"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, June 9, 2014

What Is Art Worth?

Edouard Manet is one of my favorite painters, and if I had the resources and political pull, I would borrow The Dead Toreador from the National Gallery and hang it in my living room.

Ah, but how much of my treasury would I have to spend to acquire the work?  One million? Ten? The painting has not been privately sold for over a century, and is part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, so it would be difficult to determine market price.  Comparison with other significant works which have been traded would be one way to fix a value.  Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud sold at Christies recently for almost $150 million, so that is not a bad ballpark figure.  


Unless, of course, you feel that not only does The Dead Toreador have far more power and meaning than Bacon’s work, but is significant for its historical role in moving Impressionism to Modernism.  For all Bacon’s genius, one could argue that he is derivative, taking much from Picasso, Braque, and others who first disaggregated and reassembled the human form.   On the other hand, one could equally say that an image of a dead bullfighter is just that – simple, slightly heroic, tonic, but plain.

Pricing is always tricky.  If you misjudge popular appeal and charge too much for that kicky little camisole, you are stuck with it; and if you charge too little you will never make any money.

Art is no different.  The owner of Gallery 270 in Soho sets prices for new works based on a thorough analysis of the market. How much buzz Artist X created?  How have his works sold in Philadelphia and for how much?  How much can the Philadelphia price be jacked up because of New York?  None of this has anything to do with the quality of Artist X’s work, of course, but money is always a good indicator of popular value, so an analysis of his sales track record will have to do.

If art is being bought for investment purposes, a calculation of market value and likely appreciation is critical.  Perhaps Artist X is all the rage on the coasts, but does he have staying power?  How resilient is he, and can he take on all comers?

One day not long a go I visited a small gallery in Alexandria, Virginia.  The work displayed was all by local artists, and I had gone because a colleague was exhibiting there.  His most important work was a Bacon-like image of a young man, paint smears around a big, hairy cock, and was his long overdue coming out. As a work of art, however, it was worthless.  It had neither novelty, insight, passion, nor perceptiveness; and was only in the exhibition because the gallery owner was his friend.

There was one work in the small collection which caught my eye – a simple image of a man in a rowboat.  Somehow the painting captured a sense of solitude – even loneliness – and was intriguing, mysterious, and very emotional.  It reminded me of my younger years when I took rowboats out in Long Island Sound.  I remember the smell of old, salted wood, the trickle of brownish water in the bottom of the boat, and the bang of oarlocks as I rowed out from the West Haven shore. 


I didn’t pay much for the painting – perhaps $200 – but would have paid twice that.  I have no idea at what price I would have said no sale, but I ascribed so much personal value to the painting that I knew I wanted very much to have it.  My top price would have been conditioned by my income, savings, propensity to consume, current expenditures, and a number of other factors which condition all purchases.

In any case, the purchase price of this painting or that of Francis Bacon is a function of supply and demand.  In my case what I paid represented a personal contract between me and the artist, a simple transaction of buyer and seller.  The price of the Bacon work is more complicated to determine, and is the result of a kind of crowdsourcing.  The price is set by thousands of potential buyers, sophisticated or not, who want to purchase the work as an investment.  The whopping multi-million dollar price does not increase the inherent or even relative artistic value of the work, just its market value.

Anna North, writing in the New York Times (6.9.14) wonders about assessing value in an electronic age:

“How do we decide, as a capitalist society, what creative expression is worth?” That question, posed by Ester Bloom at The Billfold, gets more vexed every day. In a time when more and more art is available for free online, we as a society have to figure out how to value and support it.

The question is somewhat misleading.  I have a large, framed reproduction of The Dead Toreador hanging in my office.  I bought it online for very little; and since I have seen the original, I can extrapolate, add and fill in, create depth and range; and in my mind’s eye I am seeing the original.  I would still like to own the original, but the reproduction will do.  The same goes for the five Sargent portraits of women that are hanging above my desk; the reproductions of Audubon’s water birds, and a famous Picasso sketch.

The few dollars I paid Amazon was well worth it; for I look at these ‘paintings’ every day.  I will never be able to afford the originals even if they were for sale, and so do my perceptual legerdemain to make my eye see paint and brushstrokes instead of flat paper.

The more important question is how much and how often should we pay for original art, especially in a society whose government is exceedingly niggardly when it comes to public patronage?

I have a close friend who lives in a small community in the West who buys all of her food from local producers.  While in most cases the produce is far better than any supermarket variety, she chooses to ignore the cornucopia of international cheeses, pâté, tropical fruits, exotic and delicious varieties of fish and stick to local.  She is investing in local producers and wants very much to keep them profitable as a matter of principle.  Preserving and protecting the local agricultural economy is a good thing per se, and she is quite happy to chew on stringy elk meat rather than bust for a Kansas city prime ribeye.  

The same thing is true for art. Artists have always struggled, but without government support, foundation grants, or an engaged metropolitan community, they wither and die.  Only the most committed and driven manage to stay afloat and usually do so with a supplementary income.  For those of us who appreciate artistic endeavor even more than art itself, buying the works of local artists should be a priority.  It rarely is.  Ms. North is quite right when she suggests that electronic imaging makes support of the artistic enterprise even less important.

Blockbuster art exhibitions at major art museums have become common and extremely popular.  When all of Vermeer’s paintings were collected and curated by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, tickets were being scalped.  Somehow the buzz about one of the world’s greatest but relatively unknown artists – at least outside the world of the cognoscenti – was everywhere; and sophisticates and Iowa tourists lined up for hours to get in to the show.

These mega-exhibitions serve to deflate the demand for original, local art because they send the clear message that art is either great or it is nothing. Better to by a reproduction of The Girl with the Pearl Earring than to pick up a painting of a rowboat by Annie X from Arlington.

When my children were little I told them that the world had plenty of lawyers and doctors, but far too few artists; and if they were to choose to choose a creative profession, I would not only be supportive but happy. I hold that sentiment today, and Ms. North quotes critic Astra Taylor who echoes the thought but worries about the consequences of todays modern culture:

“Art and culture are nonetheless vital, essential even, to what it means to be human, yet digital abundance has diminished our sense of their worth.” (Astra Taylor)

America has never been an artsy-fartsy place, so the market for original, local art will always be weak; and given our bent for what is hot, reproductions of Vermeer or Leonardo will always be sold.  America’s creative talent lies elsewhere – in Hollywood and music.  We are the creators and purveyors of popular culture par excellence.  The French still sniff at Jay Z and Beyoncé, but they don’t get it. We have closed the distinction between high art and low art.  There is only creative expression valid within a temporal social and cultural context. While Emmanuel de la Rochambeau-Poitiers appreciates only root music – Blues, Appalachian clogging, and West Texas country-and-western – he ignores the best part of American creative enterprise.  We take roots, transplant them, and grow them in a popular idiom that goes international and viral. 

I, therefore, am happy with my reproductions and I look at this young woman painted by John Singer Sargent every day.

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