The Curious Case of the Caring Curator

A not-infrequent criticism I raise on this blog has to do with museums, and the fact that so many of them seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to be.  So it was a real pleasure this morning to read this interview with Luke Syson, the chairman of the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  While I can’t say I agree with him on every point he raises in the article, I can see that he’s coming from the right starting point, both in how he’s looking at the art under his care, and the purpose of the institution he’s working for. Some highlights:

Should we be looking at contemporary and historic art side by side?

Works from different periods and different places are best shown together in people’s houses, but in museums, I like to keep them separate so that everything doesn’t become some mushy whole. The museum’s task is to present the works of art from the past as a product of their particular time, but also as timeless.

This is a blessed relief to read, particularly from someone in a curatorial position.  Over a decade ago, certain museums and galleries in this country began re-hanging their collections in seemingly arbitrary ways, copying some of the damage done by Sir Nicholas Serota and others in positions of curatorial authority who suffer from exceedingly poor taste.  My personal favorite was the major American (taxpayer-funded) collection which decided to install the works in its permanent collection in groups of “feelings” selected by the curators.  Fortunately this trend seems to be reversing itself of late, as the new director of Tate Britain demonstrated recently.

You are refurbishing the Met’s galleries of British sculpture, furniture and decorative arts. What can we expect?

What we have had on show in the past is a history of aristocratic British patronage, and that is very important, but we also want to look at the entrepreneurial spirit that runs through British art. This is a country without a dominant court in the way that the French had Versailles. Although the monarch was important, he wasn’t the person dictating all trends. Similarly, London’s Royal Academy of Arts comes late in history. Arguably, the establishment of factories by [ceramic manufacturers] Bolton and Wedgwood is as significant as the Royal Academy.

This is a spot-on observation.  There’s a reason why Napoleon famously referred to the British as “a nation of shopkeepers”, with somewhat mercantile tastes.  This is not to say that there are no grand houses in Britain, for there certainly are.  Rather, the level of show and luxury is, when viewed as a whole, not quite as ostentatious as one would have found in France or Italy during the same periods of time.  Moreover, there is a perennial British fascination with collecting large amounts of smaller objects and cramming them all together onto shelves, mantelpieces, and so on, whether you are an earl in a stately home or a pensioner in a terraced house.

You are one of a number of curators who have left British museums for US institutions in recent years. Why has there been such an influx?

Perhaps it sends a message to museums back home that they need to value their curators more.

Shhh….keep this to yourself.  We want them here to lend a bit of style about the place.  Hopefully Mr. Syson’s plans will bear good fruit over the coming years.

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Room in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Galleries
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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