Posted by Jay Livingston
A year ago, Shamus Khan’s Privilege won the C. Wright Mills award. The other day, Shamus discovered that Amazon was offering to buy back copies. The price: 68 cents.
Here we have another case of where quality is unrelated to dollar value. Privilege is just as good a book as it was a year ago. But it must be disappointing to be told that your book is worth only a few pennies. Maybe Shamus can find some solace in a Times story that ran the same day about a Manhattan art gallery that had been selling expensive forgeries. I know that in art, quality and value are two very different things. Still, I had to stop and wonder when I read about
Domenico and Eleanore De Sole, who in 2004 paid $8.3 million for a painting attributed to Mark Rothko that they now say is a worthless fake.One day a painting is worth $8.3 million; the next day, the same painting – same quality, same capacity to give aesthetic pleasure or do whatever it is that art does – is “worthless.”* Art forgery also makes me wonder about the buyer’s motive. If the buyer wanted only to have and to gaze upon something beautiful, something with artistic merit, then a fake Rothko is no different than a real Rothko. It seems more likely that what the buyer wants is to own something valuable – i.e., something that costs a lot. Displaying your brokerage account statements is just too crude and obvious. What the high-end art market offers is a kind of money laundering. Objects that are rare and therefore expensive, like a real Rothko, transform money into something more acceptable – personal qualities like good taste, refinement, and sophistication.
* Other factors affect the perceived quality and authenticity of a work. Artistic fashion plays an important role, but so does social context (see this post from 2007.)