Darkness and Light in the Art Market

For all of its flash and press, I’ve always found the Contemporary Art world to be rather a dark, inscrutable place. The art market is made up of many component strands, of which Contemporary Art is easily the brashest component.  Modern and Impressionist Art is still doing quite well of course, as last night’s sale in London of a Monet from his water lily series for $54 million shows.  It’s hard to imagine that 50 years from now, our grandchildren will look at this Monet alongside a work by someone like contemporary British artist Tracy Emin, and see them as being of equal artistic value.  Yet the art market itself is significantly changing, and this is both a problem and an opportunity.

It’s not hard to understand why, if you’re interested in making a lucrative career for yourself in the art business, that Contemporary Art is increasingly viewed as the place to be.  Between July 2012 and July 2013, worldwide sales of Contemporary Art hit one billion pounds for the first time.  It’s also the place to be if you just so happen to be a speculative investor.

At the top end of the market, Contemporary Art regularly commands very high prices, so that only the extremely rich can afford the buy-in for what in many cases is more about gambling than collecting.  True, some of those paying tens of millions of dollars for something which the average person looks at and scratches his head, rather than admires, may actually find meaning in what they are buying, even where beauty itself is noticeably absent.  However more often than not, such collectors are primarily interested in seeing art as a way to move money around more easily, and those who help them complete these transactions understand and facilitate this.

We need to remember of course that the art market is first and foremost a business environment, not a charitable institution.  If someone chooses to pay an astronomical sum for a work by contemporary sculptor Anish Kapoor, the creator of the broken-rollercoaster-enveloping-the-Seattle-Space-Needle sculpture known as “Orbit” for the 2012 London Olympic Park, the market is more than happy to oblige.  It is not the market’s job to point out that a fool and his money are soon parted.

The tough aspect of this, for those interested in the art world, is in separating speculation from appreciation.  A recent article in The New York Times probes this point, noting the huge chasm which currently exists in the area of Contemporary Art.  As a British art investment expert points out in the piece, the fixation on sales figures helps perpetuate the perception that art collecting is supposed to be about accumulating profit over the pursuit of knowledge and the appreciation of the beautiful. “Rich collectors compete in auctions to prove how much money they have. The rest of us should just have a discussion about the art we like.”

Fortunately, fans of all things old increasingly find themselves members of more intimate clubs.  In the field of Decorative Arts, for example, collectors and aficionados are becoming not only better-educated about the things they love, but they are being drawn more closely together because there are fewer of them.  As more and more media attention is siphoned off by the Contemporary Art trade, serious collectors interested in beautiful things find themselves freer to go about doing what they love.  Recently an article in The Art Newspaper covering the Art Antiques Fair in London hit the nail on the head when it comes to understanding this change, noting that “anything but contemporary art is being squeezed more and more because of the greed-inspiring sums of money fetched by the contemporary,” noting that attending events like the Art Antiques Fair is a pleasure because one is attending “an event that is genuinely to do with collecting rather than interior decorating or investing.”

What’s interesting to observe about this phenomenon is that it is bringing back collecting to where it began, in a sort of wheat from the chaff moment.  Chinese scholars, Roman senators, and Medieval princes were not interested in having unique works of art and art objects to hand because they intended to sell them on at a profit later, like flipping a house in a gentrifying neighborhood and then moving along.  Rather, they collected things to hold on to them forever, because they meant something more than the price tag which the objects bore.  Today, even as those interested in art as profitable investment are now going in one direction, those interested in art as a physical embodiment of intangible goods such as transcendent beauty, human ingenuity, and so on, are returning to their roots.

For the vast majority of us, the first and best rule of both studying and collecting art, has always been to focus on the things you love.  Learn as much about them as you can, so that whether it’s pre-Revolutionary Sèvres porcelain or early 20th century watercolors of the Scottish Highlands, you will not only enjoy them more, but you will benefit from meeting and forming friendships with others who enjoy them as well, educating one another about the finer points of technique, style, history, and so on.  Leave the business of art business to those primarily interested in playing speculative games in the dark, rather than in illuminating our culture.

"Water Lilies" (1906) by Claude Monet  Sold at Sotheby's London for $54 million last evening

“Water Lilies” (1906) by Claude Monet
Sold at Sotheby’s London for $54 million last evening

 

Bringing Home the Bacon: Is This Worth $142 Million?

The most important season for the buying and selling of paintings has always been in the fall, and the greatest interest in those exchanges is centered primarily around the numbers coming out of the big New York auction rooms.  Not only does the art world follow the results, but financial institutions take an interest as well, since it gives them some sense of where the very wealthy are putting their funds.  These days the products of the Modern and Contemporary art world in particular are often viewed more as investments or tax write-offs, rather than as the playthings of those who have money to burn.  Thus, while sixty years ago the market was dominated by sales of Old Master paintings, and thirty years ago by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, today Modern and Contemporary Art sales act as a bellwether not only of the economy, but also of the culture.

Last week Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” sold for $142,405,000.00 at Christie’s in New York, not only setting a new world record for the artist, but also entering the books as the single most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction.  The piece, or rather the set of three paintings, consists of three large images of a figure seated on a wooden chair, portrayed from three different angles.  Bacon (1909-1992) and Freud (1922-2011) were hugely important 20th century British artists, working in very different styles.  The fact that the former painted this colossal triptych of the latter attracted a great deal of interest, particularly given the inherent rivalries of the art world which make these types of works rare.

In comparing the work of these two men I must confess that I am (comparatively) more attracted to Freud’s work than that of Bacon.  Freud is not easy to like, exactly: the subjects of his portraits typically appear to be suffering from a particularly lumpy form of leprosy, and the skin tones in his nudes tend to remind one of a suckling pig being prepared for the oven.  However Bacon is without question the more difficult of the two to appreciate, in that his paintings are often quite terrifying and macabre, featuring zombie-like figures and creatures which stem from a nightmarish imagination.  I may have come to appreciate him more as I have grown older, but I still find much of his work decidedly off-putting.

While this series of paintings of his contemporary are not the sort of horror-film work one associates with Bacon’s repeated, hideous revisiting of Velázquez sublime “Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, or the almost H.R. Gigeresque “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”, they are nevertheless not particularly pleasing things to look at.  As he transitioned into the 1960’s Bacon’s work became, frankly, somewhat dull, losing some of its earlier, angry quality.  The studies of Freud date from this period, and so it is hard to understand why someone thought that they were worth such a large sum.

What this auction result speaks to, beyond the general decline in taste among elites, is the all-important cult of celebrity.  Here we have a piece by one very famous artist, portraying another very famous artist.  The single most-often used word to describe this work across the news reports and press releases covering this story is “iconic”.  CNN described it as “one of Bacon’s most iconic works”, while Christie’s defined it as “an icon of 20th century art”.  If we simply take the word “icon” at its basic meaning, “image”, then of course just about anything representational can be considered “iconic”.  Obviously, this is not what was intended in the marketing attached to this picture.

When an auction house refers to a piece as “iconic”, what they are trying to tell you is that this work is so important that somehow you, too will be considered important by association, should you end up buying it.  It is rather like a keen bit of ironic observation made to me once by a Swedish architect friend, when I accompanied him and a group of glamorous – natch – Swedes to a very exclusive, members-only club in London.  “Do you know why I am important?” he asked. “I am important because I am in this club.  And you’re important too, because you are in this club. And all of these people in here? They must be important because they got into this club also. And so here we are, all being important together.”

The auction houses know that it only takes two well-funded, competitive bidders each intent on beating the other to drive the price of an auction lot beyond the estimated value of the piece.  If two billionaires want to compete, this is one of the ways that they can do so without coming to physical blows.  And the vanity attached to owning important pieces of art has been there from the beginning of collecting in general, since both the well-to-do and the average person like to have the admiration and envy of others when it comes to their possessions, whether those possessions are multi-million dollar works of art, or vintage Star Wars action figures.

The difference lies not only in the price, but in the degree to which one values possessions over what one is supposed to be doing with one’s disposable income.  Those with more money than sense will be more than happy to have those who supposedly are better-informed than they tell them that they really ought to purchase something which, with a more detached and critical eye, they would never really want to own.  Yet increasingly the idea that some things are just not worth the price, and that there is virtue in modesty and frugality even among the rich, seems to have gone out the window: the luxury has become the must-have, in order for one to be completely fulfilled as a human being.  And this notion of course, is utter rubbish.

Naturally no one wants to be the little boy pointing out that the emperor has no clothes on in this situation, for fear of ridicule and derision by one’s peers.  The risk is that one will be told that one’s taste or education or brain power is somehow faulty.  It is practically social suicide among the intelligentsia to dare to challenge the established view that such an unattractive, poorly-executed mess such as this triptych is worth an inordinate amount of money.  However the contrast between vanity and values becomes all the clearer when one considers that just six months earlier, an absolutely magnificently painted, deeply introspective portrait of a man looking into a mirror by the great 17th century Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera sold at Christie’s London salerooms for only $1.1 million, quite a bargain compared to the Bacon which cost over 100 times as much.  Personally, I know which of the two I would rather have hanging on my wall.

Freud

A visitor examines “Three Studies of Lucien Freud” (1969) by Francis Bacon

Rags, Riches, and the Contemporary Art Trade

Why is it that when one sees articles like this, describing how the halls and salons of The Louvre are being filled with contemporary art, that the sensation is one of anger arising from a deep sense of injustice? We all know instinctively that much of the headline-making contemporary art we see is garbage, and sometimes quite literally so as shown in the photograph which accompanies this post.  Unfortunately, few people have the courage to actually stand up and say so, and there are several possible reasons as to why.

One reason might be that many in contemporary Western society are brought up to believe that anyone can make good art, which is simply not true.  It is one thing to encourage little Tracy to make a nice picture for Aunt Hilda with her fingerpaints. It is another to convince adult Tracy that she is a great artist, and can in fact teach other people how to be artists, when she cannot even draw properly.

I cannot speak to the European experience, but the rather poor state of art education in this country is something I suspect most of my American readers know first-hand.  One learns very little beyond a smattering of Attic sculpture, the Italian Renaissance, a bit of Dutch genre painting, and the French Impressionists,  followed by an over-concentration on Modern Art.  Then one spends the rest of the course making bad pots, or poor sketches of one of the girls in the class seated on a wobbly stool.  In fact, far more time is spent in the American education system teaching students how to boil an egg, parallel park, or avoid getting Suzy pregnant, than is on educating them about the great artistic legacies of Western civilization.

Increasingly it is the persona of the artist, feigned or otherwise, and not the art itself, which is valued and praised.  The art becomes secondary to the story, i.e. the mythos created around the artist: this one is a political dissident, or that one is a public drunk, or that one sleeps with anything he can get his hands on, and aren’t they fascinating people?  In the end, seeing someone put thousands of porcelain sunflower seeds in a room may be amusing, but no one dares to ask whether it is actually good art. [N.B.: It isn't.]  

The contemporary art world does not genuinely want to ask itself this question, nor does it want you to question their judgment on this point, because in reality much of that segment of the art market is nefarious, at best.  When you read about someone paying astronomical prices for what looks like – and in fact, is – a pile of poo with a title placard, the story is not really the art.  Rather, it is about the amount of money changing hands, based on how well the art dealers and press have managed to create a marketable brand value for the artist whose work is being sold.

What most people do not realize is that the majority of this art which makes you scratch your head or roll your eyes is not actually being brought home for people to display.  Instead, it is going into places like bank vaults or gigantic tax-free storage facilities, where it is kept as an investment  readily convertible to cash by financiers, spendthrift entertainers, and arms/narcotics merchants.  This story which broke yesterday, about private AND institutional collectors pulling out of Christie’s art storage warehouses in Brooklyn, should give you some idea of the vast amount of art created and sold over the past 30-40 years which is sitting crated up somewhere, unseen.

If it were all released onto the market at once, the value of such art would collapse, since frankly no one would actually want it.  There is already so much of it available that it has lost that one quality which collecting objects like Old Master paintings or fine porcelain has always had, which is scarcity.  We all know from economics that once the market becomes aware that something is not actually rare or difficult to obtain, it begins to lose value, and sometimes precipitously.  The contemporary art market keeps pushing along, making new art stars out of delusional half-wits to keep the flow of goods coming, but looking less like an intelligentsia and more like the purveyors of tulip bulbs.

As someone who has collected in some very niche areas of art for the last couple of decades, I regularly encourage my readers to go out and collect what you love.  Owning art is not only an ongoing means of self-education, it is simply a joy.  I would based on the forgoing advise you to avoid the temptation of buying art which requires you to install a dedicated video monitor, or put down a layer of plastic on the living room floor, in order for you to be able to display it.

Instead, look for those contemporary artists who know how to do things like actually paint – like this guy – and have made a career of careful and attentive craftmanship.  These people develop their natural talents into something striking and accomplished, whatever style they happen to work in, because they know that great art takes time and patience to create.  These artists are the men and women who inspire and encourage us to feel that link of continuity with the history of our culture, and not that we are simply cattle to be manipulated by the contemporary art world for the purposes of commerce.  And when the contemporary art market finally does burst, these will be the artists left standing.

Louvre

“The Venus of Rags” by Michelangelo Pistoletto (2013)
from an temporary installation at The Louvre, Paris