Jay Livingston writes:
I know that in art, quality and value are two very different things. Still, I had to stop and wonder when I read about
Domenico and Eleanore De Sole, who in 2004 paid $8.3 million for a painting attributed to Mark Rothko that they now say is a worthless fake.
One day a painting is worth $8.3 million; the next day, the same painting – same quality, same capacity to give aesthetic pleasure or do whatever it is that art does – is “worthless.”* Art forgery also makes me wonder about the buyer’s motive. If the buyer wanted only to have and to gaze upon something beautiful, something with artistic merit, then a fake Rothko is no different than a real Rothko. It seems more likely that what the buyer wants is to own something valuable – i.e., something that costs a lot. Displaying your brokerage account statements is just too crude and obvious. What the high-end art market offers is a kind of money laundering. Objects that are rare and therefore expensive, like a real Rothko, transform money into something more acceptable – personal qualities like good taste, refinement, and sophistication.
I’m in sympathy with Livingston’s general point—I too am happy to mock people who happen to have more money than I do—and Rothko’s art has always seemed pretty pointless to me. I mean, sure, it can look fine on the wall, but it hardly seems like something special to me.
But I think Livingston’s going too far, in that he’s forgetting the natural human desire not to get ripped off.
Let’s set Rothko aside and consider something I really want: a 10-hour clock:
I’m interested in this not because I’m some sort of French-revolution buff but just because I love clocks. We have a 24-hour clock, a backwards clock (I took a regular old-style AC wall clock and flipped around a plastic gear), and a clock where the big hand does the hours and the little hand does the minutes (which I made by sawing off the end of the big hand and gluing it onto the end of the little hand; amazingly enough, it looks just fine, you don’t notice the join at all), and a neon (actually, one of those other gases, the green one, argon maybe?) diner-style clock that says Probability on the top and Statistics on the bottom. So when I saw the 10-hours-a-day, 100-minutes-an-hour, 100-seconds-a-minute clock in the Museé des Arts et Métiers, I had to have it.
Malheureusement, there aren’t a lot of these clocks floating around, and they cost a lot. But suppose I find a beat-up one of these and decide to plunk down $10,000 for it and proudly place it on my wall, partly for the joy of having a 10-hour clock to look at, and partly for the thrill of having this old object. Then some art expert comes by our apartment and tells me it’s a fake. Damn right I’d be mad! Not because the clock is “a form of money laundering” but because somebody ripped me off.