Thank you, Christian Jankowski, for exposing the real meaning of “conceptual” art
18 October, 2011
Last Wednesday’s Guardian had an article about the Frieze Art Fair, an international contemporary art fair that takes place every October in London. Specifically, it dealt with Christian Jankowski’s cruel artistic joke “The Finest Art on Water”. As their chief art writer, Charlotte Higgins, puts it:
….. one artist has taken the sometimes queasy-making connection between extreme wealth and the artworld to its logical conclusion: by attempting to sell a 65-metre superyacht at the fair.
Buy it as a boat (it will be built to order by CRN of Ancona, to the buyer’s specifications), and it costs €65m (£60m). Buy it as an artwork, authenticated by the German artist Christian Jankowski, and it will cost €75m. If that seems a little steep, a smaller, 10m Aquariva Cento motorboat is on display at the fair, among the Robert Rymans and Tacita Deans. That one’s €500,000 as a mere boat; €625,000 when officially designated art.
According to Jankowski, the boats are not artworks until he has handed out a certificate to the new owner, who will then have the right to call the vessel “Christian” (for the motorboat) or “Jankowski” (for the superyacht). There is nothing, he admits, to stop the owners calling the boats what they like even without paying the extra. But without the certificate, he said, “it won’t be sculpture”.
This brilliantly exposes the typical con-job that passes for conceptual art, much as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal famously did almost 100 years ago. In 2004, Duchamp’s work was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century and it has been asserted that, with this single work, Duchamp invented conceptual art and “severed forever the traditional link between the artist’s labour and the merit of the work”.
But, more significantly, Jankowski’s “sculpture” also highlights the dark question which we find so difficult to deal with: how can it ever be justified to pay tens of millions of dollars/euros for any artwork, no matter how rare? If I can pay a skilled artist a few thousand euros to create an exact duplicate of (say) Van Gogh’s Irises, brush stroke by brush stroke, so that nobody can distinguish it from the original, then why should I not get as much satisfaction from hanging that on my wall as I would if I had paid $54 million for it? It is functionally and aesthetically identical, after all.
The $54 million is surely a lot to pay for the bragging rights and reflected glory associated with owning an object which, although in principle unique, can effectively be reproduced at will by a talented forger.
Christian Jankowski is doing us all a favour by taking conceptual art to its logical (illogical?) conclusion. If he forces the art establishment to look in the mirror and to concede that concept alone should not (or should hardly ever) triumph over skill, beauty and wit, he will deserve a place in art history.