In 2015, sculptor Anish Kapoor bought the black colour from Surrey NanoSystems. Not just any black: the Vantablack black which has specific chemical properties that do not occur in nature. This black, which was created for military use, is so deep that the volumes can no longer be distinguished. So it’s an ideal camouflage. Basically, this event is not new insofar as, in 1960, Yves Klein had deposited a blue colour in his name (the International Klein Blue or IKBlue). Nevertheless, Yves Klein had only legally appropriated the chemical recipe for this particular blue and, unlike Anish Kapoor’s Vantablack, everyone has the right to freely use the IKBlue.
What is new is that the Vantablack can only be used by its owner. The fact that Vantablack is not a colour originally present in nature is also new. It was manufactured entirely in the laboratory. Also absurd, the very idea of appropriating a colour. Obviously, black is not a colour but the absence of colour, but let us put aside these technicalities here. It is not only gossip from the contemporary art world but a profound change in the way we think about the world. However, this event is only absurd in appearance.
The first and most obvious absurdity is that colour has no economic value.
In economics, the price of a thing is defined by using three criteria: the rarity is the most important one, followed by the usefulness and the amount of work required to develop it (time and specific skills). Then, on the basis of these criteria, the market establishes the “fair price” determined by the forces of supply and demand.
It may seem absurd to put an economic value on a colour, given the abundance of pigments, at least in our time. Thus, an element as widespread as a colour cannot have an economic value. Colours are everywhere and everything is colour. Colour is an omnipresent element in nature, it is consubstantial to it. A priori, there is, therefore, no rarity.
If for a long time, obtaining pigments, particularly blue pigments, was a difficult task for artists, in the 21st-century, pigments are very easy to access. Obtaining pigments is no longer a limit to creativity. It is thus difficult to have a monopoly on something that everyone can easily buy. Until now, it has been possible to buy the recipe for a certain colour without restricting access, but not to buy the colour itself.
At present, everything seems likely to enter the commercial circuits and, therefore, to be the subject of a monopoly, including a simple colour, and this is the whole tragedy of ultra-liberalism. Such a monopoly becomes possible when the colour in question is not present in nature and requires human intervention and can only exist through complex and costly scientific processes. This black is therefore very rare. This paradox, although real, illustrates the absurdity of ultra-liberalism.
So, although the theoretical economic value of a colour is zero, buying Vantablack happens to be a great investment.
Indeed, today, contemporary art is above all oriented towards abstract and conceptual reflections. Therefore, colours have a central role, as shown by the trend towards monochrome colours. The colours are all the more requested by the artists. Its rarity, combined with the role of colour in contemporary art, explains why Vantablack is in great demand in the artistic world. The chemical characteristics of this substance justify that the artists tear it apart. Surrey NanoSystems was in negotiations with at least three other artists before Anish Kapoor won. This makes the Vantablack potentially very profitable for its owner.
The second absurdity is that you cannot own a concept.
Indeed, colour is a concept like everything else, which only exists when humans name it. Things have their own existence and when they are named they begin to have a second existence, parallel to the first, which takes place in the unconscious of every human being (existing and that has existed), as well as in the unconscious common to humanity. Colour as such is obviously not a concept, it is a scientific fact that has its own scientific discipline, optics and, by certain aspects, chemistry. On the other hand, the symbolization (i.e. the act of naming that creates this parallel life) of colours makes them concepts. Things exist as they are, to name them is to conceptualize them. Symbolization is a one-way relationship, something exists, then humans name it, the opposite is not true.
A concept remains only thoughts and words that do not condition the physical existence of the object. Naming an object allows it to exist in the eyes of humanity, but does not really materialize it. A word, an idea, a concept exist so that humans can understand each other. But understanding will always stop at the definition of the word. Language seeks to define the contours of a feeling. However, each human feels emotions in a purely personal and singular way and this feeling will never happen again. Similarly, language is a matter of perception, since each human puts his personal layers of symbolization on a concept, making his understanding unique to each one. So, the language can only approach and touch what the real feeling is, but never put a finger on it.
Therefore, buying a concept is like materializing something elusive. You can’t buy “to see” it, unlike pigments. When you buy a concept, in this case, colour, it loses its function as a concept to be nothing more than an object existing by itself, regardless of human perception. As long as a human being can think of a concept, he possesses it in his mind and each human being has his own understanding of that concept. We cannot, therefore, have the concept of colour. All that can be possessed is the commercial object.
These two elements, namely the double impossibility of materializing and possessing an idea, are sufficient to demonstrate the irrationality of this event. As long as humans other than Mr Kapoor are aware of the existence of Vantablack, then Vantablack will belong to Humanity. It is therefore reassuring to know that Anish Kapoor will never own the Vantablack concept. On the other hand, what Anish Kapoor has undoubtedly bought for himself is the illusion of power.
In conclusion, Vantablack is potentially very profitable for its owner and that is where all the absurdity lies. The commodification has invaded all areas of society, it has become so all-powerful, to the point of being the key to understanding our world and the answer to all possible problems, that buying a colour (object impossible to possess) is a reasonable, even wise act. To conclude, a colour cannot have an economic value and yet a man now has a monopoly on one of them, the value of which is several million euros. That is why this event marks the fall of old barriers. The limits of commodification are being redrawn. The contradictions in which this event plunges us demonstrate a profound change in mentality.
If all the few rich artists of the very select contemporary art scene decide to buy this or that colour, one is entitled to wonder whether, in the long term, art can still be practised by the non-rich, which would put material barriers to entry into this environment which is already closed to the non-rich, since contemporary art has become a competitive environment, driven solely by the pursuit of profit with everything that this implies induces in terms of performance and competition.