Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

by Matthew Bown
Alberto Giacometti’s six-foot-tall bronze Walking Man I sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2010 for the equivalent of $104.3 million, and was briefly (until overtaken this month by a Picasso) the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. It remains, by far, the most expensive work available in multiple examples. The sculpture, cast by the artist himself in 1961, was reportedly bought by Lily Safra, widow of banker Edmund Safra. Maybe the purchase price was chump change to Safra: she received more than half that sum recently when the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov backed out of the purchase of her Villa Leopold on the Cote d’Azur, relinquishing his five percent deposit.

But by most people’s standards it is a very large sum of money; and in relation to the production cost of the sculpture it is an absurdly large sum of money. To make a copy of Walking Man I today (I am told by Morris Singer Foundry, which does much casting for artists in the UK) would cost in the region of $25,000, including the price of the bronze. If we allow for Giacometti’s time to make the piece, it does not substantially alter the enormity of the disparity between production cost and market price. Given that the sculpture exists in an edition of six, it would seem that, back in the early 1960s, Giacometti single-handedly created more than a half a billion dollars of goods, at today’s prices, in at most a few weeks.

A byproduct of this disparity is the elaborate Giacometti forgery operations that plague the market. One uncovered in Stuttgart last year involved not only 1,000 fake bronzes in a storage facility but also a published book that provided the purported back-story or "provenance" for these objects: a colorful fiction titled Diego’s Revenge involving a squabble between the artist and one of his brothers. Another effect is the bemusement of the public. Writing about the Giacometti sale, the Australian journalist Andrew Frost posed the question that no doubt many people ask themselves even if they do not utter it out loud: "Since the material value of art is negligible, we’re paying for something -- but what?"

Pablo Picasso, legend has it, had an answer to this: you are paying for "a lifetime of experience." But this explanation fails when we consider the market in work by Picasso himself. The most expensive works by Picasso that have been sold at auction are the 1932 Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, purchased recently for $106.5 million; and a 1905 Rose Period painting, Garcon a la Pipe, which was auctioned for $104.2 million in 2004. Allowing for inflation, the Garcon cost more in real terms than the Nude. Picasso, born in 1881, was roughly 24 years old when he painted it, and he eventually lived to 91: the art he produced in his old age, with a "lifetime of experience" behind him, is worth less, not more.

A sense of the disconnect between the production cost and market price of artworks has already become a part of modern consciousness. It was dramatized in Yasmina Reza’s hit play Art, which revolves precisely around the difficulty of rationalizing the extraordinary sums paid for things that have no apparent material value. For 200,000 francs, Serge buys a white canvas inscribed with a few lines; his friend Marc dismisses it as "a piece of white shit." Serge replies that it "conforms to laws that you don’t understand." But what are these laws? What is it about artworks that begets the extremes of veneration, leading to massive capital investments, by individuals and collective interests alike, in collections and museum building; and to the general awestruck acquiescence in the business of art?

*     *     *
Recently a number of books have been published by economists who aim to reveal the mechanism that leads to the formation of staggering prices for art, especially modern art. As part of their analyses, these economists have attempted to define exactly what the quality or qualities are that collectors pay for. Among these books are Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, David W. Galenson’s Artistic Capital, and Olav Velthuis’s Talking Prices. Of course, theories of art can be more sophisticated than those proposed in the above books, but as a rule they don’t directly address the question "What are we paying for?" By applying the principle of Follow The Money, maybe we can arrive at an insight into art itself.

Thompson’s theory is that the price of the preserved shark to which his title alludes (a work by Damien Hirst) and of other expensive works of contemporary art is a reflection of "brand equity" produced by marketing and publicity. He compares explicitly the purchase of a "branded" artwork, i.e. one blessed by the gallery-auction-museum-press apparatus, to the purchase of a Louis Vuitton handbag, and suggests that branding is relied upon by buyers as a substitute for their own judgment, about which they feel insecure.

Thompson’s notion of the insecure art buyer is persuasive up to a point. To be sure, there are London bankers who will, as a matter of principle, buy their suits in Savile Row, their shirts in Jermyn Street and their art at White Cube. But in the case of Hirst’s shark and many other sales at the top level, we are by no means dealing with art-world players who are inexperienced or lacking confidence in their own judgment. For Thompson to be right, we have to accept that Steven A. Cohen, a fantastically successful hedge-funder and a leading collector of contemporary art, is merely in thrall to the power of the Hirst brand. In fact, logically, he must be in thrall to many brands, one for each artist whose work he owns. It’s a nice idea, quite poignant, but as far as Cohen is concerned Thompson doesn’t adduce any evidence for it. Cohen himself described the shark unambiguously as "the piece of the ‘90s," which doesn’t suggest he lacks confidence in his own taste.

Furthermore, we have to accept that not only Cohen but also the underbidders on the shark were beguiled by branding. We may not know them all, but they include Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, who put in a multimillion-dollar offer. To impute feelings of insecurity to an activist such as Serota is absurd, since for years, as curator, director of Tate and chairman of the Turner Prize panel, he has been highly instrumental in creating the contemporary art scene as we know it. What does Serota himself say about art? That artworks can be "symbols of optimism and renewal" or "objects of beauty and contemplation"; that some are also "transgressive," "raw and tender, brazen and subtle." To reduce such a panoply of responses to the effect of branding leaves too many questions unanswered.

Galenson’s thesis in Artistic Capital is that top prices are paid not for branded items but for an inherent quality of some artworks which he terms "innovation." It’s a reductive explanation, no less than Thompson’s, but Galenson has some excuse for running to it because it is an idea with a long history, which I will paraphrase. Galenson’s concept of innovation is a reverberation of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, channeled via modernist critics such as Michael Fried (who suggested the notion of artistic "perpetual revolution") and Clement Greenberg (himself a Trotskyist). The overlap between artistic and political radicalism may be traced back to the emergence in the 18th century of the Romantic movement, which cast both artists and revolutionaries as the new Christian martyrs and visionaries, and viewed Christianity itself, in the poet Novalis’s words, as "absolute abstraction, the destruction of the now, the apotheosis of the future." And from there we travel back to the revolutionary nature of early Christianity itself.

Galenson’s speculations on the difference between artistic success at a young age (due to what he calls "conceptual innovation") and in old age ("experimental innovation") are interesting. But for Galenson innovation is always confirmed post factum, retrospectively, as that which art-history and the secondary art-market (their opinions are closely allied in Galenson’s view) subsequently recognizes and honors. This makes his argument worryingly circular. What is the most important art? Innovative art, answers Galenson. And what is innovative art? It is the art deemed, retrospectively, the most important. Galenson fails to elucidate the mechanism whereby one innovation asserts itself in preference to another. The epithet "innovation" suggests of course that art develops like applied science, each advance building on and rendering obsolete what went before: such thinking was at the heart of Fried-style modernism. But Galenson does not explain why someone would want to pay a huge sum for the innovation of 100 years ago if, by definition, it is now outmoded, the esthetic equivalent of a crystal set radio. He doesn’t speculate, either, on whether the entire art market is shaped by innovation, or only the top-level trade.

Galenson’s emphasis on innovation leads to an unintentional comedy. He produces a ranking of the "most illustrated French paintings" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Guernica, Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe -- and ascribes their preeminence to their historical importance as innovations. He doesn’t make the obvious comment that four of the five illustrate nude or nearly-nude women and the fifth features, as the most dramatically foregrounded element, a woman’s rump of strikingly enhanced size and curvaciousness, the 19th-century bourgeois equivalent of today’s artificially boosted cleavages. The most-illustrated modern American painting, according to Galenson, is another female nude, de Kooning’s Woman I.

Olav Velthuis’s Talking Prices, in contrast to the reductive analyses of Thompson and Galenson, is an extremely wide-ranging and subtle guide to the way in which value is formed in contemporary art. It is superb at teasing out the intricate social and spiritual exigencies of the art-world: as Velthuis puts it at the outset: "we need to go beyond conventional understandings of markets." He records dealers’ apparent lack of interest in prices, their emphasis on being perceived as "really pure," their hostility to the mercantile auction resale process and their (no less than the artists’) orientation to history. He considers the protestant taboos on ostentation, the rituals of market exchange and the inextricable entanglement of market and culture. He stresses the importance to a contemporary art-seller of a "mastery of critical discourse." He writes of the "consecration" of artworks by the establishment (surely a more fertile and precise epithet than "branding") and contrasts the "sacred" space of the gallery to the "profane space" of the back-room where deals are cut. And he comes to the conclusion, paradoxical but in my view correct, that the rituals of the market are not camouflage or a come-on, they are of the essence; and that prices themselves are "cultural entities," that is to say, they have what Velthuis terms "symbolic meanings."

What we have is "an economy of symbolic goods" (a phrase which Velthuis takes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) in which it is not artists (or branding, or innovation) that determine prices, but rather prices that are a ranking device for artists. In passing, he makes the important comment that "buyers value artworks according to the "proximity" to their creator." In general, handmade works are more highly prized than mechanically produced multiples, for example. It’s an obvious enough point, but of the essence, as we shall see. What Velthuis doesn’t venture, however, is the definition of an artwork from the point of view of this complex market: maybe he feels it is too elusive or many-faceted a concept.

Velthuis makes it clear that the general disarray of economists when faced with the art market is not new. The founder of modern economics, Alfred W. Marshall, believed that no "systematic explanation" was possible for the price of art and other rare goods. Adam Smith noted the disconnect between the cost of production and selling price of paintings and put it down to the whim and means of the buyer. David Ricardo saw art as an exception to the labor theory of value and also put price formation down to the "wealth and inclinations" of the buyer. W. Stanley Jevons found art to be an irrational exception to his theory that prices were driven by demand.

Velthuis deals at some length with Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of Conspicuous Consumption, according to which "utility" arises from the price paid: the more a work costs, the greater the status it confers. Jean Baudrillard arrived at a similar conclusion: that the price of artworks reflects their "sumptuary" value, i.e. their cachet as luxury goods. Such theories sit well with the buying practices of Russian oligarchs, of course, but they don’t bring us closer to answering the question: just what do artworks -- usually, functionless accumulations of worthless materials – represent, that they attain such veneration and, as a result, such prices?

*     *     *
Ask an art historian for his or her take on the question of the cost and mystique of artworks and he will almost certainly refer you back to the emergence in Renaissance Italy of a number of related phenomena: to the new humanism which took art out of the churches and into secular spaces; to the concept of individual genius, which began to be attached to artists (in particular by the art-historian Vasari, in his Lives of contemporary Italian artists, to Michelangelo); to the appearance of private collectors and to the role played by the bankers -- notably the Medicis -- who, then as now, were key players in the business of commissioning and collecting art; and maybe to such technicalities as the growing practice of easel painting, i.e. the production of portable works in oil on canvas which could be easily moved around, hung in various locations, and thus traded. From there he will take you forward to Romanticism, when the idea of the artist as wayward genius became established in the imagination of the public, when an artist’s own biography became central to the promotion of his work, and when the first private commercial galleries appeared.

Ask the art historian to trace the art-market not forwards from the Renaissance but backwards into medieval times and you will draw a blank. He will tell you that prior to the emergence of Renaissance geniuses, artists were anonymous and artworks were priced according to their size, complexity and the materials used -- i.e. the pre-Renaissance pricing mechanism accorded much more with the fundamental economic notion of a production cost. In any case, he might add, late medieval scholastic thought required that the price charged for a good be related to what the producer needed to maintain himself: to demand a substantial excess would be construed as a sin. The art market, thus, in the conventional view, sprang up in the Renaissance and before that there never was such a thing, nor anything like it.

But this is to look in the wrong place. Prior to the Renaissance, and even during it, the supreme objects of popular and official veneration were not works of art: they were the relics of the saints. That is to say, pieces of the saints’ bodies, and objects which they had worn, touched, or with which they were associated. It is in the culture that flourished around such relics that we find the ancient analogue of our own art-world. From early in the first millennium AD and for a period of over a thousand years relics -- essentially useless and worthless pieces of bone or hair or skin, or scraps of cloth, or other random objets – were collected and worshipped with a fervor that is today reserved for art.

They were protected by gorgeous cases (reliquaries) and housed in purpose-built prestige edifices, viewed by tourists in their thousands, traded by kings and emperors, stolen, seized as war booty, held as collateral by bankers and of course faked by unscrupulous dealers. They, more so than mosaics, paintings or sculpture, were what drew pilgrims and locals to the great shrines. They were embedded into webs of discourse (for the relics, as for Foucault, discourse was "everything") and were the focus of institutionalized rituals that emphasized their eternal spiritual power. And here, in the relic-cult, we find huge sums paid for objects whose production costs and material value were zero and whose status, outside of the relevant context, was mere rubbish.

*     *     *
The Christian tradition of relic-adoration, which emerged no later than the second century, conflicted with both Roman and Jewish religious norms and legal requirements, which required dead bodies to remain buried and intact. Instead, to the horror of the Romans, the corpses of the martyrs were dragged from the arena or disinterred, to be later dismembered, distributed and venerated. The cult of relics appears to have been a grass-roots movement -- many writers have claimed it was an adaptation of pagan practices -- that, like the martyr-cult that fed it (the martyrs literally provided the raw material), was tolerated, shaped and exploited by the Church leaders. As the Church Father Tertullian put it, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church."

The appeal of the relics was frankly magical. St Augustine, the pre-eminent philosopher of the early church, gave a long list of miracles of which he was personally aware in the last chapter of his book The City of God, written about 410, and nearly all of these miracles were cures produced by martyrs’ relics. Indeed, one of the attractions of relics seems to have been that, like the British National Health Service, they made no distinction between rich and poor in their healing powers: in the democracy of the shrines they, like artworks in museums today, were accessible to all. By the middle of the first millennium the cult of relics was established throughout Christendom and Christian ritual revolved essentially around the shrines which held these relics; these were the meeting points of Heaven and Earth. The magic events wrought over and again by the relics were held to be mini-proofs of the primal miracle: the salvation of mankind brought about God’s incarnation in Christ, his death and resurrection.

Prime among the relics were those attributed to figures from the New Testament, including John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary and the apostles; those of the early Christian martyrs; and those of Jesus Christ himself. His resurrected body was of course not available, but just about everything else imaginable, it turned out, was: his blood, his foreskin, his infant nail-parings, his seamless coat, the wood from the cross on which he hung, the spear that stabbed his flank, the nails that pierced his hands and feet, the Crown of Thorns, and his tears, to name some.

In the wake of the relic cult, legends as to their provenance sprang up: for example, that the 80-year-old Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, visited Jerusalem and there by diligent research uncovered the Holy Sepulcher, which contained the True Cross and also the Title, a piece of wood bearing the letters I.N.R.I. – Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, which had been nailed to the top of the cross. By mid-millennium claimed fragments of the True Cross were distributed all over Christendom. The bodies of the martyrs themselves (all the early saints, including the apostles, received biographies that portrayed them as martyrs) were broken up and shared around in the same way: each fragment was believed to have the entire spiritual power of the original whole. This fragmentation seems to have been a response to market demand: everyone wanted a piece of the spiritual action. In fact, much like an artist-made printing-plate that can produce a long edition of artworks, a relic could make another relic and pass on its power merely by contact; for example, many so-called brandea were produced by pressing pieces of cloth to the relics of St Peter, held in Rome.

*     *     *
The life of a relic once it was settled at a shrine was analogous to that of an artwork in a modern museum collection. It spent most of its time in storage, hidden usually in the Church’s securest stockroom, i.e. under the altar-stone. But from time to time -- at the time of its first acquisition (which might be by purchase or donation), and thereafter maybe once a year, on the saint’s feast day -- it would be taken out and exhibited. The exhibition would be accompanied by readings describing the history of the relic and emphasizing its miraculous powers. The public would come to the exhibition and pay homage to the relic, and to the saint whose relic it was. Sometimes the relic would be sent out on an exhibition tour. Eventually, however, unless it was a relic of particular importance and thus kept on permanent display, it went back into storage; it was accessible between shows only to specialists.

Relics were not immune to the evolution of taste: many, after a glorious arrival at some shrine, fell into obscurity. As one writer has put it: "Cults rose and fell. . . and villagers were always receptive to rumors of more powerful saints who were perhaps closer to God." But still they were kept. The important thing with relics, as with the multitude unseen artworks held in our museums, is that they were known to be there. Essentially the relics’ collections, like the art collections of today, were stores of spiritual capital designed to be held for all eternity or, if you are eschatologically minded, until Kingdom Come.

A corollary of this understanding was the prohibition on resale of relics from church collections, closely mirrored in our day by the severe prejudice against de-accessioning of works held by museums. Relics, once they entered the possession of the churches, were emphatically removed from the realm of commerce and became purely spiritual goods: henceforth, no amount of money could buy them.
Over the centuries, the relic-cult grew. Like the cult of art today, it was essentially an urban and upper-class obsession. A fine relic-collection became essential to any self-respecting medieval emperor, king or bishop. Commercial infrastructure emerged to facilitate the supply: prior to their incorporation into the shrines where they were intended to lie for evermore, relics were widely bought and sold. In the spotty records the first "art dealer" appears, a ninth-century Italian church deacon named Deusdona, who seems to have had the run of the Roman catacombs, a storage depot in southern Italy and an international network of clients. Deusdona supplied the bodies of the saints Peter, Marcellinus and Hermes to Einhard, a scholar in the court of Charlemagne, who was a major relic-collector. To a monk named Theotmar, who was presumably buying on behalf of an important church collections or collections, he supplied saints Alexander, Sebastian, Fabian, Urban, Felicissimus, Felicity, Emmerentina and others. All these were, it was claimed, exhumed from the catacombs in Rome. Deusdona operated on a significant scale, organizing caravans of goods which crossed the Alps in spring and visited the monastic fairs of northern Europe: not such a different proposition from a contemporary art dealer travelling to Art Basel, FIAC, Frieze.

Another dealer referenced in multiple sources is Felix, a Frankish cleric, who travelled the Holy Roman Empire on business. Felix is recorded as selling some of the same saints as Deusdona. Plainly, the collectors all wanted more or less the same saints. The fragmentation of the corpses allowed this up to a point, but eventually the multiplication of holy bodies became an embarrassment to the Church.

The European collecting frenzy increased after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the armies of the IV Crusade. The decision by the Crusaders to seize Constantinople en route to Jerusalem was taken above all for the purposes of seizing booty, primarily the incomparable collection of relics. The looted relics were dispersed across Europe, often enough via Venice, which emerged as the chief hub of the trade, above all to collections in France and Germany.

The most celebrated item taken from Constantinople after 1204 was the Crown of Thorns, the pre-eminent relic of the Passion of Christ. It was bought by Louis IX of France, also known as St Louis, from Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, in 1238. The price paid reveals the considerable sums invested in the top relics, comparable with the investments made in art today. Before Louis took possession, the Crown was held in Venice and plighted to one Nicholas Quirino, who was successor to five previous creditors who had it as security for a loan to Baldwin of (depending on which source you read) 13,134 hyperperes of gold or about 135,000 gold livres tournois; the latter sum, according to French Wikipedia, is equivalent to about €24 million today.

Another price-point is the 5,000 hyperperes for which Baldwin II, again, pawned the hand with which John the Baptist baptized Jesus, formerly kept in the Boukoleon Palace in Constantinople (in the event, Baldwin could not or would not pay off this debt either, and the lender took possession of the relic and sold it to some monks who deposited it at the great Cistercian abbey at Citeaux).

Such sums made sense because relics were held to be the incarnation of miraculous, democratic, salvational virtue. Their possession conferred heavenly legitimacy on earthly power. Louis IX, for example, distributed individual thorns to churches across France and commissioned writers to weave together the legend of the Crown of Thorns and the theory of the Divine Right of Kings. The extraordinary sums paid for some artworks today are founded, surely, on a similar understanding of their virtue and symbolic role.

*     *     *
The great European churches, some reconstructed expressly to accommodate visitors in search of relics, became the prime destinations of tourism and pilgrimage. Thus the relic collections, like the great art collections of today, were important contributors to the local economy. The major tourist sites -- Paris, Rome and Venice -- were often enough those we know today, but in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period it was the relics that people came to see, rather than the paintings.

To house the Crown of Thorns and his other relic acquisitions Louis built the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, one of the supreme masterpieces of gothic architecture. Its construction cost 40,000 livres tournois, much less than the price of the relics it housed. By the end of the Middle Ages ambitious men on the fringes of Western Europe were putting their mind to relic-collecting. In 1348, for example, Charles IV, king of Bohemia, began construction of the magnificent Karlštejn Castle, designed above all as repository for prime relics of the Holy Roman Empire. Such projects were fundamentally ideological, hugely expensive affirmations of the unity of the Christian polity.

We can scarcely avoid a comparison with the collection-building and museum-construction being undertaken today by post-Soviet oligarchs such as Vyacheslav Kantor and Viktor Pinchuk. Kantor’s collection of Russian-Jewish artists, housed in the Switzerland-based Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery, is described on Kantor’s website as part of the Jewish Positioning System, "created to influence public opinion about Jews using positive examples and focusing on their contributions to society and the country." Viktor Pinchuk’s collecting in Kiev, Ukraine, is part of a grand enlightenment programme designed to separate Ukraine from Russia and weld it securely to the West.

One of the most celebrated pilgrim routes, the so-called Way of St James, also known as the Camino Frances, was a march through France and along the north coast of Spain to the shrine of St James the Greater, known in Spain as Santiago, whose relics were housed at Santiago de Compostela, in the greatest Romanesque cathedral in all of Spain. There is a clear line of descent from this shrine to one of the key edifices of contemporary art, the Gehry Guggenheim at Bilbao, which is situated on a northern branch of the Camino Frances. In 1987 the Council of Europe declared the Camino Frances the first European Cultural Route. At the same time, in conjunction with this, the Basque authorities embarked on a redevelopment of their city. In other words, the most important new contemporary art museum of recent times has its origin in an acute awareness of the streams of pilgrims seeking relics who had brought prosperity to northern Spain in centuries past. The Bilbao Effect, also known as the Miracle of Bilbao, has become an object lesson in how to promote cities; it was a lesson already well-known to the medieval clerics.

For the trip to Santiago de Compostela pilgrims received a plenary indulgence. After the Gehry museum opened, the New York Times noted that in certain artistic and architectural social circles, a "pilgrimage to Bilbao" had become de rigueur, and the question "Have you been to Bilbao?" was "a kind of cocktail party game that marked someone either as a culture vulture or a clueless rube."

*     *     *
Arguably, the relics -- remnants of hair, bone, flesh or pieces of cloth, perhaps stained by the blood of martyrs (like the pieces of cloth that were, according to St Augustine, moistened in the blood that oozed from the wounds of St Vincent), all impregnated by supernatural power -- foresee not only contemporary art but also the Renaissance and what flowed from it far more accurately than does the Byzantine painting that was created at the same time.

Renaissance art is built around a sense of the miracle of incarnation: of Jesus Christ above all, but also of humankind in general. In Renaissance painting, for the first time in more than 1,000 years, flesh-and-blood beings exist in fully-described three-dimensional space. Byzantine art, on the other hand, consists of otherworldly images from which the profound sense of incarnation and inhabitable space has been excluded. In fact, if we consider the continuity between the Greco-Roman and Renaissance art, then the religious art of Byzantium seems like a kind of aberration in the Western European tradition rather than an integral part of it. This is how it seemed to Vasari, who saw the whole period from the fourth-century emperor Constantine onwards as one of catastrophic decline in painting and sculpture, and to a lesser extent architecture, which began to be corrected only by Cimabue and his pupil, Giotto.

What kept this sense of the miracle of incarnation alive during the long interregnum of Byzantine art was the relics. They were a constant reminder of the potential magic of the flesh, which Byzantine art did not supply. The incarnation of Jesus Christ was evoked by all the wonders performed by the body-parts of martyrs. As St Augustine wrote in The City of God: "But we cannot deny that many miracles were wrought to confirm that one grand and health-giving miracle of Christ’s ascension to heaven with the flesh in which He rose."

Is it misleading to posit some kind of dialectical relationship between relics and Byzantine art? Didn’t they operate in fundamentally unrelated zones of experience? Not really. As early as the end of the first millennium, well before the Great Schism between the Latin and Byzantine churches in 1054, a philosophical schism was apparent over the relative importance of icons and relics. The Eastern Church preferred icons; the Western Church put its primary faith in relics. The Libri Carolini (circa 792), composed on the orders of the Emperor of the Romans, Charlemagne, are the most complete statement of Western views on visual art in the Middle Ages. The Libri made it clear that images, though they might be beautiful, were not appropriate for veneration: "They [the Eastern Church] place almost all the hope of their credulity in images, but it remains firm that we venerate the saints in their bodies or better in their relics, or even in their clothing, in the ancient tradition of the Fathers." In other words, it was a matter of either/or. The relics were regarded in the Latin Church precisely as a more potent alternative to the visual art of Byzantium.

During the Renaissance, what was infused into sculpted marble and oil on canvas was surely not only the Greco-Roman delight in mimesis but also the transcendental essence of the relics: the idea -- lacking in the hieratic art of Byzantium -- that physical bodies which incarnate the Holy Spirit should be presented with the maximum of realism. Indeed, I believe that the most useful way to understand relics is not as what they were officially purported to be -- body parts of legendary magical figures -- but as a form of representation. Once they are understood in this way, conundrums such as the patent absurdity of the relics’ provenances and the crazy multiplication of bodies of the same saints become secondary, even comprehensible.

Even so, it’s not straightforward to demonstrate this process of infusion because relics and Renaissance art are such different kinds of things. Yet despite the radically different modes of representation involved, there are some formal indications of such transference. For example, up until the 15th century relics were actually concealed within sculptures (to this day, relics of the Buddha are used in the same way).

In the field of painting, the forms of early Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion, such as famous works by Cimabue and Giotto, in which a heavy shaped frame with enlarged rectangular extremities narrowly contains a body, resemble nothing so much as reliquary crosses. In such crucifixions, what was once contained within the reliquary -- perhaps viewed through a crystal peep-hole -- is now illustrated in paint on the surface of the cross: the convincing depiction of a man nailed to the cross takes the place of fragments of the true cross or of remains of a martyr. In both cases the representation strives for the maximum of realism.

Even during the first millennium there was in fact substantial cross-over between relics and painting. Some of the most celebrated relics were also images, and some of the most celebrated paintings were also relics. The body of Christ imprinted on the Turin Shroud is the best-known relic-image, a claimed contact-print (parodied centuries later by Yves Klein, who required naked women smeared in International Klein Blue to press themselves to canvas to create works such as the Mondo Cane Shroud).

Other images were produced, it was claimed, in the same way, the most famous being the so-called Veronica, a cloth that was pressed to the face of Christ as he walked up the hill of Calvary (the face on the Veronica is said to have inspired a particular form of icon; it also gave its name to the most popular pass in bullfighting).

And the most famous of the early icons were claimed primarily as relics and not as images. These were paintings of the Virgin Mary, executed from life it was said by Saint Luke. The relic-status of these works -- i.e. the belief that they were from St Luke’s hand – was the pre-eminent reason for their fame, rather than the niceties of the image-making. Renaissance artists often portrayed Luke and his painting. From St Luke perhaps, and not from Vasari’s Michelangelo, stems the cult of the artist.

*     *     *
Scepticism about relics, always present, came to a head with the Reformation. John Calvin, one of the Reformation’s chief ideologists, mounted a lengthy attack on the cult in his Treatise on Relics (1543). He described relics as "trash" and "precious rubbish" and rejected provenances as "evident lies." He documented many absurdities: in Geneva, for example, there was "on the high altar the brain of St Peter" which on inspection turned out to be "a piece of pumice stone." He noted impossible multiplication of relics -- 100 places claimed to have some of Jesus’s blood, there were enough fragments of the True Cross to make "a whole ship’s cargo," there were multiple heads of John the Baptist, multiple bodies of Apostles.

In general, many of Calvin’s objections to relics have the tenor of common-sense rejections of contemporary art. Some of the pious frauds he lists are almost impossibly delightful: a towel with which Jesus dried the feet of his disciples and that bears the footprint of Judas; crosses that grew beards; Aaron’s rod; even the tiny shield of the Archangel Michael.

The Catholic Church could not but respond. Many examples of the duplicate relics of which Calvin made so much fun were pared down by papal fiat to a single one. The main assembly of the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent (1545-63), convened to deal with the protestant heresies, made certification of new relics and miracles by a bishop compulsory.

As the importance of the old relics was officially diminished by the Catholic Church, the importance of the sacrament of the Eucharist increased. But this did not signify, in fact, a diminution of the relic-cult, because the wafer and wine were, and still are, considered actual relics of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of his flesh, no less than the foreskin, nail-parings and vials of blood. Calvin even remarked on the veneration of a pen-knife "with which the host at Paris was pierced by a Jew": this pen-knife with which a piece of consecrated bread had apparently been stabbed was worshipped just like the several lances which were claimed to have pierced Christ’s side.

The wafer and wine’s status as relics was confirmed by the Council of Trent: "after the consecration, the veritable Body of our Lord, and His veritable Blood, together with His soul and divinity, are under the species of bread and wine." In the form of the Eucharist the relic cult survives to our day. And in fact the cult of the old-style relics also survives, despite the Church’s misgivings: Tony Blair was among 250,000 people who visited the bones of St Therese of Lisieux at Westminster Cathedral last year.

*     *     *
Nothing foreshadows the contemporary attitude to art so much as the medieval Christian veneration of relics. And it’s a corollary of the self-awareness of contemporary artists that some at least should also realize that they are producing a kind of contemporary relics. Duchamp returned to us the ancient understanding that that real-world objects and artist-created images and can exist in a single discursive continuum; and this article suggests that this continuum should be extended back in time to incorporate the relics of the martyrs.

Piero Manzoni was probably the first artist to construct his oeuvre around the idea that artworks are relics. In December 1961 he wrote to the artist Ben Vautier, "I should like all artists to sell their fingerprints, or else stage competitions to see who can draw the longest line or sell their shit in tins. The fingerprint is the only sign of the personality that can be accepted: if collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit, that is really his."

In 1960, as Manzoni himself reports, he "consecrated a number of hard-boiled eggs to art by placing my thumb print on them: the public was able to make contact with these works by swallowing the entire exhibition in 70 minutes." The eating of relics has a distinguished history, traceable back via the Eucharist to the example of Hugh of Lincoln, who devoured splinters of the arm of Mary Magdalene. Manzoni also made balloons filled with his breath and planned before he died containers of artist’s blood. The shit in particular was forthcoming. In 1961 Manzoni interred his own feces in some 90 small metal cans, which were then sealed, nominally preserving the artist’s excrement for eternity. Manzoni signed and numbered the lids of the cans and labeled them on the circumference: Artist’s Shit, Contents 30 gr net, Freshly preserved, Produced and tinned in May 1961. He sold these literal relics of himself for the price of 30 grams of gold.

Manzoni’s tins of shit are treated in the art-world as something enormously valuable and entirely magical, just as the body-parts of the saints were once treated by the Church. The price of the tins keeps rising: in 2000 Tate bought one for £22,350; in 2007 one fetched £81,000 in Milan: already much more than the price of 30 grams of gold. The Tate audio guide to the work speculates about what the tins really contain -- it’s a mystery, apparently -- and concludes, "It’s a tribute to the artist that he’s done something that is still impenetrable by science." Of course, there is nothing in Manzoni’s tins that is impenetrable by science, but we have to believe, or pretend to believe, that there is. Impenetrable by science: it’s what they say about the Turin Shroud.

*     *     *
Manzoni died in 1963, just as the church in Rome at the council known as Vatican II (1962-65) was attempting to relegate the relic cult further. Henceforth, a newly consecrated Catholic church would no longer require the relic of a saint in its altar. In effect, the faith in relics shifted in the early ‘60s substantially from the church to art.

A manipulation of the idea of relics is apparent in the work of several artists who were contemporary with or came to prominence after Manzoni, notable among them Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys and Julian Schnabel. Manzoni himself seems to have been an inspiration to the most famous member of the Britart movement, Damien Hirst. Manzoni planned to enclose dead people in transparent blocks of plastic, a foreshadowing of Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde; and in 1960 he made a sphere that was held aloft on a jet of air: Hirst has made two works like this.

The cradle of the Britart movement was the new graduate art courses introduced at Goldsmiths College in London in the 1980s. The education there differed from that in the traditional art school: theory and discourse took precedence over practical work; regular artist-run seminars were the most important event. The Goldsmiths students’ most important teacher and influence was Irish-born conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin, the son of devout Catholics and a former student at Yale University. Craig-Martin’s most famous work, entitled An Oak Tree (1973), consists of a glass of water that the artist deems to be an oak tree. It is accompanied by a short catechistic text in the form of a Q&A which makes it plain that this work is the translation of the sacrament of the Eucharist -- in other words, a translation of the relic-cult -- into the world of contemporary art:

What I’ve done is to change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water. (…) No, it’s not a symbol; I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. (…) I didn’t change its appearance, but it’s not a glass of water it’s an oak tree. (…) I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree. (…) There is no glass of water anymore. (…) There is no process involved in the change. (…) No, the actual oak tree is physically present in the form of the glass of water.

Regrettably, Craig-Martin doesn’t go into the business of what becomes of the tree if you drink the glass of water. This question had to be dealt with by the theorists of the Eucharist, who advised, for example, that you shouldn’t let bits of the holy wafer get stuck in your teeth.

After Craig-Martin, a steady stream of deliberate relics has been produced by young British artists (yBas): in fact, the more plainly a relic, the better-known the work. Among them are Marc Quinn’s Self (1991), a self-portrait frozen from his own blood (Saatchi Collection); Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) (Saatchi Collection); and of course the most deliberate and resonant of them all, Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a Saatchi commission.

Hirst’s title phrase is not easily parsed (it may even be nonsensical) but it suggests plainly that the shark is intended by the artist as a statement of some sort about life and death. The shark is suspended -- effectively invisibly -- in liquid a shade of green that refers to its native habitat, the sea. In other words, it might, to all visual intents and purposes, be alive and the containing tank merely a 3D freeze-frame of its passage through the ocean. As the New York Times put it, after the shark was transported across the Atlantic to its new owner, it became "life and death incarnate."

Hirst himself hasn’t, as far as I know, said quite the same, but he does seem to want the shark in death to seem as lifelike as possible: after Saatchi replaced the rotting innards with fiberglass in 1993 (subsequently in 2006 the whole shark was replaced with a fresh-caught fish), Hirst thought, "It didn’t look as frightening. . . . You could tell it wasn’t real. It had no weight." It’s actually a significant point: this is not, pace Don Thompson, a "stuffed shark," it is the body entire, perfectly preserved.

In its hypostasis as a preserved organism presented to the public not for scientific study purposes but for metaphysical contemplation, the shark is plainly a direct descendant of the relics (and not merely "fish without chips," as the Sun newspaper commonsensically -- Calvinistically -- objected). Like the ancient relics, it references the miraculous resurrection of Christ (rather than, as has been suggested, Hirst’s patrons, business "sharks" such as Charles Saatchi) is less plain, but it appears to be the case. Christ was often symbolized in ancient Christian mysticism by a fish. The Greek word for a fish, ICHTHUS (ΙΧΘΥΣ), consisting of five letters, was an acrostic signifying Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior (ησος Χριστός, Θεο ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ, Iēsous Christos, Theou Huios, Sōtēr): the ichthus symbol is found in first-century Roman catacombs.

But really one doesn’t need to know these arcanae in order to grasp the significance of the shark. One simply needs a sense of the shark’s plight, and of one’s own relationship to it, in the context of the Christian heritage. The creature is displayed both dead and alive, magnificent and abject: it is "life and death incarnate." We, the public, are witness to its humiliation, pain, death and resurrection -- in iconographical terms, the Passion.

Another Goldsmiths pupil, Michael Landy, has consistently made work that suggests a commonality between art and ancient religious practice. In 2001, for example, he explored the artist’s status as modern-day holy man when he staged Break Down in a shop in Oxford Street in London: a demonstrative exhibition in which, in the spirit of a first-millennium ascetic or Franciscan monk, he destroyed all his possessions. This year, at the South London Gallery, he addressed the rubbish- or relic-status of art in a work called Art Bin. Many members of the public, and several of Landy’s celebrated colleagues such as Hirst and the painter Gary Hume, handed over works to be thrown into a room-sized container and, at the end of the show, destroyed.

How are we to understand this action? The application form for those wishing to dispose of some art states that "Art Bin exists to promote art and not to denigrate it." But the ambivalence of the project is undeniable. The syntagma Art Bin is a direct descendent of the brutal epithet used by John Calvin in 1543 in his attack on relics, "precious rubbish." At the the core of Landy’s work, scarcely veiled by the layers of self-reflexiveness and irony, is the suggestion that our contemporary art is quite simply akin to relics, and as such teeters forever on the edge of the garbage disposal.

MATTHEW BOWN is an English art dealer with a gallery in Berlin and an office in Moscow.