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It was Marcel Duchamps who first discovered that art, as a defined term, is anything that an artist says is art.
Thus Dada was born and even an old urinal could become art if he, Marcel Duchamps, said it was, and especially if he signed it as well and the public later agreed with him.
In part this was simply a huge intellectual conceit, and one which enabled him to make large amounts of money at times without much effort, rather like the way central banks create money.
In part however it also reflected an important truth about art. If the business of an artist is to affect the way we as viewers of art perceive reality, then how we look at ordinary everyday objects can be affected in critical ways as well, including just by the label an artist may put on them.
Of course some times this works better than others. Andy Warhol’s devotion to cans of soup may work brilliantly where another man’s devotion to yesterday’s trash can may not go very far. And none of Van Gogh’s immensely herculean efforts got him anywhere in his own lifetime. One is tempted to conclude it is all in the artist’s marketing skills therefore, but that may be too crass.
One artist who took this principle a long way, however, is British artist Tracey Emin who woke up one morning in 1998 after a bout of binge drinking with a terrible hangover, and looked at her totally dishevelled bedroom and the bed in the middle of it.
Rather than sink back into yet one more period of depression at the thought of cleaning it all up, she took another look at the scene around her and, in a flash of inspiration, decided the mess was really a very beautiful work of art. And who is to say she was wrong?
Well, the market does sort things out eventually though, and in the end senses if somehow the empress, in this case, has any bed-clothes. On this particular occasion the work quickly became celebrated, and was shown in Japan and New York under the title “My Bed.” The work was then sold to Charles Saatchie who paid US$250, 000 for it – a huge sum fifteen years ago. Saatchie then shipped it over to his London Gallery where it has sat ever since.
Now we learn that the work, as we certainly can’t call it a bed any longer, will be placed in Christie’s auction this summer and could today fetch a lot more. Last weekend, David Maupin, who is Tracey Emin’s dealer in New York, and who sold the bed to Saatchi in the first place, told the Daily Telegraph he thinks the Christie’s estimate of US$1.3 million to US$2.0 million for the piece is probably too low for such an important work. “It’s historic, ” he expostulated, “It’s priceless.” As a much more conventional four poster bed arrangement titled by Tracey Emin “To meet My Past” was also sold by Chrsitie’ last year for US$770, 000, the scary thing is he could even be right.