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What Might Baudrillard Say

About Vieuxtemps Guarneri?

Images by Anthony Parmelee.

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Troubling Collection: When Objects That Have Been Elevated By Their Aura To Be Worth A Lot Of Cash, The Enterprise Becomes Little More Than A Power Play

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By Stacy Graber
Special for Modern Times Magazine

April 4, 2013 — In early March, NPR aired a story titled “The Soul of the World’s Most Expensive Violin,” which traced the Vieuxtemps Guarneri Del Gesu from 50 years in storage to its purchase for $16 million, to a career loan for Anne Akiko Meyers from an anonymous donor.
The story’s focus was on the relationship between musician and instrument.

That theme, although romantic, seemed misplaced and should have centered upon the unidentified collector who was framed by the report as a patron of the arts. Upon deeper reflection, some may argue the enterprise of collection is nothing more than a power-play by those interested in public access to art.

Jean Baudrillard in For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, argues that auction houses are places that exist outside of conventional economics. According to a post-structuralist viewpoint, the auction is a symbolic economy, so it takes status to participate and a purse surpassing most others in order to lay out enormous store for no promise of a typical return. When this theory is applied to the owner of the Vieuxtemps Guarneri, a portrait of a bad-ass materializes, someone with whom no one can compete because the person is beyond money; his/her power is an expression of limitless expenditure.

Baudrillard might argue the collector possesses a one-of-a-kind object, distinguished by an “aura” which presumably is built upon the quality of uniqueness and authenticity which makes it seem other-worldly. Rare, and therefore prestigious, objects, for many, represent the indices of culture, the personal possession of which is unimaginable.

Think about this quote: “I love the office because I can use my fax machine and look at my Picasso at the same time.” Madonna told this to Architectural Digest.

“My Picasso?” That seems a bit misguided.

A declaration of ownership of the Vieuxtemps Guarneri would pack the same surreal infeasibility.

Many collectors recognize a moral dilemma in possessing such treasures and give them to museums. But institutional collecting practice isn’t immune from conflict.

Observe the uproar over the Wal-Mart heiress’ purchase of the Hudson River School landscape “Kindred Spirits” and the way that Durand’s canvas — integral to a specific locale — has been resituated in Bentonville, Ark.

Or, consider the Hopi community’s protest against the sale and display of ceremonial Kachinas. These examples point to the complexity of collection when it collides with public histories and contestation over ownership.

The Vieuxtemps Guarneri’s previous owner sequestered the instrument for 50 years, and its namesake, the composer Vieuxtemps, according to the story, wanted to be buried with it. What do these stories say about collection?

Drawing from Baudrillard’s essay, “The System of Collecting,” the collector is a jealous lover who wishes to privately commune with the love-object(s) in a secluded universe within his/her control. Baudrillard labels this impulse as anal retentive because the owner/possessor withholds for pleasure in mastery. The shameful aspect of collection seems obvious here, evidenced by the clandestine hiding place of the violin: stowed under the collector’s bed.

That miserly gesture requires comment. The violin has a history or “social life,” as Arjun Appadurai would call it. It has cut a path through time and has passed between owners, it has travelled and knows things; therefore, as a thing of the world, it belongs to it. To store it away is equivalent to placing it in a mausoleum where it dies, as it literally would without being played.

“But the violin was given back to the world,” someone might object. Let’s think anthropologically about gifts. According to Marcel Mauss, a gift implies a condition of reciprocity (the receiver is obligated to give something back). This situation is like a guy who picks up the check at dinner. Doing so is a display of dominance and “surety” (Mauss’ language) of pay-back.

But sometimes a big shot picks up an exorbitant tab. Such a gift, Mauss would argue, is the ideal expression of muscle because it’s one that cannot be reciprocated. The granting of the Vieuxtemps Guarneri looks like this: A power-play masquerading as a gift.

The story of the Vieuxtemps Guarneri thus points to another problem of collection. Big Collection is a form of privatization where objects representing significant social histories are wrested from the public sphere for personal delight or investment appreciation and then are “given back to the world” in a spectacle of power. This is one of the most obvious and lasting markers of the old system of aristocratic privilege, yet it’s (largely) invisible because it confuses a hegemonic move for a virtuous one.

Is the Vieuxtemps Guarneri really more accessible now than it was before? That depends on the demographics of concert attendees and the price of tickets at auditoriums where the Guarneri may be heard. The film The Red Violin meditated on a similar theme and found the quickest way to short-circuit the symbolic economy of art to be theft. In the movie, a prized instrument was stolen by an auction house clerk yet the crime seemed like justice for art made unattainable.  

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include popular culture, critical theory and semiotics.

WGBH Music: Anne Akiko Meyers & Anton Nel play Bach Air on a G String.

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