Buying The Shark

Tyler Cowen reviews Don Thompson's The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art:

Many people recoil from the contemporary art market as the home of pretension and human foible, but as expensive pursuits go, the art market is a relatively beneficial one. The dead shark cost $12 million to buy but, of course, it didn't cost nearly that much to make. So the production process isn't eating up too many societal resources or causing too much damage to the environment. For the most part, it's money passing back and forth from one set of hands to another, like a game and, yes, the game is fun for those who have the money to play it. Don't laugh, but we do in fact need some means of determining which of the rich people are the cool ones, and the art market surely serves that end.

The art market sells fame more than it sells objects. Focusing on the shark misses the point: conceptual art emphasized the idea over the object, and the art market responded by commodifying the idea. When the rich buy artwork, they may be buying their way into a select group of the "cool" rich but they are also asserting their understanding of contemporary art. That most people wouldn't buy a $12 million stuffed shark, even if they had the money, is part of the allure.

Meanwhile, Winkleman hears whispers in Chelsea about another art market crash.