Essays

Annie Leibovitz, Wu-Tang Clan, and the Aura of Expensive Art

by Jillian Steinhauer on April 22, 2014

(image via turbosquid.com)

(image via turbosquid.com)

Photographer Annie Leibovitz’s latest work of art is a book — a book that measures more than two feet high, runs to 476 pages, and comes with its own tripod, designed by Marc Newson. “You could never hold it in your lap and thumb through it,” she told the LA Times. “What I assume people will do is change the picture now and then. It is so big that by the time you get to the middle, you can’t remember where it started. It’s not a book. It’s really an installation, a piece of art.”

The eponymous edition published by Taschen costs $2,500. That’s actually not bad, as far as art prices go, but still more than most of us laypeople can afford. Big art comes in two sizes, it seems: experiential or expensive.

The Leibovitz book is actually modeled on another book that Taschen published, back in 1999, of the work of photographer Helmut Newton. That tome — titled, appropriately, SUMO — was roughly the same dimensions as the Leibovitz, weighed 66 pounds, also came with a specially designed stand (by Philippe Starck), and cost $1,500 (then; copies today sell for $15,000). In what reads like a desperate cry for relevance, the publisher bills it as “the biggest and most expensive book production in the 20th century.”

In 1999 the SUMO ploy probably seemed outrageous or prescient (or both); today it seems fairly obvious: with the proliferation of digital media and ebooks and Google Books, old-fashioned book publishers need to make money somehow. One of the solutions has been to push books ever further into the category of art objects. If you’re going to make something physical, why not make its physicality the entire point?

But these extremely limited-edition, expensive books are fascinating also because they seem to run counter to most of the history of book production as we know it. The printing press was revolutionary, we’re taught, because it made texts like the Bible widely available. What was once the province of the wealthy and well-educated could be read and owned by peasants (once they learned to read). Books are marked by a populism and wider reach than visual art, since the latter generally exists in single or limited editions that you must leave your house to see, while the former tend to come in copies that you can buy cheap and mark up yourself. As someone who’s always wanted art to be more like books in this respect — more accessible, more widely engaged with in our culture — I find the move in the opposite direction somewhat depressing.

It’s not just books that are being art-ified, either. The Wu-Tang Clan announced last month that it will release a single copy of an upcoming double album, sealed inside an engraved silver-and-nickel box made by British-Moroccan artist Yahya. The group is planning a tour for the one-of-a-kind album, with stops at museums, galleries, and festivals, where visitors will buy a $30–50 ticket to listen to it once. And then, when that’s over, Wu-Tang will sell the thing, for a bucketload of money (“in the millions,” according to Forbes).

The thinking behind the album/stunt is completely fascinating: “Wu-Tang’s aim is to use the album as a springboard for the reconsideration of music as art, hoping the approach will help restore it to a place alongside great visual works–and create a shift in the music business, not to mention earn some cash, in the process,” writes Zack O’Malley Greenburg in Forbes. And Wu-Tang member RZA tells him:

The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years. And yet its doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.

The takeaway here is that a creation has value only if people are willing to pay money for it — and not just a small or reasonable amount of money but something exorbitant, “in the millions,” as collectors do for a Jeff Koons rabbit. The Wu-Tung Clan is going to turn music into art not by making really excellent music but by making really expensive music — all hail the apotheosis of capitalism! In 1936, Walter Benjamin was worried about the diminishing aura of the artwork in the face of mechanical reproduction; I can’t help but wonder if today he’d welcome mechanical reproduction as a way to diffuse the aura that’s become almost entirely commercial.

Interestingly, because music is a field much closer to literature — readily available to own for a cheap price — Wu-Tang fans are less than thrilled at this hijacking of their system. To the point where some of them have taken to Kickstarter to raise money to buy the unique album and then release it to the masses: “For all the fans who won’t be able to pay 30–50 bucks to listen to a double album in one sitting, let’s raise enough money to buy this album and then turn around and give it away for free.” Despite their fuck-the-man fiery intentions, the $3,662 they’ve raised as of this writing looks utterly small and insignificant listed alongside their target goal of $5 million. The people are no match for rich people.

Anyway, while Wu-Tang and RZA are busy talking about music as art, those in the field of visual art seem to have let go of their delusions of grandeur. “Spending £1,000 or more on a book is an investment,” Benedikt Taschen told the Guardian in 2009. “A number of people are looking for a safe place to put their money, and the success of our limited editions have shown time and again that prices are often doubled, tripled or, in the case of Sumo, multiplied by 10. And while you’re waiting for your money to grow, you get to own something beautiful and rare. That’s what I call a good investment.”

Guardian writer Eleanor Morgan calls these remarks by Taschen “crass,” but I think there’s something refreshing in his honesty. At least if we’re frank about what’s good art and what’s a good investment, we may yet be able to tell the difference.

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  • Presley Martin

    “Wu-Tang’s aim is to use the album as a springboard for the reconsideration of music as art,” wait, I always thought music was the highest form of art. I’m a visual artist so maybe the grass is always… or art is always higher in another discipline. If Mr. Taschen’s statement is crass, then yes, more crass people please.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I know, I found that so odd, too. Is music not art already? What year is it?

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