When Nikolas Bentel called around to art dealers to ask if he could buy and destroy a piece worth tens of thousands of dollars, most of them said no.
Bentel, a New York-based artist, examines social issues and their relationships with objects, and is part of the New Museum's art and design incubator called New Inc. He’s currently raising money to buy a piece by pop artist Robert Rauschenberg that’s worth $10,000. He plans to immediately destroy it—by covering it in advertising.
He’s selling ad space on the piece for $92.59 an inch. When the space is all sold, he’ll buy the signed 1973 Rauschenberg piece for ten grand, and get to work painting advertisements onto it.
“The conservative art dealers definitely do not want to be caught up in a situation like this,” he told me in an email. “It took me about a year to get from sketching out the idea to launching this project.” Ninety percent of the dealers he called refused to sell to him because of his intentions with the piece, he said.
Which is ironic, because Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, probably would have loved it. In 1953, the pop artist destroyed a drawing by Dutch artist Willem de Kooning, persuading it away from the more-established artist and erasing it meticulously over the course of several months.
“Rauschenberg's legacy is built around questioning the art world's norms,” Bentel said. “Sadly, he is not around to see this project but maybe he would find this project interesting.”
To put it in more modern terms, the project has been compared to the Million Dollar Homepage, where someone sold advertising space on a single web page and made a million bucks doing it.
So far, Bentel’s sold about a third of the space on the work so far, mostly to small, local companies that are somehow affiliated with the art world. The project launches publically today, so the ad sales—and criticisms for defacing priceless art—are yet to start flooding in.
Bentel said he sees this, in part, as a critique of both the art world and the way companies look for ways to infiltrate our daily lives. “This project exemplifies how ridiculous the advertising world is,” he said. “But it also shows us the economic feasibility of this project and the advertising world!”