Saturday, October 07, 2006

Garbage + Packaging = Art & $20,000 in Profits

Ad Age recently profiled Justin Gignac, a New Yorker who says he's made $20,000 selling NYC trash, handsomely packaged. It's really a cynical experiment in packaging -- the guy says a good package can sell almost anything. And he's right.

According to his website, it's $50 for trash, $100 for Yankee Stadium trash. This is a perfect example of something you could do yourself. I would argue that its cachet lies more in the fact that the garbage is from NYC, and less in the fact that Justin Gignac signed it. Second is the packaging.

In a Hartford Courant article from 2001, scanned in his website, Gignac says he buys lucite boxes for $1 and charges $10 for regular, $15 for Yankee Stadium premo stuff. What's the rate of inflation?

It all reminds me of an idea my dad and I had after seeing some awful art in a museum -- a particular piece gave us both an 'I could do that' reaction, but it also told us how much of art was marketing. The piece was called "Frozen Words" and it was the creation of an artist who called himself simply, "Arman." We were appalled. The sculpture was a block of telephone recievers encased in a chunk of concrete. Not particularly imaginative, not particularly hard to make. We wondered how successful we could be if we came up with a name, some simple sculptures, and spend 99% of our time marketing. So: 1% of our time on art, 99% of our time on convincing people our art was relevant. Neither me nor my father are born hucksters -- we're good bullshitters, but we don't have the constitutions for sales. The project is ultimately too cynical for either of us to try. But I think the point stands. [Couldn't find a photo of "Frozen Words." Plenty exist, however of his various broken violins.]

Arman, aka Armand Fernandez (1928-2005) was born in Nice, France. He had his first solo museum exhibition open in 1964 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. His penchant for encasing things in concrete started in 1970, but he also started to, like Justin Gignac, put things in plexiglass boxes. Arman died on my birthday last fall, here in NYC.

Arman's website still seems to be selling his art. Interested in a piece consisting of Chupa Chups lollipops in polyester? He offers two -- € 10.546,00 each, shipping and tax not included. So what are you paying for here? I would say that you're paying for:

1. Arman's particular vision
2. Arman's labor in putting the art object together
3. And finally, most significantly, Arman's name. If his name carries no weight with you, the lollipops in polyester are worth only the price of the the pops. Which by my estimation is nearly $25 (the price of a 100-count tub of them online.)

With Arman's name comes his past, his heritage, and his connection to and place in the 20th century art world. It's something very ethereal, like the value one might put on your family's old china or a cane your great-grandfather used -- it's a physical connection, something that represents the past, some people, a culture, and a story we tell each other about how we relate in the world. In the case of Arman -- either you're an art expert and you see the value of Arman's place in art history (and you don't judge it a dubious one), or you see his work as a status piece. Something rich people do for one of the following reasons:

1. Collecting art is what rich people do.
2. At some point in the accumulation of wealth, you run out of useable objects and services to acquire; you move on to whimsy -- objets d'art that have no function except to relieve you of a part of your earnings, symbolically.
3. Art buying gives you an intellectual legitimacy that money can literally buy.
4. Acquiring art gives you a way into the art world without having to create art yourself.
5. Pieces of art are all trophies -- physical symbols of your success, but without the gauche plaque with your name on it. Unless you loan it to a museum.
6. Finally, the least despicable reason rich people collect art is this: art objects are muses, symbols of beauty, high-minded conversation pieces, and reminders of the world's complexity and your priveleged place in it. A place from which you can gaze upon its marvels without worrying about mere survival. Art is inspirational and aspirational.

From the NY Times, Aug 1, 1995: "It took ARMAN, the French-American sculptor who is known for his massive works incorporating urban refuse, 19 years to find the right place for his newest creation, "Hope for Peace." The work will be unveiled tomorrow in the Yarze district of Beirut near the new presidential palace and the Defense Ministry. "It is a lot of tanks embedded in concrete and is a 106-foot-tall pyramid that weighs 6,000 tons," Arman said, speaking from Beirut by telephone yesterday."

Calculating the value of art also reminds me of the hovercraft from Dover to Calais -- the price to cross the English Channel depends on why you want to go. If you are trying to get from the British Isles to the continent, you pay a large price. Some ne'er-do-wells told me and my friend that if we pretended we were going for a roundtrip short-duration sightseeing trek, the price was a fraction of what it would be if we were actually trying to get from England to France. Our huge backpacks made pretending very difficult and we didn't try.

What we if we tried this tiered price model on other stuff? For example, I'll sell you one Chupa Chup lollipop for 10 cents if you're with me and I can just hand it to you. If you want me to mail it to you, I'll charge you $1, plus shipping because it's a pain for me to do, and you could actually get your own cheaper. So I'm punishing you for your laziness and charging you a premium for my trouble. If you want to use the Chupa Chup as a memento, I'll charge you $10, but I'll wrap a ribbon around it and give you a card with it that says I bought it in NYC and that it represents New York in the summer of 2006. If you want the Chupa Chup as art, I'll charge you $100, but I'll put it in a lucite box that I'll sign and number. It'll also come with an essay -- a manifesto, really -- about the meaning of the Chupa Chup. You'll get that essay in a hand-printed case with original Chupa Chup art on it, which I'll also sign.

Here's my price list simplified:
Chupa Chups
To eat now: 10 cents
To eat shipped: $1
As a memento: $10
As art: $100

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