An artist noticed a critic looking on as he put the final touches to a piece he’d been working on for some time.
“I’d love to have your opinion,” he said stepping back from his canvas.
“It’s worthless,” replied the critic bluntly.
“Oh, that’s alright,” retorted the artist. “I’d like to hear it anyway.”
It was Oscar Wilde who once said that we all live by selling something. This is true brilliance. True because it’s bang on. Brilliant because it was said by Oscar Wilde. Chances are he wrote it. Still, remarkably apt in its time and more so today as we impassively slap bar codes onto all things tangible and intangible. That which we see, touch, hear, smell, taste or imagine invariably has a commercial value of sorts. There seems to be a captive market for almost anything these days. It’s endlessly fascinating and at times quite baffling.
We each live in a eco system where we feed our needs and desires on a daily basis, often not giving terribly much thought to the question of real value. We simply trade time and effort for commodities and comforts and expect that they pivot more or less around a point that is, or is close enough to,“market related value”. If the cost deviates dramatically, we basque in the glory of having snatched up a bargain or sullenly begrudge the fact that we’ve just been gouged.
Rarely do we deconstruct the items we consume and meaningfully evaluate, “What is it worth?” Not “market value” worth. Really worth.
It’s an outrageously complex question which most times has a frustratingly hypothetical answer, but deserves a little exploration nonetheless.
Case in point, a global staple like a pair of jeans. So you’re about to invest in the most essential of wardrobe essentials, and need to make a savvy choice.
Let’s strip it down to the nuts and the bolts and consider materials. Right, so there’s denim which has a value per meter across a range of qualities, and I’ll put this particular quality at “aloofly premium” but not quite “Kardashian”. Upmarket, but not vulgar or at a point where you’ll lose sleep because there are children going hungry in Africa. Add to that some respectable hardware (buttons, rivets, YKK zippers) plus the invisible etceteras like thread and fusing…and voila, we have the components. Then there’s the question of labour. Labour includes construction and, because any great pair of jeans hits the shop floor looking like a hand-me-down that’s survived three generations of hillbillies, multiple washes and treatments….often manually applied. Now, there’s a huge saving to be had whipping them up in a condemned building somewhere in Bangladesh or war torn Pakistan, as opposed to lovingly crafting them in one of the few remaining factories in comfort of the homeland, where the workers take a 45 minute brunch break in order to enjoy a well deserved $22.00 smashed avocado on sourdough and a soy latte. More profitable despite the fact that they would need to be packed and shipped half way across the earth, clear customs, be insured, transported, warehoused, delivered and handled repeatedly along a lengthy pipeline until they finally reach their point of sale. Of course, it’s a tricky business keeping across where products are in fact manufactured, but surely when you’re paying top dollar for a luxury brand it would retain it’s integrity and not be “proudly produced” somewhere in the armpit of rural China? Right Ralph Lauren, DKNY, Coach, Longchamp, Kate Spade, Marc Jacobs and that Italian brand that the devil apparently wears that rhymes with enchilada?
Oh, and while we’re on the topic of branding….well this is the game changer, because attaching a happening identity to any product immediately makes this entire discussion academic, as this particular garment is no longer worth the sum of its parts, but rather what the Fashion houses, advertisers and likes of the next door Jones’s tauntingly imply it’s worth, knowing full well that the less affordable it is, the more you’ll just have to have it. What’s worse, the moment you acquire it, it plummets in value as Alain De Botton neatly explains, “The quickest way to stop noticing something may be to buy it – just as the quickest way to stop appreciating a person may be to marry them.”
Confused? We’ve only just begun. We haven’t even touched on the fact that this very pair of rip-torn skinnies will sell for half the price in Africa that they would in America, which is still less than in Australia but as least three and a half times as much as anywhere in Asia. Yes, you could argue that it’s all relative but trying to calculate parity inclusive of global macro and micro economics would have us all in an Inception style spin, and it’s just a pair of jeans for the love of God!
Bottom line, we’ve created a world where the value of an entity is arguable, but the price is simply worth what someone is willing to pay.
Which brings us to Piero Manzoni, one of the biggest blights this world has known. Why? Well because the art world has been damningly complicit in supporting a culture of ludicrously randomly perceived value at the expense of all reason and Piero Manzoni is arguably the worst of them. So in 1961, Piero, the son of a cannery owner somewhere in Italy, decided to stimulate his own art movement. I say this quite literally. He filled ninety 30 gram tins with his own freshly produced excrement and labeled the tins “Artist’s Shit” or “Merde d’artista” in Italian, which never fails make things sound more exotic than they really are.…as well as in English, French and German. From this we can tell that Pierro was cautiously optimistic that his product would have global market appeal. This was not a confidence ill deserved. It so happens that he was right on the money, because there are, believe it or not, bigger tools in this world that Piero Manzoni, and these are the marvels who gave Pierro prime real estate in several esteemed galleries across Europe, and managed to hype his “work” so that that several tins were eventually auctioned at Sotheby’s and Christies for way more that their “market” value…and there’s please God not a sizeable market for this sort of thing. Turns out, there are EVEN bigger baloonheads than Pierro, the gallery posers AND the elitist curators and auctioneers put together. Those are indeed the lucky buggers who, winner-winner-chicken-dinner, have shelled out anywhere between 124 000 Euros and 182 500 Pounds a tin and were giddy with elation as the hammer crashed down. Equally giddy was Pierro, a “struggling” artist (and I’ve no desire to describe the images the term conjures in Manzoni’s case) who only ever expected $37.00 a tin, which according to the 1961 market value was their net weight worth in gold. Michelangelo must be kicking himself in his grave. Left crippled and crook after years toiling flat on his back under the vast expanse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, all the while not realising that a short comfort break would immortalise him in the annals (typo?) of human history and would have him pocket a quick buck in the process. Ah, life’s missed opportunities lie strewn across time like panties on the stage at a Justin Bieber concert.
Perhaps we’re being to hard on young Piero. Some would argue that his “contribution” to the art world has, in its rightful context, left a significant mark, or if you prefer, skidmark….and at the very least he has maintained the purity of his brand by resisting the temptation to outsource production to a remote and foreign emerging economy in order to maximise profits. It could well be a cruel coincidence that Piero’s concept was launched at roughly the same time that the value equation began to unravel.
The post war world was one of sensible structure and frugal practicality. Car ads sold cars and not lifestyles, and there was nothing in the home that couldn’t be updated with a well placed hand made doily. Anything more was a sinful extravagance. There were not scores of brands jostling to sell what flowed freely from the kitchen tap and eating out was reserved for auspicious occasions. You could buy a lot for a little, as opposed to the present where you buy a little for a lot, and never seem to be sated with the sum of your life’s acquisitions thanks to the tireless manipulation of the media. Sadly, there seems to be no stuffing this Godzillan genie back into the bottle. The most we can do is, from time to time, just block it out. Take a sabbatical and treasure the guiltless freebies that spark ones joy. Take a walk. Smell the flowers. Kiss a baby. Hum a catchy tune. Smile at a stranger. Seek out the few remaining pleasures that can neither be bought nor sold. Therein lies true value.