Remember about six months ago when I showed you what the most expensive photograph in the world looked like? (See: The World’s Most Expensive Photograph is Very Orange and Slightly Overpriced) Well, we have a new reigning champion. Feast your eyes on the photo that fetched $4.3 million dollars:
Because your brain is still trying to process such a ludicrous claim, let me repeat that this photo recently sold at auction for $4.3 million. Dollars. Four point three million dollars.
It took me awhile to process too. But I think I get it now: They’re just messing with us.
Pretentious Art Connoisseurs™ realize that the public is unshockable. Sure, moralistic prudes like me still get the vapors when confronted with, say, Mapplethorpe’s shots of unlikely-objects-in-unlikely-orifices or Andres Serrano’s bodily-fluids-and-blasphemy photos. But that stuff came out in the late 1980s. We were so naive back then that we though Madonna singing “Like a Virgin” was racy. Now, in an era when a third-rate Madonna-wannabe has to wear a meat dress to get attention, we’re nonplussed by ArtLand hijinks. We may feign outrage, of course, but the truth is we sorta expect that the the Cultural Elites™ will try to get our goat. We just play along because that’s our role.
But the photography branch of the Art World is comprised of clever souls. They realized that to truly shock us requires paying obscene amounts of money for work that exhibits no discernible talent. Take another look at the picture above. Your first thought was likely, “I can’t tell an F-stop from F-Troop but even I could have taken that picture.” Indeed, you could. And that’s the point.
In a world filled with world-class photographers, technical virtuosity isn’t enough to set the artisan apart from the amateur. Even the most Pretentious Art Critic™ can’t slather on enough Theory to make the case that Gursky’s work is artistically superior to your average shutterbug. Put “Rhein II” up against “Jogging Path by the Lake at Dusk” by the overly serious girl in Photography 101 and you’d be hard pressed to tell which was by the famed artist. What sets Gursky apart from the provinicals is that he has patrons willing to pay millions for his boring photos. That’s really all that makes him unique. And that is how the art world (photography division) found a fresh way to annoy us.
Propping up Gursky as the poster-boy for overpriced photos may be the world’s most expensive practical joke. On the list of “Most Expensive Photos of All-Time” he not only holds the #1 spot but also the #3, #4, and# 5 too. And all of those were for the same photo.
Paying the equivalent of Zimbabwe’s Gross National Product for any photo would seem obscene. Paying that amount for such a bland picture is practically pornographic—which makes the auction an ingeniously subversive act. At a time when even Puritans are bored by sex and blasphemy, the surest way to shock and appall is show disdain for the idol of Monetary Value.