Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Smashing Diamonds

There is a scene in Antonioni's Blowup (1966) in which the protagonist photographer walks down a dark alley and finds himself in the middle of a Yardbirds concert. This band featured Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck after Eric Clapton had left and before Led Zeppelin was formed. The audience is mostly subdued as they watch Beck get annoyed by a crackling amplifier. He whacks the amp a few times while continuing to play until his frustration gets the better of him and he begins to smash the guitar on the stage in a way that would later come to be associated with The Who.

Beck then throws the broken guitar neck into the crowd and it lands near the photographer. A scrum ensues as all the kids try to grab the offering. The photographer gets caught up in the melee and he manages to win the tug of war. He runs out of the concert clutching the broken guitar fragment and is chased by several young people who want to take it away from him. He successfully escapes onto a well-lit London boulevard and begins to walk away. He looks at the broken guitar neck in his hand and after all his effort to obtain it, he just tosses it onto the sidewalk. A young man immediately walks up to it, picks it up briefly and deciding it to be worthless, tosses back onto the sidewalk.

Within the world of rock and roll celebrity the guitar neck obtained an aura through its close proximity to the rock star. Everyone in that world sees a great worth in that piece of wood and metal and would fight to have it. Once the photographer has left that world and reentered his own on the sidewalk he realizes that it is just a piece of junk after all. He only wanted it because everyone around him wanted it. The young man who picks it up from the sidewalk would probably deem it to be of great value but without that connection to celebrity there is no aura to it and it comes to be seen simply as material and is discarded as such.

Celebrity is only one way of supplying aura to an otherwise worthless material and it explains why people will pay large sums of money for a piece of paper just because it was signed by someone considered famous. Economic value is determined by what someone is willing to pay for it. So one way to increase profit is to enhance the aura of your product in order to add value where there is otherwise little or no value at all. Consider the diamond industry. People have somehow been convinced to pay as much money as could buy a house for a string of shiny glassy rocks that adorn the wrist as a tennis bracelet. People seem to desire diamonds because everyone around them also does. But what if everyone stepped out onto that well-lit boulevard and realized that they're just rocks?

1 comment:

me: the sequel said...

Isn't it funny how we ascribe value to the things we need least?

At least this is true in the western hemisphere, where we are insanely spoiled in terms of easy access to necessities.

A loaf of bread is $2.45. Water and oxygen are free. Yet some people would pay thousands, as you say, for a collector's item.

Yet, in developing nations, a glass of clean water is the holy grail...

Value is so damn relative.

I'm thinking now about the things I cherish most... hmmm...