I don’t know if you followed the strange story of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi a while back, but the short version, as told in Ben Lewis’ book The Last Leonardo, is pretty simple. The art business might be classy and filled with elegance and learning, but a subsection of it is incredibly dodgy. Big ticket paintings are amongst the most valuable things on planet Earth, and thus wonky paintings get smoothed out into something sellable, inconvenient facts get forgotten, and before you know it a painting that once sold for under 100 pounds is suddenly valued in the hundreds of millions – and then it disappears, owner unknown, location only guessed at.
I didn’t think Animal Crossing would be the game to bring all this into focus, but maybe it makes sense. Redd has appeared in my village, and he’s a wonderfully untrustworthy presence. This fox deals in art, but he’s not a slick South Ken operator. Instead he parks his boat, which puffs gritty black smoke into the blue Animal Crossing sky, behind my island. I go in, and it’s dark inside. I can’t really get a close look at the works on offer. Botticelli’s Venus – or is it? – is for sale alongside a fragrance diffuser and a battered microwave, all set up on plastic tubs for my perusal. Redd has a scrappy invoice pad on a nearby table, alongside empty bowls and used chopsticks. I can look at stuff but not too close, and Redd half-heartedly flings in a little art world lingo alongside his sales patter.
Yesterday I bought a fake of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. The original is so delicate it has to be stored out of sight, and those who are able to actually get close to it often marvel at the fact that you can still see the puncture mark Leonardo made with his compasses when he drew the circle. Mine has a coffee stain on it – maybe a reference to the way forgers stain new paper to look like old paper – and I’m pretty sure Blathers is going to have bad news for me about it.
While this is a nice caricature of the seedier aspects of the art market, I think there’s something more at work. Animal Crossing is so wide-ranging, so filled with people playing in different ways, that it can be hard to make sense of what the game is actually about. But look at the art. Maybe it’s real. Maybe it’s fake. Some of the fakes – all of the fakes? – are haunted, so maybe a haunted work is actually worth more to you than the real thing? Maybe Redd, who turns up once a week and only allows you to buy one artwork each time, just doesn’t strike you as being worth the hassle. Maybe he’s so much worth the hassle that you time-travel and risk breaking the game’s spider webbing in order to stock up on his purchases.
This kind of thinking is everywhere in Animal Crossing. And it’s made me realise that maybe Animal Crossing is ultimately about this one thing: how much is something worth to you? Or rather, what do you value? Do you want to min-max your village and spend hours each day harvesting fruit and monitoring turnip prices to pay off your mortgage in record time? Or do you value taking things slowly, watching the seasons change as you steadily inch from one size of home to the next? Do you want to dig up fossils every morning or would you rather chat to villagers? Do you want your daily twenty minutes with the game to be busy with progress or do you want to saunter? Do you want to weed, or can you live with the wilderness? Do you want to do all of it at once, as much as possible?
Art is such a good way of exploring this because it’s hard to adequately clarify what art actually does. The microwave Redd was trying to sell me – I know what that does. But I don’t know what Botticelli’s Venus does, and even if I did, maybe it does it for me but not for you. Art is priceless and worthless depending on your own perspective. So listen, as Redd might say: what’s it worth to you?