Seeing rock JPEGs being sold for millions made me reconsider some things that were at the back of my mind for some time. It’s about a category of art which I call ‘laborless art’, or ‘craftless art’. To explain it, I need to start at where it all began:
This is Marcel Duchamp.
In 1917, he inverted a urinal, called it “Fountain”, and submitted to a New York exhibition. It was accepted because the exhibition accepted all works from artists who paid a fee. But it wasn’t put on display due to a decision by the jury. They didn’t consider it to be “art”.
A photo was still taken, made it to an editorial and the news soon after. Fountain stirred a lot of discussion since then as to what constitutes “art”, so much so that it made it into my high school curriculum.
Fountain established itself in art history, not because it was especially ingenious, but because it was the first of its kind which made it to the news:
In other words, it was a meme.
Why did the avant-garde movement stir so much controversy and discussion, to persist in our memories for a century?
First of all, it greatly influenced contemporary art, which is the status quo, making it culturally relevant. No-brainer.
My second point is of my own formulation:
A work of art was historically known as something produced by a skilled worker, i.e. an artist, through labor and craft which they have refined over years.
In other words, pre-modern art was something only craftspeople could produce, and not the average joe. The more refined their craft, the more aesthetically pleasing and—more importantly—scarce their art, both of which add to its value.
Common sense is, the more effort you put into something, the more precious and valuable that thing becomes—common to the working class majority, that is. Let us first establish a fact:
The majority of the society, i.e. the lower and middle classes, make their living through the exertion of labor, whereas the upper class, a minority, makes theirs through managing the former. This is a socioeconomic invariant: holds true across different political ideologies.
Now, it may appear that I am about make an argument about conspicuous leisure, but that by itself would not be original. Instead, I will make an argument about memes. After all, Duchamp was not a capitalist trying to signal his wealth, but an artist trying to make a statement to attain artistic fame. He couldn’t have guessed in 1917 how effective of a medium modern art would become for the wealthy to signal their wealth.
A successful meme is one which provokes a large percentage of the population. Come the end of 19th century, when art and craft are still synonymous in people’s minds. Suddenly, people start calling things art which are not products of labor and refined craft, but the opposite: everyday objects put in display, empty canvases, etc.
The working class majority meets a new concept for the first time: art without labor. Cognitive dissonance ensues. It might as well be called artless art, an evident contradiction.
Instead, they call it conceptual art, because it makes you think, and more importantly, discuss it with others, infecting them with the meme. A growth hack disguised in art form.
Laborless art is still popular to this day because it is highly memetic. News agencies love publishing stories like this, because it brings them clicks:
Such art is not about the craft—or lack thereof—it demonstrates, but the social influence it wields. This influence will exist as long as the majority of the population is of working class.
There is one more important observation left to make: Memes need channels to spread, to reach the masses. Could Michelangelo have pulled the same trick in the 16th century, if he were somehow able to conceive it?
No. Without mass media, it is not possible capture eyeballs and people’s attention. Modern art as a medium of wealth and status signalling cannot exist without newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the Internet.
Thus, laborless art is a product of the industrial revolution and technological advances that gave rise to mass media. If we were to lose all mass communication today, collecting would lose its meaning, and the contemporary art market would collapse.
Unlike refined art whose worth is self-evident, laborless art needs to be observed and remembered by millions to retain its value. If archaelogists 10,000 years from now uncovered a Caravaggio, they would have no doubt as to its artistic value, whereas the same archaelogists would probably mistake Fountain for the everyday object it actually is.
This may appear like a critique of modern/laborless art. Quite the contrary. Laborless art offers tons of opportunities to those with the wits to pull it off.
I wanted to deconstruct its inner workings to help prospective artists understand the game, especially in the NFT space. To construct a successful meme in the art scene, you need at least a little bit disillusionment, to understand the economics behind it. Similarly, the greatest successes in the NFT space will not come from talent, but from a solid understanding of memes.