The Null Device

The social function of monumental kitsch

From an article by Nick Cohen about the current Frieze art fair in London, an observation on the function that huge, tacky-looking artworks fulfil in validating their wealthy purchasers' status; Cohen's argument is that monumental kitsch is a peacock-tail-like mechanism for (expensively and unforgeably) demonstrating that one has status putting one beyond the criticism of one's inferiors:
The justifications from the critics whom galleries always seem able to find to dignify the shallow add to the melancholy spectacle. They talk of challenging our notions of what is art as Duchamp did with his urinal. They forget that Duchamp offered his "fountain" to a New York show in 1917 – almost a century ago, and his once radical ideas are now so established they will soon deserve a telegram from the Queen. "Everything changes except the avant garde," said Paul Valéry. Yet Frieze shows one change, although not a change for the better.
Collectors do not buy Koons because he challenges their definitions of art. The ever-popular explanation that the nouveau riche have no taste strikes me as equally false – there's no reason why the nouveau riche should have better or worse taste than anyone else.
What a buyer of a giant kitten or a gargantuan fried egg says to those who view his purchase is this: "I know you think that I am a stupid rich man who has wasted a fortune on trash. But because I am rich you won't say so and your silence is the best sign I have of my status. I can be wasteful and crass and ridiculous and you dare not confront me, whatever I do."

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