One for Me and One to Share

By Vanessa Nicholas

One for Me and One to Share
Edited by Dave Dyment and Gregory Elgstrand
With contributions by Nicholas Brown, Mark Clintberg, Jonathan Shaughnessy, Océane Delleaux, Cary Leibowitz, Harry Ruhé
YYZ Books, Toronto
$34.95 (CAN)

In 2009, I ate a Maurizio Cattelan. The limited edition Italian salami was included in a canvas tote bag that I received as one of the first visitors to The Collectors, a joint Danish and Norwegian pavilion project by Elmgreen and Dragset for the 53rd Venice Biennale. Later, I read a New York Times article explaining the difficulties that this sausage was posing for international collectors and conservators: "[Art book dealer Thomas Heneage] realized he was in possession of a bona fide art salami, with potential historic value" especially because, he surmised, most people would either eat theirs or throw them away.

The question of whether to preserve or digest the salami applies, in an abstract way, to all artist multiples: If you keep it in plastic, you have a multiple, but if you unpack it you have a book. (Or lunch, in my case.) In the informative One For Me and One To Share: Artist Multiples and Editions, contributors wrestle with this dilemma, which reaches back to the art form's roots. Was the introduction of the artist multiple a means to democratize art or to further commodity it? The answer offered up by all is, of course, both.

The Monsters of Winnipeg Folklore: Marcel Dzama: The Monsters of Winnipeg Folklore (2004). Dimensions variable (approx. 8 cm tall), CEREALART Projects. Edition of 2,500 (each character). Courtesy CEREALART Projects, Philadelphia.Marcel Dzama: The Monsters of Winnipeg Folklore (2004). Dimensions variable (approx. 8 cm tall), CEREALART Projects. Edition of 2,500 (each character). Courtesy CEREALART Projects, Philadelphia.

At the time of the multiple's invention, democracy and consumerism were mutually supportive and not necessarily at odds with each other, the book's editors point out in their introduction. As Océane Delleaux explains in his contribution, "The Artist Multiple: A Contribution to the Debate on the Democratization of Art", the multiple emerged from the postwar ideology that delighted in cultural egalitarianism and the rise of the middle-class consumer. The average American family income doubled between 1939 and 1945, and continued to rise thereafter. The strongest surge of wealth occurred in the middle-income bracket and contributed to the rise of the middle class and the subsequent high consumption economy. Wealth was a relief after the lean war years. The point of purchase became a front line of sorts, where the triumph of democracy over fascism was celebrated, and the threat of communism was quelled. Commerce was the democratic, free future, and artists were as enamoured as with this myth as anyone.

Consider England's Independent Group, whose activities in the early 1950s intentionally broke from continental modernism and promoted the everyday beauty found in American advertisements and products. In "The Multiple Mainstream", contributor Jonathan Shaughnessy gestures to the enduring relevance of the Independent Group's kitsch-crazed ethos to today's artist multiple culture by pointing to the Gagosian Shop window, which features a vinyl of Richard Hamilton's iconic definition of Pop Art: "Transient, Expendable, Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business."

I shop therefore I am: Barbara Kruger: I shop therefore I am (1990). Photolithograph on paper bag, 43.9 x 27.3 x 10.7 cm. Edition of 9,000. Kolnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Digital image  Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, NY.Barbara Kruger: I shop therefore I am (1990). Photolithograph on paper bag, 43.9 x 27.3 x 10.7 cm. Edition of 9,000. Kolnischer Kunstverein, Cologne. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, NY. Digital image: Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by Scala/Art Resource, NY.The American Fluxus artists were similarly opposed to the cult of art and opted to popularize art by conflating it with merchandise. As Dyment and Elgstrand write in the introduction, the "Fluxus [group] had notions of retail as a core activity" and subsequently produced hundreds of multiples between 1962 and1978, including clocks, records, maps, and tattoos. Like the Independent Group, these American artists were inspired by commerce, and particularly by the shops on New York's Canal Street, where group founder George Maciunas had his studio. The importance of these stores to Maciunas's enterprise and to the development of Fluxus, with their abundance of cheap toys, games, gadgets, hobbyist needs, puzzles, plastic food, mailing tubes, corrugated cardboard, motors, display materials, and other knickknacks, cannot be overstated. Some memorable multiples described in Dyment's "Canal in Flux" essay include Maciunas's Flux Smile Machine, a spring sourced on Canal Street that is meant to stretch out one's mouth, and Robert Watt's Flux Timekit, a large box filled with various tools for measuring time, including a stopwatch, measuring tape and balloon.

The question of value raises its head here as many Fluxus multiples were instructional or participatory, but remain untouched and displayable today. Ken Friedman's Flux Corsage, a package of seeds, for example, and Ben Vautier's Total Art Matchbox, a box of matches with accompanying instructions to burn down art galleries and museums, were both exhibited in MoMA's Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions 1962-1978 exhibition in 2011.2 Instructional multiples that exist today were never used. The sausage was never eaten, so to speak.

The reason for their preservation is, ultimately, value. To begin with, many Fluxus multiples were not sold at the time of their making; prolific production and accessible prices did not translate into high sales. Dyment vividly recounts the idealistic dream and ultimate commercial failure of the Fluxus storefront, which opened at 359 Canal Street in 1964: "[Maciunas] proposed an elaborate cash register whose keys would be programmed to trigger actions like falling snow, light turning on and off, and various sounds and smells...Not only was this register not produced for the shop, it would have never have been put into action; not a single item sold." The inference is that these multiples were worthless to the consumer, at the time at least. Of course, as their cultural capital rose, so too did their prices. The consequence is that these multiples are now too precious and revered to be used. The particular irony of preserving Vautier's Total Art Matchbox in a museum collection for posterity can't be lost on anyone.

Pictured on the cover of One For Me and One To Share is Merda d'artista (1961), a one-ounce can of artist Piero Manzoni's excrement, which was produced in an edition of 30. As Elgstrand explains in "The Economics of the Multiple", Manzoni priced one can to its gold weight equivalent, which was about $35 (CAN) in 1962. Since then, the price of gold has increased by more than 590 percent and the price of Manzoni's multiple has increased by nearly 73,000 percent. Evidentially, even an artist's fatalist joke isn't safe from the cult of the collector. This anthology paints a complicated history of the artist multiple by admitting to this messy entanglement of radicalism and economics. In the end, democracy and commerce are seen as separate but mutually supportive organs of a singular creature that eats a Cattelan and shits gold. As Elgstrand writes, "This is the art market, stupid."