One of the seemingly most melancholic aspects of being an artist is realizing that you’ll probably never be as successful alive as you will be dead. Can you imagine if other industries were like that?
“Yes, Mr. Dyson, we love your invention of the a human-sized Dyson Air Blade that can attach to the outside of your shower to dry someone off instantly as they exit the stall. Seriously, that shit’s awesome. We’ll give you $1,000 for it now or $100 million when you die.”
“Listen, Enema Man and Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dog, the kids love to listen to you whilst walking on their pants with their caps on backwards. We’ll sign you to a multi-hundred dollar music contract now, and then bump it up to a multi-million dollar one when you die.”
“Mr. Depp, I loved you in Edward Scissorhands. I rented it the other day for 99 cents. But please don’t die. I haven’t seen The Tourist yet and that masterpiece is sure to skyrocket to $5.99 per rental!”
Or maybe not. See, the death bump only applies to art that’s considered good in the first place. That is it has to have some value. This means an artwork as awful as The Tourist (or at least The Tourist‘s trailers) would be exempt from the death bump because remember, no matter how weird the rule, mathematics still applies. When you multiply nothing with nothing, you just get more nothing.
But let’s leave math aside for now. Let’s examine why the death bump exists in the first place.
1) Finity: An artist can only produce so much. Whether it be a lot like Picasso or relatively little like Duchamp, the fact remains that once an artist dies, so does his or her ability to produce more. This doesn’t happen in other industries. Even though Kurt Cobain’s death meant Nirvana would no longer produce new music, the average price of an In Utero album is still the same as it was when he was alive. Why? Because there’s an unlimited supply. Anyone who wants it can find it on the Internet and own it. The same rule applies to things like movies, giant imaginary Dyson Air Blades, cookies, toilet paper, really, anything.
2) Uniqueness: Yes, art can be faked. It can be faked. In some cases it can be faked really, really well, but we’ll pretend I didn’t say that so I can say this: Every great artist offers something unique that can’t be replicated. Whether it’s a brush stroke, a signature, or just the intent and idea behind a work, originality counts. This concept can be extended to other artistic fields, as well. Whether a Nirvana disc was purchased in 1994 or 2004 doesn’t matter. But if one of them was signed by Kurt Cobain? Boom. Uniqueness. And he’s dead? Double boom for the collector. Limited supply. Which brings us to reason No. 3 why the death bump exists…
3) Art Is a Collector’s Item: When it comes down to it, in plain, cold marketspeak, art is just a really expensive collector’s item. It’s a cool-looking signed, limited edition CD. It’s a first edition copy of Ulysses. It’s a fancy stamp in a philatelic collection. It’s a lock of Michael Jackson’s hair…or whatever, creepy. The point is, when it comes to collecting anything the above two rules usually apply.
4) But Wait, Art Is Also Special: Think about it, what other single collector’s item has ever sold for $140 million? Not really anything. Art is special. It’s ephemeral, magical, phantasmagorical; it’s arte. It’s not just a painting, a sculpture, a, um, urinal… It’s an idea, a moment in time, a stimulator of parts of the brain that nothing else can touch. Great art takes you places other things can’t. When the people who create the best stuff die, art lovers, patrons and collectors scramble to keep that high in their possession, hence the death bump.
So what does all this mean? There are two ways to look at it, one’s romantic and the other’s cynical.
Let’s start with the uglier view first—the cynical view. As mentioned earlier, the death bump means increased value in the form of cash money. If you’re a collector trying to de-acquisition a deceased great—ka-ching! If you’re a dealer handing a private sale between the de-acquisitioning collector and the collector in search of that mind high—ka-ching, ka-ching! You get the idea…
But let’s not end with an ellipsis and a general feeling of misanthropy. Let’s look at the romantic meaning of the death bump in art. Death isn’t an end for the artist, but a grand, new beginning. Death begets legacy and martyrdom. This view of the bump transcends monetary gain. If you pay attention when speaking with a critic or a serious collector, you’ll probably notice they often still refer to a deceased artist using the present tense: “Francis Bacon is a genius.” “Amadeo Modigliani is great.” “Yves Klein is the best there is.” Through death, artists get the chance to live through their work forever. And as present-day art lovers, we can add the legends to our fantasy dinner parties. I, for one, would invite Giuseppe Archimboldo over to dine on a fruit basket shaped like a human head with me, Audrey Hepburn and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Delicious.