Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Property rights in a post-modern world

This might be a trivial topic, but the particular criticism from the political left that I am addressing in this short outline has lingered in my mind. I have for a long time wanted to write a paper on this subject and was hoping that others might be interested in dealing with the metaphysical and economical implications of this issue.

Naomi Klein (see: “No Logo”) and other critics of today’s global economy often charge that the sophisticated form of brand management used by several global corporations (like Nike, Reebok and Asics) challenge the very foundation of these businesses ( i.e. “they don’t even manufacture the product they sell – they only put their brand tag on them”). My argument concerning property rights in a post-modern capitalist era is that this form of brand management has in fact been present in the art world long before business corporations used the very same technique. And we still haven’t seen the day when Klein and her political friends would criticize Jeff Koons, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol or contemporary artists for using other people’s manual labor to complete a piece of art that the artist later market under his own name without contributing to its completion.

The outline of the paper

Property Rights in the Postmodern Era:
The Political Left and the Problem with Non-material Property Rights

In her bestseller No Logo, Naomi Klein is appalled by the way international corporations like Nike use sweat-shops in Asia to manufacture shoes under their brand name. In particular, she points to the fact that Nike and Asics now have outsourced the production so that they only control the “brand management” while the R&D as well as manual labor intensive manufacturing plants are being run by organizations with which Nike or Asics have signed contracts. This routine, as lean and on-demand as it may be, seems to upset the political left and members of “progressive economic groups” even though this form of management is far from new, and – interestingly enough – often gets its praise sung by many of Naomi Klein’s friends in the cultural elite.

The Columbi Egg of Today’s Art World
If we compare the contemporary world of shoe manufacturers with the world of arts, then all of a sudden Klein’s argument doesn’t seem to be as well founded. Many respectable artists, like Rembrandt and Ruben never painted all of their paintings themselves. They simply hired employees to help them with the rather boring task of performing the actual painting of backgrounds, exteriors and other less central parts of the canvas. However, they – Rembrandt and Rubens - did paint. They just abstained from doing things they didn’t need to. When we move to the world of postmodern art, no real form of artistic talent (other than blatant self-promotion) is needed any longer. Modern printing technique made it possible for artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein during the mid-20th century to mass produce their art form with little or no first-hand personal craft included in setting their pieces together.

Today, one of the most widely celebrated artists in this trade of so-called postmodern art is called Jeff Koons - a former Wall Street commodities broker who became recognized for his absurd paintings, sculptures and installations with anything from three mercury-injected basketballs floating in a fish tank to rather revealing pornographic sculptures of himself and his former wife. He is in general best known for his sculptured works, for example “Balloon Dog” (metallized porcelain (several different versions), “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” (ceramic, 1988) and “Made in Heaven” (ceramic and photo series, 1991).

In his art, as well as in his personal life, Koons is a provocateur with a seemingly ever-present interest in trying to explain his work with expressions like “penetration” and “intellectual hymen”. In 1991, Jeff Koons married Ilona Staller, more known under her adult movie actress name “Cicciolina”. Even his harshest critics agree that Koons has an extreme talent for self-promotion and his provocative absurdist-inspired form of kitschy art, be it in the form of porcelain pieces or stylized readymades, seems to become more appreciated by the political left and the cultural elite the more it upsets the conservative right. Many art critics describe him as the undisputed enfant terrible of the postmodern age and his appropriation of artifacts has been interpreted as a gleeful smearing of the mass-consumption culture in today’s society. No doubt about it – Koons is one of the most successful artists in the contemporary art world.

For everything in his art that isn’t readymade, Koons has a staff of painters, sculpturers and craftsmen who perform the actual manufacturing of these objects. Koons is merely a manager of the various “projects” in his studio and he is the one who eventually puts his name on them and takes credit for their creation at the next vernissage.
(In fairness it should be said that Koons is not really alone, even though he might be the most obscure in his trade: an artist who himself turns out to be merely the brand name of the line.)

We should try to stay away from reducing an analysis of Koons’ fairly low level of reasoning and his hypocritical position (i.e. to recycle mass-consumed commodities in his own work, commodities that have been manufactured by sweat-shop workers and labeled by global corporations, and to stress that this is done to criticize this commercial culture while he is at the same time making a profit from selling the collection as “art” under his own name). However, we could argue that not only does his form of art make us aware of the somewhat vague definition of genuine art – it also begs the question how property rights should be defined when it comes to intellectual achievements that can become marketed as art when someone else is putting their own name on a collection of already manufactured goods. To attack the nature of the metaphysics of private property is perhaps the very intention of Koons’ and his peers. As one museum’s folder would put it: “His conflict with the dominant culture's model of art is no different from other conflicts that postmodernist ideas create for existing systems, especially the legal/political systems.”

Reproducing banality
Who has the right to a work of art? This is perhaps the pith and substance of the question I would like to address. In any kind of blend of immaterial property rights (brand names) and material property rights (manufactured goods) we face a number of cases to provide us with a setting of property-based distinctions.
a) First of all – it should be obvious to at least anybody but Naomi Klein that there is no inherent difference between Nike paying for a contract with a manufacturer and Koons paying a laborer to polish his metallized balloon dog sculpture.
b) However, Koons is in fact taking it a step further. He is using already labeled basket balls which he places in an installation of his.

Roxette, Per Gessle and The Entitlement Argument
Let's look at this from a freedom of trade perspective – if I sold my guitar (an acoustic Ibanez, steel stringed with a solid one-piece lid) on Ebay I might only get $100 for it (although it is a very good guitar, I can assure you…) But as it turns out, I once met Per Gessle (from the Swedish pop group Roxette) one night on the town when he was nice enough to sign my guitar after I bought him a pint of beer. So the lid no reads “Per Gessle 2003”. I assume that this will increase the value of my guitar with x dollar. So, due to his signature my guitar is now worth [$100 + x]. A guitar, no matter the quality, gets its value increased by x as soon as Gessle writes his name on it.
The same seems to be true with Jeff Koons. An item, seemingly any readymade item, no matter how dumb or kitschy it may be, gets an increase in its value as soon as it is touched by the hands of Koons and thereby labeled “art”.
The left radicals who are protesting Nike and Asics should have to ask themselves what the difference is between earning profit from a sweatshop in Southeast Asia to selling a signed guitar (which, as it happens, is made in a sweatshop in Indonesia) on Ebay or trading cheap figurines (manufactured in sweatshops in China) or basketballs (also made in China) under your own name. For all we know, the left seems to attack Nike and Asics just because they thrive on the publicity this brings (few people would get upset if I sold my guitar on Ebay, other than Mr. Gessle himself, who I actually promised, at the time of the signing, that I would never trade it in for money).

Freedom of speech or Is the left fooling itself?
There can be no moral justification for limiting people’s right to trade with each other even though the appreciation of the value stems from emotional assessment.
Jeff Koons is clearly an artist who is reproducing banality. It is a form of rip-off-culture that bears the resemblance of Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol in the world of art, and Milli Vanilli in the world of pop music. It would be interesting to try to understand why in the world of art, this flagrant idea has lingered while businesses are being blamed for it.
But the question that is perhaps even more interesting from an economic point of view (perhaps even more so in a metaphysical scope) is the concept of private property, entitlement, and trade, and how far these values can be stressed in a world that is predominantly being run by brand managers (be it in the world of art as well as in the world of manufacture business). How are we to treat brand names when the reproduction actually is nothing more than a extra form of appreciation based on a former owner (shoes with a Nike-tag on them are worth more than shoes with a Payless tag)? Can the distinction of contracts bring any new clarity? In the Nike case there are contracts between the sweatshops and the brand manager, in the Koons case there are no such contracts.
Not only does this postmodern dilemma stress the problems of private property distinction. It also points out that the increasing use of brand names may instigate material/immaterial border-cases – almost as deontological siderestrictions but with the difference that they are now not only material or immaterial. For example: Can Koons be said to have an inherent right (for example as freedom of speech) to use Nike’s shoes in his next installation or sculpture? How far can we stress the right to someone’s name (brand) according to entitlement theory arrangements in situations like these?

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