Da Vinci Delayed: The Art Press Wants Scandal, And Wants It Now

After all the hullabaloo over the sale of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million at Christie’s New York, as I commented on in The Federalist, speculation immediately turned to who bought it, and what they were going to do with it. In the end, it emerged that the picture had been purchased by the Saudi Minister of Culture, on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Abu Dhabi. The plan was to put the piece on display at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, which had just opened shortly before the sale.

Originally slated to go on view September 18th, just two weeks prior the Ministry suddenly announced “the postponement of the unveiling,” and that “[m]ore details will be announced soon.” Initial speculation was that the museum wanted to hold off until the 1st anniversary of the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi on November 11th. Creature of scandal that it (mostly) is however, the art press immediately went into scavenger mode, trying to find any scrap of information or rumor to explain the cause of the delay. It simultaneously began to cast aspersions on a picture which, only a year earlier, commentators had been fawning over, their reviews causing the public to flock to see the panel in droves.

The Art Newspaper, for example, invited “Salvator Mundi” skeptic Matthew Landrus, a Da Vinci expert at Oxford, to flesh out his argument that the painting was not an original piece exclusively from the hand of Leonardo, but rather was created by Leonardo with significant input from one of his best-known studio assistants, Bernardino Luini (c. 1480-1532). If you’ve ever seen his work, Luini gives you an idea, albeit a slightly second-rate idea, of what Leonardo could have done with his talent if he had ever managed to get his act together.

Of course, Landrus was not arguing that Leonardo never touched the painting. Rather, he made a reasoned argument that assistants in Leonardo’s studio played a significant part in the execution of the piece, and he thinks that Luini is one of the more likely candidates. That’s as may be, but this is something of an academic debate, rather than a cause célèbre for the art press to go into a tizzy over.

Then over the weekend, The Guardian published a piece by art critic Jonathan Jones arguing that the real problem with the “Salvator Mundi” was that it had been over-restored. Images of what the painting looked like before it was cleaned and the missing bits filled in are certainly quite shocking to the untrained eye. In its pre-conservation state, it looks as though you just got home from work to find the cat had got at one of your most prized possessions in your absence (and I know whereof I speak.)

Jones believes that the piece should have been left as it was, damage and all. He preferred the panel in its “raw yet beautiful state”, subsequent to the removal of all of the years of dirt and bad restoration work that sat atop the original surface. “Wasn’t that an incredible object in itself?” he asks. To me, this sounds rather like those who argued that the Sistine Chapel should never have been cleaned, because they maintained that Michelangelo’s frescoes looked better when they were covered in dust and soot.

In pursuing these narratives however – assistant work vs. over-restored – the art press needs to tread lightly: as usual, it doesn’t think about the consequences of these particular lines of reasoning.

If you study art history at all, you quickly learn that most highly successful Old Master painters, including not only Leonardo, but other art giants such as Raphael, Rubens, and Titian, had so many commissions to complete that they could not do all of it themselves. Oftentimes, these artists would come up with the design for a picture, and the bulk of it would be painted by their assistants. The boss would come in later to work on specific areas, such as the head, hands, or touch-ups. Moreover, many popular Modern and Contemporary artists, from Andy Warhol to Ai Weiwei, have employed assistants to help bring their works to fruition.

Is the art press really intending to argue that, because assistants participated in the creation of this particular Leonardo, that therefore it’s not really a Leonardo? What would that do to overall buyer and institutional confidence in the Modern and Contemporary Art market, where the use of assistants in generating works of art is heavily practiced? Why, for example, should the city of Paris be paying American Contemporary artist Jeff Koons millions of dollars for a sculpture which he himself only designed, rather than sculpted with his own hands?

As to whether the “Salvator Mundi” was over-restored, here too we find a bit of a slippery slope argument for the art press to ponder. I’m no art restorer, but looking at the piece as it was, and indeed as is pointed out in Jones’ article, there was more than enough left of the original surface for an art restorer to go in and fill in the missing bits. As it happens, in the weeks to come you’ll be seeing a piece from me in The Federalist about a Baroque painting which I’ve just had professionally cleaned and restored, instead of leaving in the grimy, dirty, flaking state in which I found it at auction.

Does the art press want to argue that any work of art which suffers damage should be left in its damaged state? Should we leave some works, such as Velázquez “Rokeby Venus” in the National Gallery in London, which was slashed by a suffragette in 1914, in a damaged state based on the nature of the attack made on them? What about rediscovered works that don’t look so great? Why is it acceptable to take 9 months to a year to clean and restore a painting by crazy-eyed one-trick pony Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)? Because that’s who The Guardian is pushing at the moment?

Interestingly, Jones’ pointing out that, prior to restoration, there appeared to be two right thumbs on the hand of Christ goes to my earlier statement regarding the work of the master on the painting. In art history, the term “pentimento” describes changes made by the artist as he is in the process of executing a picture. There are examples of pentimenti (plural) in many famous paintings, most of which are not visible to the naked eye because they get covered up by the artist when the painting is finished. Tthese changes can often be revealed through x-rays and other technology.

As a general rule, pentimenti tend to indicate that the work which one is looking at is the real thing. Copies by assistants don’t have these changes, because they are simply copies of something that already exists; no further changes are needed to the already-set composition. To Landrus’ argument then, the presence of this double thumb would at least tend to show that Leonardo did work on this painting, though how much of it is actually by his direct hand is open to debate.

At the same time, the double thumb pokes holes in Jones’ argument that the painting is over-restored. Leonardo would never have allowed a “raw” painting to leave the studio. Like any artist of his time, he would have intended for the painting to be corrected, and the pentimento covered over, whether by himself or by his assistants. A 15th century Italian or French Renaissance patron would never have accepted a weird, mutant double-thumbed Jesus in their art collection. Not only would such a thing be considered bizarre and unattractive to you as a collector, at a time when perfection and beauty were your life goals – how far we have fallen since – but it might have gotten you in trouble with the Inquisition if they called round.

We don’t know what the holdup is at this point, with respect to putting the “Salvator Mundi” on public display. We do know that, as usual, the art press loves a scandal, and is intent as a British tabloid publisher to create clickbait, even if it turns out that there’s no scandal at all, just an administrative or strategic delay. All we can do now is sit and wait.

Salvator

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Piling It On, Or, Why Do I Read This Stuff…

You don’t often see me write about Contemporary Art on this site, and there are various reasons for that. Among these is the fact that I prefer to read and think and write about art and design created by people who have been dead for awhile. History and a bit of distance usually, although not always (see, e.g., Basquiat) allow us the chance to examine the work of these individuals in a more balanced, dispassionate way.

That being said, in order to keep up with what’s going on in the art world, I read about all kinds of Contemporary Art in the dozen or so art news sites I visit daily. As it’s hard enough for me to slog through the written gobbledygook that usually makes up this sort of news, I don’t feel the need to impose that same level of suffering on my subscribers by writing in an opaque fashion. Nevertheless, I think it’s good to show you, at least occasionally, why it’s important to me to curate what I write to you about, in the hope that you’ll have something edifying to take away with you when you read one of my posts.

Jeff Koons, the American artist known for designing things like the infamous porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with Bubbles the Chimp, or giant puppies made out of topiary – he doesn’t make them himself, he has minions for that – has a major work coming to market shortly at Christie’s. Described by Art Market Monitor as “one of Jeff Koons [sic] complex and exacting Play-Doh works”, the fourteen-by-fourteen foot “Play-Doh” is expected to fetch at least $20 million at auction next month in New York. Made from painted aluminum, one of his preferred materials for monumental sculpture, the piece “took 20 years to realize in the manner Koons found acceptable.” Personally, I would have found the piece more interesting, albeit not $20 million interesting, if it were made from actual Play-Doh, but there you are.

Koons

Koons has always been something of a whipping boy for conservatives who don’t actually understand very much about art. That being said, even he has come under fire recently from the intelligentsia, thanks to his offer to “donate” a memorial to victims of the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris: but only if Paris pays him roughly $4 million to create it. The sculpture, “Bouquet of Tulips”, is of a giant human hand referencing the Statue of Liberty, holding a bunch of tulips. It would stand nearly 40 feet tall, and be placed outside of the city’s Museum of Modern Art.

Back in January, a group of French intellectuals signed a letter in which they quite reasonably asked why it was that such an important monumental commission, on such a prominent site in Paris, was simply to be given to Mr. Koons, rather than be opened to competition to include French artists [“…si une œuvre d’une importance inédite devait être placée dans ce lieu culturellement et historiquement particulièrement prestigieux, ne faudrait-il pas procéder par appel à projets, comme c’est l’usage, en ouvrant cette opportunité aux acteurs de la scène française ?”] To date, Koons has not responded to this criticism. Meanwhile, since the art world is rather a closed universe, if one group of intellectuals starts attacking a particular artist, then the rest of the art world commentariat will eventually fall into line and do the same.
Tulips

Yet even when criticizing what is ultimately little more than showmanship on a grand scale, and of the sort that says little to nothing about the victims of violence, the art world can’t help but pen excremental missives that attempt to provide deeper meaning to what is ultimately little more than an occasion of flatulence. “Even as Koons reiterated images of kitsch culture,” wrote one critic in Apollo, jumping on the “Non” bandwagon several weeks after the publication of the aforementioned letter, “his vibrantly sensual surfaces seemed to collide the erotic with the deathly, and space-age technology with the infantile, anatomising the fetishism at the heart of the aesthetic lure of the commodity, even as they enacted it.”

Quite.

So the next time you see something I’ve written about art, architecture, etc., gentle reader, keep in mind that the reason you’re seeing it at all is because I sloughed through tons of the forgoing sort of material, in order to bring you news which, hopefully, you will find worthwhile.

Drawing a Blank: Why Is Congress Going to Reward Wealthy Artists?

Right now, while everyone in social media is arguing over other things, a horrible little law is making its way through Congress which you ought to be aware of – if you happen to love art and care about capitalism, as I do.

The Art Newspaper reports today that a bill known as “The American Royalties Too Act” or “A.R.T.”, has gained six co-sponsors over the last three weeks.  The bill would impose a resale royalty on works of art meeting certain sales criteria, and is modeled after a European concept known as “droit de suite”.  Since my time at Sotheby’s Institute back in graduate school, the concept of droit de suite has struck me as both nonsensical and typical of those who, in order to solve a perceived problem, decide to create another one.  I’ve warned about it on the blog before, as you can read here.

The wincingly awful use of the word, “Too”, aside, here’s what I promise you will happen over the next decade, if this “A.R.T.” bill passes:

1. The law will do little or nothing to aid most artists – and may actually hurt them.

In theory, this law is designed to protect struggling, up-and-coming artists.  As Christopher Rauschenberg, son of the late artist Robert Rauschenberg wrote on HuffPo yesterday, those pushing this legislation believe we “should foster and support young artists if we want them to continue to create. Implementing legislation that equitably distributes the proceeds of creative output will cost taxpayers absolutely nothing, yet would mean a great deal to the artistic community.”  [Helpful hint: any time you read the words, “equitable distribution” as a justification for anything, raise an eyebrow.]

In reality, if passed this law will largely operate for the benefit of already wealthy artists, their foundations, or their estates, such as that of Mr. Rauschenberg, by pouring additional thousands of dollars into their coffers every time a work of theirs is sold for up to 70 years after their death.  At the same time, with a resale payment tacked onto every sale, those artists who are not already household names will find that prices for their work will remain artificially depressed, keeping sales turnovers of their work low.  Most artists, in fact, never see their work come up for auction at any of the big auction houses, and this law will do nothing to encourage that to change.

2.  The law will turn out to be a great tax-raising scheme.

While the law appears on the surface to be designed to help the poor and struggling artist, what is lost in the emotional component of the argument being made largely by those on the left – natch – is the fact that this is not free money, nor an act of beneficence on the part of Congress.

For royalty payments, you see, whether from sales or licensing of intellectual property, constitute taxable income.  What Congress is proposing is really a way of imposing an additional income tax, without actually calling it that.  The royalty payment will be taken by the auction house at the time of sale, and then the artist or his estate will be sent these payments, quarterly.  Once that royalty payment makes it to the end point – the artist or his estate – the government can tax that income.  So in truth, this is a way of squeezing art buyers out of just that little bit more of their money, even though the collection of said money will take place at a different end of the revenue stream.

3. The law will cause the market for Modern and Contemporary Art sales to shift away from the U.S.

Decades ago, Paris lost its primacy in both art gallery and art auction sales to London, in part because of the passage of draconian French laws regarding droit de suite and other forms of taxation.  Over the past fifteen years however, and particularly after Britain adopted EU regulations, the center of the international art market has shifted from London to New York.   With the implementation of this proposed A.R.T. Act, sellers are going to be faced with paying royalties – up to a cap of $35,000, depending on the resale price – on every piece of art falling under the protection of the law that is sold: a cost which they will pass along to the buyers.

Now yes, plenty of high-value auctions still take place in London today, and if this law passes they will still take place in New York, as well.  However over time, markets tend to seek environments where they experience the fewest restrictions on their ability to engage in commerce, which is why sales at Sotheby’s in New York eclipsed those of the home office in London years ago, and also why the socks you are wearing right now were probably not made in America.  If Europe suddenly became a (comparatively) cheaper place than the U.S. to engage in the art trade, the bulk of the buying and selling in the Modern and Contemporary art market could easily shift back to London.  Rather than making things better for everyone, Congress could actually be making everything worse.

4.  Is this bill really about achieving fairness? For whom?

In defense of this bill, co-sponsor Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) recently told The New York Times that, “To me, the bill is a question of fundamental fairness.”  However under scrutiny, this moral argument falls to pieces in the face of reality.  Under the European version of this law one of the wealthiest artists in the world, Pablo Picasso, is still collecting droit de suite payments – or rather, his already very wealthy children are, because he’s been dead since 1973.  Does that seem, on a common-sense basis, to be “fair”?

What about a living, wealthy American artist, such as Jeff Koons, who will directly benefit from the American version of this law?  Koons makes millions of dollars in commissions for creating things such as giant topiary puppies.  Is he so disadvantaged that getting a check for $35,000 every time some subsequent purchaser buys one of his sculptures, such as his metallic balloon animals, will “fundamentally” address a wrong done to him in some way?

By way of conclusion, I would point out that readers are of course most welcome to disagree with anything I’ve written in the comment section of this post, as indeed you always are.  Yet it seems to me that, from a purely rational, analytical point of view, one cannot deny the fact that those who will benefit most from the passage of this law are wealthy artists, and the government.  Little or any benefit will be shown to accrue to the group of individuals which the A.R.T. Act was allegedly designed to help, but Congress will once again have found a clever way to tax American business while wrapping itself in a cloak of moral superiority.

Detail of "Elevation of the Dome of the U.S. Capitol" by Thomas Walter (1859) Library of Congress

Detail of “Elevation of the Dome of the U.S. Capitol” by Thomas Walter (1859)
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.