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Ah, $weet No$talgia; Your Memorie$ For $ale


What is the value of a guitar unless it is to be played? What is the worth of a comic book unless it is to be read? The art world has long struggled with the question of the true financial value of artworks but these days, as baby boomers look back at their youth, rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and comic books are caught up in a debate about pricing, one fueled by the energy of nostalgia.

Two stories from the L.A. Times this past week illustrate how the items of their – and our – youth have soared in value. One article describes how much collectors are paying for vintage Gibson Les Paul Standard “Burst” guitars, with prices as high as $500,000. A decorative ring for one guitar model, a piece that is essentially a washer, can be found on eBay for as much as $1,200. In Sarasota, Fla., one company can permanently seal a comic book in a plastic box, ensuring its pristine condition by rendering it untouchable by human hands.

The question of the true value of any object – whether a Van Gogh painting or The Amazing Spider-Man #1 – will always be subjective. But you’d like to think there was some sort of correlation between the inherent quality of the piece in question and its financial worth. In an age when you can purchase a high-end handmade guitar for three thousand dollars – one that plays as well or better than a vintage Gibson – it’s clear that the current value of the Gibson lies more in its nostalgic worth.

It’s no coincidence that guitars and comic books happen to be the prized targets of baby boomers. This generation not only built up the kind of disposable income you’d need to pay these kinds of prices, they seem to be the first generation that has attempted to recapture its youth with such vigor.

But the notion of popular culture as commodity – to be bought and sold on the market, to be preserved as something with appreciable value – sends a chill down my spine. It goes against everything pop culture is supposed to revel in: The temporary, the faddish, the all-out fun. What really offends me about these trends is that they seem to have nothing to do with the original intent of the valued object. You loved that Lost in Space lunch-box as a kid, but you used it as a lunch-box. As an adult, you track down a mint condition model of that same beloved lunch-box, paying a huge markup, and then stick it on a shelf.

On such occasions, pop culture icons seemed more valued for what they represent, than for the actual physical object. In grammar, there’s a type of figure of speech called a metonymy. It’s sometimes referred to as “the container for the thing contained,” such as when you say “I drank a bottle of soda,” meaning that you drank the liquid, not the glass bottle itself. In similar fashion, there are times when a lunch-box or guitar or comic book seems more valued for all the hopes, dreams and romantic notions – rosy memories of when we were all young and comfort was a boloney sandwich and a Ring-Ding – that are locked within it. We pay for the container, but what we really pay for is the intangible thing contained within: A memory of a time when things were easier, perhaps, when we – or they – were more optimistic because our lives were in front of us, not behind.

You have to feel sorry for the artists and craftsman who create these objects. We may have our own notions of what the work means, but for its creator, a guitar or a comic book is a product of both imagination and skill. And it was created for a specific purpose. Famed comic book writer/artist Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) has suggested that that perhaps he could just sell comic books with covers and blank pages within.

If you’re not going to value the art and writing of a comic book by reading it – or value the craftsmanship of a guitar by playing it – than you might as well buy stocks. They make for dry reading, but they’re a more sensible investment.

Share  Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 4:58 PM | Permalink

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