The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup
June 30, 2001 10:16 AM   Subscribe

The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup "The art world, through a masterful manipulation of intellectual insecurities, has made itself largely immune to real criticism for the past 30 years."
posted by drunkkeith (21 comments total)
wow. ain't that comment true.

i used to be a member of an on-line art community, and due to my 'real criticisms', i got banned for life.

i can't imagine what it's like out in the meat-world.
posted by jcterminal at 10:22 AM on June 30, 2001

Okay, the thing that strikes me about this article isn't the subject matter, but its presentation. This has to be one of the worst clashes of commercial ad space and editorial space that i've seen in a while. Paging through this,there are several photos of avant-garde art. Items that the very article is in essence asking "is this valuable artwork"? Then, mixed into it all there's an image that says "Office Depot". I only see the top part, and assume it's either A) a photo of some artwork placed outside an Office Depot - maybe a protest of big Box stores, or B) Someone taking a Warhol potshot at today's commercialism. Page down just a bit further and I find that no - it's just an ad. A big ugly intrusive ad. A little further down there are more relevant photos.

This just smacks of the ridiculous "special advertising sections" done by magazines where the content looks close, but not identical to the regular magazine content. Both are annoying and, at base, dishonest.
posted by kokogiak at 10:28 AM on June 30, 2001

This just smacks of the ridiculous "special advertising sections"...

Agreed. Regarding the $29 000 price tag on the Styrofoam cup, it did include the dead ladybug.
posted by the_ill_gino at 10:31 AM on June 30, 2001

i dislike a lot of modern art. i think that art ought to be subtle, but not obscure; the inability to express oneself to much of your audience reflects poorly on the artist, and not the audience, imo.

that said, i wonder if a lot of art produced today is not simply anarchist. which is more important in sensationalistic art: the message, or the outrage it causes?
posted by moz at 10:39 AM on June 30, 2001

For Sale:

1 Styrofoam cup. Only partially used. Bug optional.


Any offers?
posted by davehat at 10:44 AM on June 30, 2001

Good story, surprised it was Slate. If you had won the lottery, wouldn't this be the FIRST thing you would buy?

The surreal highlight of the season, though, had to be watching someone at Christie's pay $886,000 for Cattelan's 1999 installation The Ninth Hour, a room-size work depicting a realistic, life-size wax effigy of Pope John Paul II in white robes, felled by a meteorite that has crashed through the ceiling.

Seriously though, there will always be commoditization and speculation of art, and Duchamp will always be laughing in his grave at the monster he created. We have a rule in our household that cuts straight through all this bullshit. If we haven't sat down with the artist and had a beer together, their art won't hang on our walls. That credo has many applications.
posted by machaus at 10:44 AM on June 30, 2001

saw this in the IMDb user comments recently that i thought was kind of apt:

Art is a form where an idea reaches material substance true for all to enjoy.
posted by kliuless at 11:20 AM on June 30, 2001

I was searching around for the sculpture on google and found this article. It states:

Friedman, a John Burroughs School graduate who has gone onto an acclaimed career as a conceptual artist, avoided Liebeck's(the woman who spilled a McDonalds coffee on herself) trauma. He simply took a Styrofoam cup, filled it with coffee, allowed the coffee to evaporate, then placed the object under a ladybug mounted with pins on a painted piece of wood.

This is interesting because I assumed that it was just a cup placed on the floor, but if this guy actually built and painted a mount for it made to resemble an art gallery floor, along with the above mentioned ladybug, then we actually have a sculpture here. Perhaps the photo was cropped to diminish the work gone into the sculpture.

On the sane side, the article mentions at the same auction that a stack of newspapers with twine by Robert Gober had no bidders.
posted by swipe66 at 11:59 AM on June 30, 2001

What really gets me is the notion that art is no longer about mastery of craft first and foremost. I also agree whole-heartedly with moz: the inability to express oneself to much of your audience reflects poorly on the artist, and not the audience. There's simply no other way to describe this but to say it's stupid. Spending thirty grand on a styrofoam cup and dead ladybug is insane when that art can be recreated for about $5- depending on where you get the coffee, I suppose. For that matter, how insulting is it that the $330,000 for the mattress went not to mattress's original designer, or even the employee in the factory that made it, but to some con artist named Rachel Whiteread and the gallery that promotes her hustling.

This suggests to me that despite lofty platitudes about the nature of this art, the form of this art- or the creation of it, the process undertaking as in the case of Friedman above- is not about a craftsmanship that elicits awe, nor is it even about any deep meaning that might enlighten us as viewers. Instead, we're left to presume that the actual "art" on display is the purchase of this crap for an outrageous price. By that logic, I suppose one could argue that the only art to be found in the MoMa is the fact that people pay money to get in. :)
posted by hincandenza at 12:08 PM on June 30, 2001

I completely understand what all of you are saying, but doesn't the price have a lot to do with the artist who "created" the piece. In a way it's very similar to celebrity collectibles/merchandise. I'm sure there are men/women out there who would pay thousands for a pair of Tom Cruises' worn underwear. I think it's about gaining a connection to someone you have real respect/admiration or desire/lust for, but at the same time is out of your reach.
posted by brian at 12:08 PM on June 30, 2001

Loved this line: "The uninitiated audience has developed a form of smugness about not being taken in that's equal to the insider smugness about not wanting to appear out," says Bruce Wolmer, editor and publisher of Art & Auction. It's my belief that "art" is in the eye of the beholder and trying to co-opt the term for exclusionary means is silly (although done frequently). What's in or out or is or is not art - these are just EXTERNAL criteria that seems best utilized by the 'art as investment' people. But if you want to hang it on your wall... well, your own eyes and maybe machaus' beer criteria are the way to go. There's no need for defensiveness for what you truly appreciate, even if others don't. And speaking as an artist, getting defensive about the art/not art thing is a big distraction from the creative process itself.
posted by thunder at 12:16 PM on June 30, 2001

As in all things, might there be some corollary to the world of weblogs here. They provide a venue uninteresting and untalented people to parade what are puported to be their "thoughts" in public -- thoughts that might be better appreciated in a traditional diary with a lock and key. There are a lot of such styrofoam cups in all areas of human endeavor. Maybe they serve the purpose of lowering our expectations so when we come across real art or real thoughts, we appreciate them . . . maybe even marvel at them.

It's a shame though, that we have to wallow through the drek to find the diamonds. I would prefer to have my expectations raised and exceeded.
posted by fpatrick at 3:05 PM on June 30, 2001

... doesn't the price have a lot to do with the artist who "created" the piece. In a way it's very similar to celebrity collectibles/merchandise.

You're right -- a lot of this is personality-driven, or, as the article mentions, brand-driven.

It reminds me of how often brand is touted as the thing that will raise your product in the mind of the consumer in comparison to similar products of others that provide the same benefits.

This art stuff is like the shampoo thing -- over and over I've heard that all shampoos are basically the same thing. And yet many people can't enjoy their shampoos unless they've bought the $9 Aveda brand as opposed to the $1.50 Suave brand. With shampoo, a lot of people buy the brand and not the product. (Purchasers of the more expensive brand will swear to you that the extra money spent really does make a huge difference in the result. Heh.)

Meaning that even if some art lovers could create a knock-off of the styrofoam cup and spider because he or she liked the aesthetics of it but wanted to save a ton of money, many of them would never do this because ultimately they wouldn't really enjoy that work. There would always be that nagging feeling -- "I own a knock-off, not the real brand" -- that would preclude full enjoyment.

When the art world became interested in work where the concept/idea became more valuable than the product, it entered into a dangerous area where people could presumably reproduce any number of knock-offs. (I could knock off a Duchamp urinal over the weekend, but I can never knock off the Sistine Chapel frescoes even if I wholly understood the idea behind it.)

Solution? The best way for the galleries, curators, artists and art cogs to protect their investments and livelihoods was through branding, and this branding normally starts with a cult-of-personality marketing pillar.
posted by bilco at 3:25 PM on June 30, 2001

Do you think the artist got much of the 29K? There's a misleading slip to say that artists have intellectual insecurities which they can manipulate, on the one hand, and on the other say that "the art world" manipulates insecurities to get mucho cash. I would argue, free though I may be of facts, that the artist did not get much money, the dealers and auction houses are the real agents in this system. It's like junk bonds, and auction house extravagance has zip to do with the relative merit of a styrofoam cup on the floor. As previously mentioned, the article uses external criteria to determine whether a piece is "art." I would similarly assert that the article uses monetary criteria to determine the value of an aesthetic object and genius of its maker, which is, well, icky.
posted by rschram at 6:01 PM on June 30, 2001

As in all things, might there be some corollary to the world of weblogs here. They provide a venue uninteresting and untalented people to parade what are puported to be their "thoughts" in public -- thoughts that might be better appreciated in a traditional diary with a lock and key.

fpatrick, couldn't the same be said of MetaFilter? ;-)

With regards to art that could easily be reproduced, such as the coffee cup with a bug or any number of paintings at the SFMoMA, consider this. To many, the "art" isn't only in the execution of the piece, but in coming up with the idea in the first place. I can't tell you how many times I have been in a museum and seen a "masterpiece" only to think to myself, "I could do that." The key, though, is that I didn't do it. Someone else had the idea. The fact that the artist had the idea is part of why that artist's brand is worth so much to fans/collectors.

If there were an artist whose work you liked, would you rather have an original canvas than a lithograph? If you could only get a print, would you want one that was signed and numbered by the artist?
posted by jewishbuddha at 8:15 PM on June 30, 2001

ok! i got some bovine internal organs in a jar that is gonna look simply fantastic on bill gates mantle, just under his velvet-rendered 'dogs playing poker'.
posted by quonsar at 8:43 PM on June 30, 2001

Does anyone here actually buy original art? (For the sake of argument, lets assume that art means the kind of thing you find in art galleries). We (partner + I) have bought various things - not at auction prices or from famous people, but from local galleries or on holiday or via the net(!). We buy them because we like them and there were blank walls and empty shelves to take them. They vary from abstract - childish - paintings to a carved wooden cow with madonna on stomach to an embroidery of a dog eating people (less offensive than it sounds). I guess none are styrofoam cups, but nor are they the kind of thing my parents would have in their house.

Anyway, we don't buy for investment (if we did, we'd spend more). I guess we do buy to "impress", in that it's nice to have an attractive house when people visit. But mainly we buy because, as I said, we like things and can.

I can imagine that if we were a thousand times richer, then buying art that cost a hundred times more would be a very normal thing - and while I might not buy the cup, I could imagine buying something else that could feature in an article like this (the pope thing is way cool).

So I'm not sure the article is saying more than that some rich people buy expensive versions of what some "average" people buy...
posted by andrew cooke at 12:23 AM on July 1, 2001

Andrew, I think the difference is even abstract art or carved sculptures have a certain aesthetic, not to mention craftsmanship that you couldn't or wouldn't want to try to replicate. I myself have a couple of prints of Klimt and Bouguereau on my walls, even though Bouguereau is somewhat goofy with his choice of themes (see below when I mention the single tear- style of art... :) ). Even choosing the color of drapes involves an aesthetic that is essential to human yearning for artistic value; and sure, some people pay interior decorators to come in and decorate their homes for them, trusting the designer's judgement over their own.

The complaint many people- or at least I- have against the particular pieces mentioned in the article are that they are purely "conceptual", where the 'art' is simply making physically real what is often a fairly juvenile and simplistic notion. Ooh look, the pope hit by a rock! Gee whillikers, that's deep... most disaffected teenagers write soppy poetry involving similarly basic icons, hardly fitting for a presumably college-educated 'artiste'. Next thing you know these art pieces will be a graphic representation of a single tear rolling down a 15-year-olds cheek. I guess my feeling is that these conceptual art pieces would be akin the above-mentioned interior decorator coming into your home and saying they would use your home to make some obtuse and simplistic point about religious dogma, and then dumping dirt on your rug and leave, sending you a bill for $30,000. I call bullshit on that... :)
posted by hincandenza at 1:41 AM on July 1, 2001

Ooh look, the pope hit by a rock!

What I got from Cattelan's The Ninth Hour wasn't simple slapstick violence, but the question of how we'd react to the pope being killed by something so incredibly unlikely that we'd have to consider divine intervention.
posted by skyline at 2:07 AM on July 1, 2001

Good point, but.... ;-) One of the nice things about buying originals is that you feel you're paying the person who did the work (note added on preview - this is just a personal thing and not a criticism of anyoe who owns copies of more famous stuff). As I quite like some conceptual art I would buy that too (Pauli, my partner's less keen and we only buy what we both like, so we don't own any). It gives me pleasure either way (I'm not paying for craftsmanship, but how I feel) (part of it can be that it's funny - the cup is, I think, and the pope's hilarious (that one's also a damn strong political statement for someone like Pauli (Chilean) and does involve craftsmanship too...)).

Now if I think it's OK paying someone a few hundred pounds for a good idea why can't we scale that up to someone with serious money. Maybe they feel the same about more expensive things?

Perhaps I'm cutting too much slack for the very rich, but I guess it's just the kind of world they live in. They pay more for their food, travel, houses - why not art too?

In other words, I think it's conceptual art plus high prices that annoys. But high prices could just be our view of a different world; if you factor that out, is (purely) conceptual art so bad?
posted by andrew cooke at 2:16 AM on July 1, 2001

When the art world became interested in work where the concept/idea became more valuable than the product, it entered into a dangerous area where people could presumably reproduce any number of knock-offs.

Actually, bilco, I think it's almost the opposite. IMHO, the focus should be on the artists and the communities they inhabit as they are the starting off point for any art.

Using Alvin Toffler's 3 waves as a departure point (from his The Third Wave), in the "agricultural age" who artists were and the "products" they made were closely associated with both the creator and the community (early cave paintings were about the hunt and the community).

Thousands of years later, as we moved into the industrial age, means of production and transportation were not only creating a surplus of "objects" but allowing us to enlarge the boundaries our "markets" to sell that surplus. It was at this "moment" that who the artist was and what he/she made were separated from each other.

People began to buy art that was devoid of its creator (it wasn't important to "know" the artist nor his or her intent, nor was it important to know the artist and his or her affect on your personal life anymore).

In a way, this is where we stand now. Yes, there is a lot of bad contemporary art. But we are often quick to judge, again IMHO, because we have lost touch with the artist.

Of course, this can't easily be charted on a line from aesthetically and conceptually "pure" to commercially crass. Art students may start out pure but, at some point may feel the need to "go the New York" to succeed. The notion of artistic success has also been corrupted.

I'm an artist and work at an art museum. A coworker of mine just came back from the Venice Biennale. He found a preponderance of film/video over the more traditional painting and sculpture. He had dinner with one of the curators who declared that "painting is dead" (ugh, even the declaration is getting old!).

As long as people are into edifice, they will pay hugh prices to appear knowledgeable and intelligent. As long as people continue to think in "black and white" terms, making black and white statements, they will miss the many (and often subtle points) of much art.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 6:21 AM on July 1, 2001

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