Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Do You Know Kung Fu? No? Well, You Can in the Digital Realm

A recent article in the New York Times supplement published weekly with the Observer newspaper (No Budget, No Boundaries: It’s the Real You, Sunday 8th November 2009) discusses the consumer habits of people populating virtual worlds such as Second Life and The article discloses how during the recession people have continued spending real money on virtual luxury consumer goods such as designer clothes, shoes, and champagne through their avatars, or on-line personas. In fact, as spending in the real world has declined spending in these virtual worlds has increased, with more people looking to simulated universes to satisfy their consumer desires. This online behaviour raises a number of interesting questions, not least of which is: Why are people willing to spend real money on items that have no existence beyond their digital domain? Chief executive of, Mike Wilson, is quoted as saying: “Everything fits; things don’t wear out. The virtual world represents a different value proposition.” (The virtual world is better than the real world?) Couple this with a quote from Mandy Cocke who, when discussing her avatar Vixie Rayna’s online shopping habits, says: “Vixie’s style is a better representation of my true self.”

What does Ms. Cocke mean by ‘true’ self? She seems to be suggesting that one’s sense of self is distinct and separate from the self one projects into the real world, the self seen by others; that one’s true self is not encumbered by economics, or health, or even physical reality. But when one looks at the avatars which populate these virtual realms one sees nothing but tall, muscular men, leggy and curvaceous women, all dressed in designer clothes and draped in expensive looking jewellery, all beautiful and young. The more one looks the more one recognises this world of ‘true’ selves as the world of fakery that is the world of celebrity. Anyone can be a chat show host, or a fashion designer, or a nightclub dj in the ‘true’ world. Everyone is successful and rich. If it is the case that virtual worlds are a better representation of our true selves then our true selves must be greedy and superficial egoists who are suffering from a serious bout of rampant self-denial. Unfortunately, if I was feeling cynical, I might well agree.

Of course, the obvious repost is that the people who populate these virtual worlds do not reflect humanity as a whole. After all, what is the point of a virtual charity, or a virtual literature? (Interestingly, there are virtual artists selling virtual artworks for real money in these worlds, but that’s another essay.) And this is true. But it does suggest that those who are drawn to the fakery of digital universes are those same people drawn to the construct that is Hollywood, as well as the obvious fact that they exist mainly in the affluent nations of the world, are all on some level unhappy with their ‘real’ selves and their ‘real’ lives, and rather than changing these they would rather hide away living blindly in a fake world fooling only themselves. (Oh my god, don’t you see, it’s just like the Matrix!)

A Real Warhol Controversy

Last month the Guardian newspaper reported that Nicholas Serota of the Tate Modern had recently declined to buy a self-portrait of Andy Warhol due to questions over the works’ authenticity (Is this a $2m Warhol, or a fake? Art world sees red over self-portraits, The Guardian, Saturday 5th December 2009). The story proves fascinating reading, providing as it does an insight into the convoluted self-regulation and artificial construction of value within the art world. The work in question is one of a set of ten Red Portraits, screen prints taken from an automatic photobooth head and shoulders shot of Warhol’s instantly recognisable visage. It transpires that an unnamed (in the article) shadowy ‘board’ based in New York have taken it upon themselves to pronounce with authority on the authenticity or otherwise of questionable Warhol works. The board, through its president Joel Wachs, claims to exist in order to protect the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most famous, and it has to be said valuable, artists from dubious dealers.

The controversy really kicks in however once we learn that the board itself, and the Warhol Foundation to which it is linked, own a large number of Warhol works, and the claim, led by businessman and art collector David Mearns (who owns one of the ten Red Portraits) and art critic Richard Dorment, is that by denying the authenticity of these works the board and the Foundation increase the value of their own cache of ‘real’ Warhols. To be fair to the board they say they are a charitable organisation funding grants for the visual arts through sales of their Warhols, but this does not detract from my interest in the story.

Through his work Warhol challenges the concept of value with regards the work of art. He purposefully blurs the lines of authenticity by delegating production to employees of his Factory as well as using methods of mechanical reproduction. With regard to the Red Portraits, the story of these is known. They were made from an already existing acetate which Warhol gave to an associate, who then outsourced the production of the screen prints to an outside firm. Warhol is said to have approved the finished works, and they do indeed carry his signature. I find myself agreeing with the critics mentioned in the article who are said to find “the idea of a ‘fake’ or ‘genuine’ Warhol to be almost meaningless.” This is perhaps Warhol’s most important artistic legacy.