different. Notably, though Colberg himself subscribes to the belief that one of art’s essential values—its ability to challenge the marketplace—holds such a powerful place in the art world his post only identifies the ways in which we experience photography as commodifiable objects.
Topically, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist outlined a similar position yesterday as summarized by our Associate Editor Karen Archey: “Although the history of art is largely one of objects, we can look to oral or experiential histories to challenge the history of art-as-commodity.” I’d like to believe there’s some truth to this but I can’t help but note a few practical concerns, namely the fact that virtually every form of documentation has been monetized, including oral and experiential histories. After all, Mr. Obrist surely received an honorarium for the oral history he delivered at the Guggenheim yesterday.
Personally, I see this as a reflection of the mechanisms of contemporary life, which are not without their issues. Art, like everything else, operates within the world of capital. Colberg outlines outlines a few ways in which we increasingly experience art and omits others—but none of these occur outside the market.