Photo by Jason Krieger on Unsplash

What Does It MEAN?!

Jonathan White
Dec 28, 2020 · 7 min read

The “why” behind this big crazy art piece

Ok. So we’ve covered the basics of what the piece is, looked at the art history that paved the way, looked at the math behind the price tag, and thought about who might be a likely collector of this work. However, while I’ve alluded to a few ideas, I haven’t put together a more complete list/explanation of the issues, tensions, and ideas that I see inherent in it, and that’s important, especially for someone collecting something that spans decades.

The majority (though not all) of this piece’s ideas examine money or value, so let’s start there:

1) Why $5,000,000?
While I’ve already examined some of the general motivations behind the price, and have discussed a good deal of the math behind it, there are several deeper value-related issues to get at by asking “why?”
First, let’s think about the fact that it aims to set a record for the amount spent on a single work by an unrepresented artist who’s never had a show outside of hanging paintings in coffee shops. There are general cultural expectations about what art costs, how it is bought and sold, and what an artist needs to do to get to a point in their career where they can get top dollar for their work, but they aren’t laws, just expectations, traditions, and, arguably, simply the easiest way to do things. I think that’s worth challenging. About products, my dad always used to say “something’s worth whatever someone’s willing to pay for it.” More people are willing to accept higher costs for artwork when the artist is well-known, controversial, well-marketed, or some mix of those three things.

If I paid $5 million for a Picasso painting, nobody would bat an eye (assuming I had the money to spend on it), but if I spent the same amount on a painting the same size and color scheme, but painted by a woman who makes a living as a large animal veterinarian in rural Wyoming, people would think I was insane. Why? Because she isn’t famous. Why should that matter? If the Wyoming vet has only made 10 landscapes, you can’t say a Picasso painting is rarer — he was notoriously prolific. However, if someone was willing to pay up to $3 million for the Picasso, and someone else was willing to pay up to $3.5 million, and so on, up to my willingness to pay $5 million, with nobody willing to pay more than me, then you’re looking at supply and demand like an economist, and the market value makes sense. That’s fair, but there’s a difference between market value and cultural values. While it’s possible that the person who would pay $3.5 million has never heard of Picasso, and simply fell in love with the painting in question, it’s much more likely that everyone bidding on it is at least somewhat influenced by the fact that Picasso is a famous and instantly recognizable artist. People would see it hanging on your wall, instantly know what it was (and that it was expensive), and make assumptions about you and your life because you bought it.

So what would it say about someone who paid top dollar for a piece from a “nobody” of an artist (as far as the market is concerned)? I think there are two schools of thought: The showoff and the passionate collector. You could see that transaction as nothing more than the person’s conspicuous consumption and desire to do something new and set a record so the world sees their lifestyle no matter what they may say about their motivation. You could also see it as someone willing to see tremendous value in the arts, in artists, and in experimentation, and willing to put their money where their mouth is. Maybe both are true, maybe neither, but I think there are a lot of valuable questions applicable across many aspects of life raised simply by wondering about what is motivating the buyer and seller, and what generally motivates buyers and sellers. A great many conceptual works are knowingly unsalable because one of the issues at their core is an examination of the business/marketing/investing side of art and art sales. Most conceptual artists want people to look more closely at how we see and understand the value of art generally, and of particular works specifically.

2) What is art?
This is THE big question for me, and I’m consistently attracted to work that brings up this question. I vividly remember a piece I saw on a brief trip in 2004 (I think it was?) in a small temporary gallery space in London. It was a seemingly empty plinth, with a clear protective plexiglass cover on top. The plaque mounted on the side explained that the artist had gotten a witch to hex the space 2ft x 2ft x 2ft above the top of the plinth. While I think it brings up a lot of great questions about faith, materiality, belief, and coincidence, the biggest issue at hand in that piece for me was whether it constitutes an art piece (I say a heartfelt “YES!”), because it so effectively pushes the boundaries of traditional work. I hope that selling my career brings up the same sort of questions and issues by forcing observers to decide whether the sale of something as immaterial, aleatoric, and unknowable as a career should be qualified as art. I want people to have to draw the line for themselves about what is and is not art, and to consider what it takes (or doesn’t take?) to create something.

3) What is a career?
I haven’t seen any works that examine this question. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m the first to ask it or the first to create art around the question, but in my research, I’ve not found anybody focused on it. We flippantly refer to one’s “college career,” or pursuing a career, or say that a retrospective show displays work from an artist’s entire career, but we never look more deeply at the idea. Is it just another way of saying it’s a job? Or is a career a job you do for a long time (and if so, how long)? Or is it just a way to say that you’ve focused your attention and energy on one particular type of work over a period of time? And most of all, what goes into that calculation? Just the passage of time? Only the finished products that come from it? The preparation, drafts, misstarts, and mistakes, too? The time spent thinking about it, even when you weren’t actively working on it? The person’s individuality, experiences, life, hopes, dreams, vision, expertise, or opinions? I think that by “bundling” my career into a salable “thing,” it makes these questions unavoidable for observers, and, hopefully, the rest of my life will help answer this question for them.

4) What does modern-day patronage look like/how does funding impact artistic outcomes?
In the renaissance, wealthy families regularly provided generous financial support to talented artists, especially so that they could regularly have commission works produced by them. This isn’t a common practice now (at least not with the exact same model), so what does it look like to support the arts? There are some slightly abstracted avenues of support — nonprofits and organizations designed to provide resources or space or some shade of support to a community of artists or to groups of artists (like dance troupes or theater venues). There are community development groups that include some type of art curriculum or space, especially for local youth, and there are, of course, plenty of people who collect art (both from artists directly and through auctions and galleries). But how does the current model of sales and support change what is made, how it’s made, and what it means? My work here is meant to ponder the relationships between artists and money, artwork, and the funding that made it possible.

5) WHY?
I think this is pretty all-encompassing. Why would someone buy this piece? Why would someone commit to doing something like this for the rest of their lives, without knowing what might complicate it in the future? Why not just focus your efforts on marketing your work and build it into a thriving business that you can own forever? Why care about art/careers/value/values? My “why,” the collector’s “why,” and the “why” behind each little piece of this work all come together to try to amplify the motivations of everyone involved in it, both actively and passively. Hopefully even just reading this article will get you to consider some of the “whys” behind your interest and perspective when it comes to art, no matter how you may agree or disagree with me.

These five questions are some of the biggest issues that I see in this piece. There are others, and surely there will be plenty more issues, questions, and opportunities to examine meaning as I create for the decades to come. I would love to know if you think I’ve missed any important questions — I’m obviously not all-knowing (even if it IS my piece!).

Here’s to many more years of pursuing answers to difficult questions!



Conceptual artist Jonathan White created a piece about the nature of art, artists’ careers, and how finances inherently impact an artist’s work. The articles in this publication provide information, background, inspiration and questions surrounding the work.

Jonathan White

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I’m a conceptual artist who loves startups, inventions, futures trading, & good ideas. I’m a stay-at-home dad w/ art & law degrees, & an odd duck.


Conceptual artist Jonathan White created a piece about the nature of art, artists’ careers, and how finances inherently impact an artist’s work. The articles in this publication provide information, background, inspiration and questions surrounding the work.

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