The Work of Art in the Age of Martin Shkreli

Martin Shkreli, hip-hop fan.

Martin Shkreli, hip-hop fan.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece for Souciant about the end of a well-intentioned but otherwise disastrous experiment carried out by the Wu-Tang Clan. At that time, the world renowned rap group was poised to buck virtually every commercial trend in the history of the music industry by releasing just one copy of its top-secret double album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.

In doing so, and by auctioning off the recording to the highest bidder, the Wu-Tang Clan also managed to buck the most important technological trends that have been instrumental in democratizing art for well over a century. Or, at least, that’s the crux of the argument I was making. And it seemed like a reasonable one given that the Wu-Tang’s singularly perfect creation was purchased by one of the most loathsome cretins to emerge from news cycle in recent years: the notorious price-gouging, disease-profiteering ‘Pharmacy Bro’, Martin Shkreli.

Fast forward to September 6, 2017. Barely a month after being found guilty on three fraud-related criminal charges, our terrible antagonist in this story, Martin Shkreli, took to the Internet in order to put the coveted, one-of-a-kind Wu-Tang album up for auction on eBay.

Shkreli, who writes in tone befitting of a soulless yuppie whose very existence showcases the atrocity of capitalism in action, somehow manages to transform the item description and Q&A sections of his auction listing into a vitriolic space for shit talking, whining, insulting the Wu-Tang Clan, bragging about his bank account, and making self-aggrandizing, nonsensical comments about his motives for buying and then selling the album. In a brazen move that truly displays his utter lack of class, culture or candor, the now-disgraced conman admits to not really listening to the album anyhow. At least not “carefully,” as he puts it.

I honestly can’t imagine how this tragically comic turn of events must feel to the Wu-Tang Clan today. Then again, it’s hard to truly sympathize given that their musical experiment was quite literally designed to put their art on the auction block for someone like Shkreli to purchase, covet, and potentially ignore. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that their prized artistic artifact – the ultimate musical commodity of the early 21st Century – is now just another object up for grabs on eBay. To add another level of meta-irony to the mix, multiple people are now using eBay to sell screenshots of Shkreli’s eBay auction. Rare pictures, indeed.

There’s a lot more that could be said here, but one thing is for sure: If this bizarre Wu-Shkreli saga doesn’t give us serious reasons to ponder the nature of art and commerce in the age of mechanical reproduction, then I’m not sure what will.

Photograph courtesy of Rich Howells. Published under a Creative Commons license.