Criticism — From the December 2013 issue

Damage Control

The modern art world’s tyranny of price

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What would it mean to think beyond the economics of the art world, to move beyond both vandalism and the market it exposes? Is it possible to get outside the legacy of Duchamp — a legacy that has begotten, whatever Duchamp would have thought of them, Umanetses and Chapmans and Pinoncellis? In 2009, the Polish-born artist Elka Krajewska founded something she calls the Salvage Art Institute (SAI) in New York. The “institute” is basically Krajewska herself. She persuaded the AXA Art Insurance Corporation — one of the largest insurers of art in North America — to give her a sampling of their inventory of “total loss” art. When a work is damaged — in transit, in a fire or flood, in an act of vandalism — and an appraiser agrees with the owner of the work that it cannot be satisfactorily restored, or that the cost of restoration would exceed the value of the claim, the insurance company pays out the total value of the damaged work, which is then, legally speaking, worthless. I always assumed such artifacts were destroyed, but it turns out there are warehouses full of them; Krajewska visited one in Brooklyn. She now possesses more than forty objects that, as far as the art market is concerned, are no longer art.

SAI 0032 Materials: ink, paper (3) Size: 30? × 22? each Date and nature of damage: unknown, water stained Date of claim: unknown Date declared total loss: unknown Production: unknown Artist: Robert Arthur Goodnough Title: lithographs

SAI 0032Materials: ink, paper (3)
Size: 30" × 22" each
Date and nature of damage: unknown, water stained
Date of claim: unknown
Date declared total loss: unknown
Production: unknown
Artist: Robert Arthur Goodnough
Title: lithographs

SAI 0041 Materials: pine Size: 14″ × 14″ × 77″ Date and nature of damage: unknown, unknown Date of claim: unknown Date declared total loss: unknown Production: 1989 Artist: William King Title: Primavera

SAI 0041
Materials: pine
Size: 14" × 14" × 77"
Date and nature of damage: unknown, unknown
Date of claim: unknown
Date declared total loss: unknown
Production: 1989
Artist: William King
Title: Primavera

The first public viewing of the SAI was held at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, part of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, last fall. Krajewska, collaborating with Mark Wasiuta, the school’s director of exhibitions, mounted the damaged paintings on movable dollies and also displayed the (heavily redacted) paperwork that detailed the processing of the claims. Some of the damaged works were easily recognizable, such as a small Jeff Koons balloon dog lying in shards on a silver tray. (At Krajewska’s exhibition, you can touch whatever you want; I admit I felt a frisson of transgression getting to handle the fractured sculpture, an icon I have wanted, in my more childish moments, to smash.)

The SAI explicitly positions itself as a kind of conceptual reversal of the Duchampian ready-made. Its mission statement reads:

SAI conceives the declaration that an object is No Longer Art as the symmetrical inversion of the subjective declaration that any object may be art. The signature of the adjuster meets and cancels the signature of the artist.

And Krajewska preempts the possibility of these objects’ being reappraised or resold:

SAI seeks to maintain the zero-value of No Longer Art and recognizes its right to remain independent and divorced from the demands of future marketability.

I had my own experience of something like hyperkulturemia, a feeling of vertigo, when I visited the SAI. What moved me most were not those works that were clearly severely damaged — that had suffered some kind of violence — but those that appeared to me identical to their former incarnation as economically valuable art. For example, to my perhaps unsophisticated eye, several photographs — works by Anne Morgenstern, Rodney Smith, and even Henri Cartier-Bresson — seemed perfectly intact, despite what the owners and appraisers had decided. As I spent a few minutes holding each of these photographs in turn, I remembered the following anecdote from a book by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben:

The Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.

SAI 0016 Materials: oil, canvas Size: 52″ × 35″ Date and nature of damage: March 16, 2010, torn in transit Date of claim: March 23, 2010 Date declared total loss: March 2010 Production: 1850 Artist: Alexandre Dubuisson Title: La Moisson

SAI 0016
Materials: oil, canvas
Size: 52" × 35"
Date and nature of damage: March 16, 2010, torn in transit
Date of claim: March 23, 2010
Date declared total loss: March 2010
Production: 1850
Artist: Alexandre Dubuisson
Title: La Moisson

Several of the works in the SAI are just as they were, but a little different. We’re all familiar with material things that take on a kind of magical power as a result of a signature: that’s how branding functions in the gallery system and beyond, whether for Duchamp or Louis Vuitton. But it is incredibly rare to encounter the reversal of that process, to encounter an object freed from the market — freed without being shattered or spit on or torn. It was as if I could register as I held each of the photographs in my hands a subtle but momentous transfer of weight: the market’s soul had fled; it was art outside of capitalism. Each work had been redeemed, both in the sense that the fetish had been converted back into cash, the claim paid out, but also in the more messianic sense of being saved from something, saved for something. For me these objects — just as they were, but a little different — were ready-mades for or from a world to come, a future where there is some other system of value, in the art world and beyond, than the tyranny of price. That’s long been a dream of many artists and vandals alike.

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’s new novel is forthcoming from Faber and Faber. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Contest of Words,” appeared in the October 2012 issue.

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