The $15 Art from IKEA

Via PetaPixel, there’s a video showing people evaluating a piece of art that you can purchase at IKEA in the midst of an art museum. It’s funny and nicely done. At the end, when they reveal that people have been punked, and that they could buy it for only 10 euros, most everyone laughs at themselves. One pair just walk away in quiet disgust (or shame).

Implicit in this video is the trope that people don’t know art. Or don’t know what art is worth. Or will believe anything given the right context. I’d like to look at it from another angle.

First off, lets call the piece art. Just because prints of it are sold by IKEA for almost nothing doesn’t diminish the value of the art to individual observers. In fact, you can buy prints (or tshirts or mugs or anything else) of pretty much every famous piece of art for which there is no current copyright.

And so that becomes an important distinction: print versus original versus copyright. What IKEA is selling for 10 euros is a print. It is not selling the original, nor is it selling the copyright. So the fact that you could buy the print for 10 euros means ultimately that you have nothing of value to the art world after you complete the transaction. You have a print, just like millions of others. Congratulations.

On the other hand, the original is still owned by someone else. Now we could argue about the value of that original now that every IKEA shopper with a keen eye for art has one. Perhaps it is more valuable now that homes across Europe and America have a copy. Perhaps it is less. I don’t know. But I’ll hazard a guess that the original cannot be purchased for 10 euros.

In the video, people attempt to hazard a guess at the value of the art. Remember, they are standing in a museum (not the gift shop), and so they are implicitly assuming that they are estimating the value of the original. Not the print. And by the way, these are museum visitors, not curators. Not experts. So they guess some wildly varying numbers, all way more than 10 euros, as they should be. The fact that people chortle at this video shows they didn’t understand the important distinction between print and original.

Does IKEA own the original? I have no idea. But IKEA owns a license to reproduce it from the copyright holder. That license has commercial value, and I’m sure IKEA paid the copyright holder more than 10 euros for it. Could you buy that license from IKEA? Depends on the terms of the contract and license to reproduce. But I’ll hazard a guess that you couldn’t buy that license for 10 euros.

So here are all the pieces: person A owns the original, and it is worth way more that 10 euros; person B (maybe the same as A, maybe not) owns the copyright, and sold a license to IKEA to reproduce it in a commercial setting; IKEA reproduces it and sells it for 10 euros; many people purchase a print for 10 euros and hang it in their homes.

So are we to guffaw at museum visitors who guess that the (ahem, original) might be worth millions of euros? Just because you could buy it in an IKEA (or the museum gift shop) for 10 euros doesn’t make them wrong. It could be worth that much. If I were the owner of the original, I’d be trying to find the guy who was willing to buy it for 2.5M euros.

As for the woman who comments that you couldn’t buy that art in a cheap store, I’ll assume she was referring to the print, and that its complexity and multiple layers could not appeal to a mass audience, therefore no cheap store could possibly sell enough of them. This reveals her ignorance of other humans, not her ignorance of art.  She has underestimated the demand for art like this, and IKEA’s ability to leverage that demand to sell prints at a price that anyone could afford.

What about the guys who walk away quietly at the end of the video? Well, perhaps we don’t know their real reaction because it has been edited out. Perhaps they realized that the premise of the video was to make fun of people, and that they’d just been made fun of. Perhaps they wanted to justify their assessment of the price with a “I thought you were talking about an original. Of course a print could be bought for 10 euros”. But rather than add fodder to the video, they just walked away. I can’t say as I blame them.