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Cultural Psychology | curated by Kevin Goodman

The Curious Case of the Wizard of New Zealand

The Wizard of New ZealandIan Brackenbury Channell graduated with double honors in psychology and sociology from the University of Leeds. After a brief time as a sociology lecturer and graduate student, Channell’s department supervisor at the University of New South Whales dismissed him, believing he was crazy. Channell, with the help of the student union, persuaded the vice chancellor of the university to allow him to stay on campus and continue his experiments in alternate reality (with pay). He officially changed his name to the Wizard of New Zealand.

The Wizard of New Zealand looks like a wizard, dresses like a wizard, behaves as a wizard, and regularly gives public speeches.

More bizarre is that the University of Melbourne gave him the official position of “Wizard” and chair of his own Department of Cosmology.

The New Zealand Art Director’s Council recognized him as a living work of art.

Christchurch City Council officially recognized him as the Wizard of Christchurch.

 Prime Minister Mike Moore recognized him as the official Wizard of New Zealand (1990).

In 2009, the Wizard of New Zealand was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal.

I first read about the Wizard of New Zealand in Art Today by Edward Lucie-Smith. He’s covered under the performance art section of the book. Performance art often falls within the domain of conceptual art and I love conceptual art. The best conceptual art challenges all intuitive sense of what art really is. Forget the artist who paints a single line across the canvass, Marcel Duchamp signed his nom de plume to a urinal and Piero Manzoni canned his own feces and sold them with the label Artist’s Shit. Manzoni produced 90 cans in 1961 but what really makes this interesting is that in recent years his cans are auctioning for over $150,000.00! Does that make sense?

Anyhow, I was talking to an artist friend of mine about Lucie-Smith’s inclusion of the Wizard of New Zealand in Art Today and was utterly surprised when my friend hastily declared, “Lucie-Smith is over reaching.” Evidently my friend—an abstract assemblage artist—either didn’t know a whole lot about the state of contemporary art or, more likely, had a very strong biased reaction. Nonetheless, we generally consider performance to be an art form and it’s hard to deny that the Wizard of New Zealand is anything other than a living performance. In fact, I believe the Wizard of New Zealand is the ultimate statement in self-determination.

Despite very impressive recognitions here and there, the Wizard hasn’t shared the wild financial success that many high profile conceptual artists have enjoyed. Despite occasional recognition as an artist, the Wizard appears to give primacy to his role as Wizard. Conceptual artists often make tangible products such as photographs of their performance or products of some kind (for commerce), and I am not sure the Wizard does this. I have read that the Wizard lives on modest stipends and by the support of friends. This is an indication that he has not cracked the contemporary art superstar scene where a few hundred thousand dollars is pocket change.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the Wizard’s property has been subject to vandalism and his house burned in arson. Some people evidently hate non-conformist!

What makes the Wizard of New Zealand interesting is that an individual case like this can lead to some serious philosophical, sociological, and psychological enquiry. For example, I’m compelled to ask why such trivial cases incite extreme emotional reactions from love to hate. Is the Wizard just another eccentric or something more than that? What are the sociological borders between eccentricity, insanity, and art? What are the sociological statuses of eccentricity, insanity, and art? What are the psychological consequences of disregarding an organic identity for an alter ego? But what really interests me about this case (and about contemporary art in general) is the issue of legitimacy and its relationship to authority and capital.

All that said, I’m seriously considering commissioning some work by the Wizard of New Zealand and the Baron of Caux (for diversification) after which I will launch an advertising campaign in Art News to increase my chances for inclusion in Art Basil where I will triple my investors’ money. But don’t get too excited guys! First, I need a couple hundred thousand dollars ;) Any takers?

In the mean time, the Wizard stars in a documentary film…Check it out!

High Prices and Contemporary Art: The Allure of Being Expensive

My last post discussed conceptual art as being a sort of applied philosophical argument. I want to continue talking art because the high price of some art presents an interesting phenomenon. I’m talking about the multi-million dollar price tag of some contemporary art. What is so important that it’s worth the life time earnings of twenty average Joes? There is no doubt that contemporary art is a product of capitalism. So what would possess a tycoon to invest three million dollars in a rampage of paint splatters?

Well, it could be that they respect artists as great geniuses, mad men with passion and vision, whose passions are a sort of Midas touch—true enough—I’ll  get back to this towards the end. But anybody successful in the art world, other than artist and patrons, knows there is quite a bit of business behind the success. I read a book sometime ago that described the business practices of some renown galleries—it discussed treating patrons as VIPs, calling lists of patrons frequently, offering insider buys etc. Interesting is the practice of galleries offering deeply discounted prices to special patrons. The top galleries cultivate a privileged circle, providing VIP treatment and an aura of exclusivity.

Everything about contemporary art screams exclusivity. Weird abstractions that some people claim their child could have painted or absurd and obscene photographs are the most valuable; the things that bring top dollar. I admit this is a gross generalization BUT the average Joe usually doesn’t make sense of it, at least the part about its worth. What he calls art they call kitsch, a derogatory word for those chainsaw, Elvis on velvet, and Thomas Kincaid paintings. He thinks contemporary art is bullshit but knows there must be a trick to getting people to pay for it. Perhaps it manifests qualities that he simply couldn’t understand. There is something foreign about it, he cannot make sense of it but he knows from movies, museums (that he has never been to), and the strange stories in the news about absurd prices that there is something to it, something elite.

Yes, there are surely unique complexities to every artwork that shouldn’t be understated. There is also the fact of Veblen economics—It goes something like this, if a de Kooning painting is worth a hundred dollars today then it’s not very important and I’m probably not going to be interested in it but if it is worth a hundred thousand then I’ll probably take notice, and because I can’t help but take notice, somebody is going to buy it. Somebody is going to buy it because it is an object of value that commands attention. All this signifies social status whether or not we appreciate the painting because we know it costs a hell of a lot of money.  BTW, you would probably be very lucky to find a descent de Konning painting for a hundred thousand; if you have the opportunity, you should buy it as an investment.

As weird as it may sound, contemporary art can be more lucrative than stocks and bonds. Charles Saatchi gave up a lucrative career as the head of a top advertising agency for an even more lucrative career dealing in embalmed sharks (I mean contemporary art). There is probably nothing that drives the art market more than auction potential. I’ve read stories about dealers staging betting wars and padding prices in a manner that would surely bring SEC investigations if we were talking more traditional securities. But trust that the art market is indeed something like the stock market.

Another reason for paying the price is to immortalize oneself. If an artist is going to make it famous, going to make the history books, then it is an opportunity for the buyer to be part of a great legacy. There is nothing more reflective of our culture than our art. Buying art is a way to contribute to that culture. Wealthy patrons buy expensive art because they believe in greatness. Greatness is being better, being of higher worth and great people like to surround themselves with great things; it’s a demonstration of worth, of taste, etc. High culture is very different from low culture; it has to be!