Kylie Jenner & The Lost Art
Plastic surgery & value creation.
Perhaps there is no greater moment when the lost value of art crystallizes than when one views some kind of modern art and thinks “I could have done that” or “my daughter drew that once” — and your daughter is four years old.
Or perhaps it becomes clearer when one considers that a lost Vermeer would easily fetch tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions — just as a supposedly lost da Vinci just fetched hundreds of millions — where the same painting by, say, Vermeer’s brother yet otherwise indistinguishable from a Vermeer wouldn’t earn enough to buy a Camry. When Salvator Mundi was just some old painting, it sold for $60 in 1958, but after an application of art forensics revealed it may be a da Vinci, it re-sold for $450 million.
None but a few — supposedly — can even detect the distinction of a painting by Vermeer and da Vinci from the nobody down the street who painted the seemingly same painting. And yet, the prices gyrate between a few dollars and hundreds of millions depending on whether the work was graced with the presence of a handful of masters.
Or why would some colored spots — really, that’s it — sell for millions? Or why does anything by Damien Hirst sell at all? — but his work does sell … and for millions. Why couldn’t you (or any four-year-old) create such lucrative geometric repetition? In fact, Hirst will even sell you the kit to recreate his own painting — from an artistic perspective, it’s entirely within your artistically challenged reach. Of course, you will fail. It may look exactly the same, but no one will pay $1 million for your version.
Artistic Value Creation
For most of the history of art, the artist uniquely possessed something that most people didn’t: talent. The pagan Greeks considered such talents, such as natural beauty, to be gifts from the gods. Phrene, the rather famous ancient Greek consort and model for Praxiteles’ Aphrodite (the most famous work of art), was — according to one version — charged with and acquitted of corrupting the youth because her beauty must be such a gift. (FYI math was similarly revered by the Greeks). In short, all of these gifts pointed to something beyond the small confines of the mortal coil. In doing so, they were uplifting or instructive or, at least, a respite from the psychic warfare of everyday life. Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is worth about $450M more than the same painting by Bob da Vinci precisely because we believe da Vinci possesses a rare gift — Leonardo, and not Bob, was in touch with the universe in ways ordinary people are not.
Of course, you could buy Hirst’s point-by-dot kit (for about $20,000) and do your best, and regardless of the outcome you’ll never be Damien Hirst. Not because you don’t have the talent — talent is now unnecessary — but rather because your dot bonanza will never hang in a gallery or sell for $1 million dollars. And that’s the talent of a modern artist. The meaning — the value — of the painting is not in the painting itself but rather in the social and commercial interactions constructed — usually quite artificially — around it. The “artifice” in modern art is not in the visual but rather the commercial.
Damien Hirst is fine with his talent as salesman rather than artist — he’s the U.K.’s wealthiest “artist.” The galleries are more than happy to take a commission on Hirst’s massive production; he’s practically printing money for them. And the buyers are happy because they participate in creating value. No longer are collectors relegated to viewing such value — or even merely owning it, as you would be if you purchased a Vermeer. Rather, you participate in the very essence of what makes modern art “art.” Of course, such buyers are increasingly aware that by assigning genius to garbage, they’ve influenced the mechanism by which value gets assigned and, generally, increased the value of whatever they’ve just purchased. Hence, you get art as commodity investment like oil or pork bellies.
And so this onanistic ouroboros between the artists, the dealers and galleries, and the buyers commercializes a kind of festive nihilism wherein inexorably meaningless and talentless “art” is assigned increasingly higher values resulting in a kind of elitist obscurantism wherein ordinary people cannot fathom the truth or beauty or any other value nor could they afford it. The value is as out of reach for ordinary people as much as the price tag is, because the meaning is the price tag.
In many ways, modern art — its artlessness and its price tags — is an ostentatious display of wealth that mocks those who can’t participate. It is value and meaning conjured from the ether that destroys millennia of artistic value and replaces it with value derived from commercial transaction. Art has replaced a sense of grasping up toward the heavens with grasping down to your wallet. Modernists were often overt that their objective was to assault millennia of artistic value and replace it with their own golden calf.
It is total garbage. And you can’t afford it.
Kylie Jenner as Logical End
Kylie Jenner sells a look, which is entirely artificially constructed. Where do we place this in our culture?
Art has been redefined as the commercialization of an artless process to confer meaning, and common folk get to participate in that meaning/value creation by purchasing. It is a kind of commercialized mass delusion wherein we believe we hold the meaning of art — the creation of value — in our own hands and our own surgically perfected faces because, now, nothing is beyond our control. Damien’s dots and Kylie’s face are the inevitable result of the Victorian fantasy that with enough effort and a little innovation, total control is within our grasp.
The artfulness of Kylie’s face or Damien’s dots rely on no inherent talent, no divine inspiration, and no blessing from the heavens; they both rely on an application of money and mutual conspiracy for value creation. Kylie’s visage is created by surgeons cashing checks from Kylies’s parents. Damien’s dots were created by assistants cashing checks from Damien and art dealers. (No, Damien doesn’t do most of his own work; neither does Koons or many other ‘artists’.) In fact, Damien’s dots aren’t even original. Dots-as-masterwork have been done for decades and some even hang in the Met. Damien, of course, wisely added more dots and more color, which inevitably led to higher prices.
And so, Kylie is just a modernist version of Phrene, a logical conclusion to Liberman. Once the artless gets trojan-horsed into culture by a heady application of dollars and the right mob saying the right things, then the gates have been opened for the widest assortment of barbarians. And so, when one hears of rap “artists” — the fine authors of such lyrics as:
I like them black, white, Puerto Rican, or Haitian/Like Japanese, Chinese or even Asian.”
Chingy — “Balla Baby”
“Almost drowned in her pussy, so I swam to her butt”
Lil’ Wayne — “The Motto”
— and one thinks, “that isn’t exactly Milton,” well, Liberman isn’t el Greco either but we live in new times. If Liberman’s dots is art — and the Met says it is — then so is “I swam to her butt.”
And one wonders…
Why is the world going mad? We’re enveloped in a value ponzi scheme, and people have the spectral apprehension that narratives of meaning seem to be constructed from meaninglessness, that a sense of genuine value has been lost. The most definitive word on modern art came from Marcel Duchamp. Marcel was rather forlorn about art going into WWI, and he saw the future of dots and butts. So, for his submission for a major NYC exhibit, he bought the following from a plumbing supply store, signed it “R. Mutt” — (a French play on “moneybags urinal”), and submitted it under the title “Fountain.” Marcel then dabbled a bit in art but spent the bulk of his life (he was only in his early 30s) playing chess. There’s a reasonable argument that Goya was the last great master, but I submit that Marcel’s Fountain is the last great masterpiece. It warned us — it’s our problem that we didn’t listen.
Note-1: We know that Duchamp was, at best, forlorn and, at worst, disgusted by his reaction to the news that Brides Stripped Bare was dropped and cracked during shipment. He shrugged and said “maybe it’s improved.”
Note-2: Yes, if Kylie gets a bindi (Indian forehead dot) and Damien drops her in formaldehyde, then we’ve reached the cultural singularity.
 “Artless” in the sense that artfulness, whatever that means, is not a necessary ingredient.
About Nathan Allen
Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). Strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.