Apocalypse now: art and the art market


Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, 1969.

In general, I pay little or no attention to art market hysteria, but who could escape last week’s glittering monetary circus?

Before embarking on any lengthy analysis, there are two things that I wish to point out. Firstly, art is expensive. That is a given. And by right, it generally should be. I am of the opinion that time, effort, creativity, thought and talent should be duly rewarded. Furthermore, since the Renaissance, art has been a cultural commodity intended to convey wealth and status. That is a fact that even the most romantic art-lover cannot deny. However, secondly, I do wish to point out, that while these initial points are all true, to think that art is only about money and price tags is inherently wrong, and it is neither purely romantic nor simplistic of one to uphold that view. Rather, in my opinion, the belief in the greater good of art, so to speak, is a much more natural belief intrinsic to art than is the idea of equating art to dollar bills.

Last week saw Francis Bacon’s triptych of Lucian Freud sell to an anonymous buyer at the record-breaking price of $127 million (after commission $142 million). I am a fan of Bacon’s work, and incidentally, Freud’s. Their paintings are imposing, bold, wild, brutal, dark, deeply psychological and intense…I could on and on, but surely, anyone who has seen either of these painters’ works in the flesh knows that words alone cannot describe the sheer ferocity of a Bacon, or of a Freud. And surely, that goes to say too, that a price tag alone does not describe the brilliance of their art either.

You see, a Bacon is troubling and exciting regardless of a ludicrous number attached. Rather than qualifying the ingenuity of the work, the inflated price tag in fact cheapens the art, stunting any important intellectual debate to be merely gossipy waffle about numbers and buyers. Of course, it’s not merely the price tag per say that ‘cheapens the art’; as I stated earlier, art is, in general, deservedly expensive, it’s more so how the auction houses push to break records and engineer a media storm that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Apocalypse-Now_by_Christopher-WoolChristopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now sold for $26.4 million in November 2013. 

I don’t believe that it is idealistic or naive to disapprove of this as I genuinely believe that art is worthwhile and important and thrilling without the overblown prices and media frenzy. What annoys me most of all, is that blather about money, buyers and records is how art is, by and large, spoken and written about within the mainstream media (with the exemption of exceptional occurrences such as the discovery of the recent German haul). The effect of this is detrimental to art overall as this in turn is how society-at-large considers art to be at the back of their minds: as vacuous, overrated, overpriced and something merely for the uber-wealthy.

I don’t write that lightly, and I should point out, that I don’t mean either that those people who think as such are merely uneducated philistines. Rather, I mean, that undoubtedly, there exists a cross section of society who feel alienated, and largely with reason, by art and the art world. This significant aspect of society considers a lot of art to be empty and pretentious – something that deeply hurts devout art lovers, such as I. However, the crux is that the world of the auction house contributes significantly to this negative notion of art in general: art as only for the super rich, the super privileged and the super hollow.

Jeff Koons, CohenJeff Koons at Frieze Art Fair in October via The Guardian

In short, the conversation must be changed. Of course, it’s not just the auction houses who are guilty, but sometimes it’s a combined effort between the auction house/selling body, the audience and the artist. One need only look as far as the coverage of London’s recent Frieze Art Fair. Most accounts suggested that there was only one artist on display: the rather annoyingly ubiquitous Jeff Koons. After seeing Instagram image after image of his gaudy chrome balloon structures, I wondered, what was this really about?

It’s about names, and being in the loop, and about promoting mega art stars, but let’s not lose the run of ourselves. As utterly silly as it sounds, let’s think about the art. And what it means, how it feels, and how it looks, and what it’s made of, and what it alludes to and what it triggers, deep in our minds and in the dark chambers of our bodies. That’s what art is about.

See more: Jerry Saltz on the art market here and Roberta Smith here.

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