By now most of you are familiar with the destruction of a painting by Contemporary artist Banksy that occurred at Sotheby’s last week. For those who missed it, a work by the graffiti guru depicting one of his best known images self-destructed by being shredded shortly after it was sold to an unknown buyer for $1.4 million. Sotheby’s claims that it had no idea that the shredding was going to occur, so we will go with that unless and until any conclusive evidence shows otherwise.
There are many rumors and theories bouncing about in cyberspace about this occurrence. Speculation is rife that Banksy himself, or one of his minions, was in the audience, and pushed some sort of remote control button to start the shredder. Many have noted that the destroyed work was not the original, which was a piece of graffiti on a wall long since destroyed, and that this piece was merely a recent copy specifically created for its destruction on camera.
Whatever you want to believe about the event, British art historian Bendor Grosvenor sums up the whole thing very succinctly by saying that the “happening”, if you will, boils down to one word: money. The Contemporary Art world, and in this I include most of the art establishment, is besotted with money over quality, showiness over substance. Perhaps ironically, this is rather reminiscent of the contrived, pricey, cloyingly sentimental Victorian paintings of children playing with puppies or gazing vacantly at bouquets of flowers, which the newly rich amassed to fill their homes in the second half of the 19th century.
Intentionally or no, Banksy’s auto-da-fé of his own work has shone what for many ought to be a very disturbing light on today’s art world. From the business side of things, reasonable voices have been quietly noting for some time that there is a bubble in Contemporary Art prices. ArtTactic, which provides research data concerning the art market, notes that confidence in the strength of the Contemporary Art market has fallen 24% this year, even while sales of Contemporary Art continue to increase. That bubble has been inflated largely by the art press, art institutions, and art dealers, so that art collectors with extraordinary resources at their disposal are, in many cases, buying largely for investment value rather than out of artistic appreciation.
For a more specific example of how this works, take a look at the downward slide in prices achieved for works by Damien Hirst, one of the most famous Contemporary artists in the world. It’s true that artists go in and out of fashion all the time, but if you bought a Hirst at the top of the market about a decade ago, you’re going to be taking a serious bath if you try to sell it now. Hirst, who for the past two decades has consistently diversified his holdings by investing in property and commercial venues to supplement his already considerable income, recently closed several business ventures in the British coastal resort region of Devon, even though a recent sale of “The Veil Paintings”, new work by Hirst shown at Gagosian L.A., did quite well. Coincidence? Or a reaction to declining market value?
Tied into the inflation of prices for Contemporary Art, as Jane Kallir pointed out in her (excellent) opinion piece for the Art Newspaper yesterday, is the intellectual dearth of connoisseurship in the art market and in the art press that has accompanied the ascendance of Contemporary Art to the sine qua non of current art acquisition trends. “In the past few decades,” she writes, “academia has largely abandoned traditional connoisseurship because it was too often tied to ‘great man’ narratives. Over the same period professional art criticism has been eclipsed by a journalistic preoccupation with glamour, scandal and money.”
As a result, at present the worth of a particular piece lies not so much in its subject matter, or in the artistic skill used in creating it, but rather in the notoriety of the artist (see, e.g., the entire oeuvre of Jean-Michel Basquiat.) The astronomical amounts of financial speculation involved in the Contemporary Art world, which has led to, inter alia, marketing materials being passed off as serious art criticism and scholarship, and the concomitant decline in art education for the general public, has poisoned the well for decades to come. I don’t see any short-term solution to the problem which Banksy has so succinctly demonstrated exists in the present art establishment, short of some sort of collective recognition of guilt and complicity resulting in a secular bonfire of the vanities.
Yet we need to be careful not to rub our hands too gleefully before such a flame. Not all Contemporary Art is terrible, and there are still highly-skilled, talented artists out there creating interesting work. Moreover, while much garbage was destroyed at the most famous Bonfire of the Vanities in history, instigated by Savonarola in Florence in 1497, many beautiful works of art were destroyed in that conflagration as well – including books by Boccaccio and Dante, and paintings by Botticelli and Fra Bartolomeo. Let’s not go down that road, again.