Price Records Fall Left, Right and Centre as Art Market Booms Again

Francis Bacon's Portraits of his friend Lucian Freud

Last week I blogged on the subject of the astronomic wads of cash that exchange hands freely where art is concerned. Not only was I incredulous at the sums involved, but more specifically at the whimsicality of it all, the erratic nature of the pricing, the way in which valuations can soar overnight from worthless to priceless.

This week the art market has done it again, an auction at Sotheby’s last Thursday (the 10th of February) shattering all manner of financial records. Three portraits by Francis Bacon of fellow artist Lucian Freud sold for £23 million pounds. This was 3 times the anticipated price. The painting may be meritorious in a number of ways, but without the official stamp of approval there is no concievable way that any buyer would possibly pay such a preposterously large sum for it. Without wishing to cast aspersions on the taste and connoisseurship of the anonymous buyer (rumoured to be a Russian ‘collector’), there is no way that he likes or appreciates the three little smudged paintings in proportion to the amount he paid for them. There isn’t £23 million pounds worth of appreciation involved at any stage here.

This is a vanity purchase, based on a brand value that through some foggy, slightly random process has come to be appended to Francis Bacon’s name. This highly pecunious Russian collector has no more space in the driveway for cars and so buys the most expensive painting his advisers can find. And he buys what he buys because it is ludicrously expensive. If it was cheap, and so did not scream status, then he would not buy it.

It does seem slightly paradoxical that the buyer has chosen to remain anonymous. If the purchase was purely about status, then one would have thought that the buyer would desire to establish himself as a wealthy man of taste and status in the eyes of the whole world. But presumaby those in the ranks of the world’s super elite, those in the buyer’s coterie, before whom he wishes to sparkle, are aware of his new purchase. Furthermore the purchase may be the supreme vanity, part of the process of convincing oneself that one is a person of culture and discernment. The buyer can lounge around in his livingroom, eating caviar and drilling oil somewhere in the wastes of Russia, glance up at his wall, see something that looks vaguely like a framed human face, see that it is by Bacon (who is ‘approved’, and commands- for the time being- large sums at auction) and feel cultured and tasteful.

A Salvador Dali painting was also auctioned at Sotheby’s for a record price. His portrait of Paul Eluard sold for £13,481,250, demolishing the Spaniard’s former record set 20 years earlier of £2.4 million. One anonymous private collector sold 60 paintings for a net total of £93,520,000. The 82 telephones at Sotheby’s could scarcely contend with the influx of calls, with Russian bidders rumoured to be the most enthusiastic. And all this in an apparent recession. Apparently art is invulnerable to such economic assaults.

I would merely make the point that if you could erase collective memories for fifteen minutes, so that people had never heard of the artists involved and were not aware of the fashions and price trends of the art world over the last fifty years, and then led people into a vast gallery full of the works that were auctioned last Thursday, the pricing of them would be utterly, utterly different from what occured. Collectors and their advisors would be on their phones desperately ‘calling a friend’, trying to ascertain what was regarded as ‘a masterpiece’, what was fashionable, what was considered valuable. They could not recreate the art market from first principles. This is because it has become divorced from the one intrinsic quality that the paintings can ever possess- their fundamental artistic merit. If the art was bought for its artistic merit, then these recent amnesiacs could stroll through the gallery without sweating, applying their own judgement to each piece, or even calling on the advise of those more knowledgeable in the field. But since this is not about intrinsic worth, but about the relatively arbitrary position an artist occupies within a social/price structure, the buyers would be stranded without this context to guide them.

The point of art is to play on human emotions like an accordion. These super-rich buyers are being played, but not in that sense.

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Titian, art auctions and how good taste can make you astronomic amounts of money

The painting which broke the Titian auction record

I have just been reading about the sale in auction today of a painting by Titian. Conducted in Sotheby’s in New York, the painting sold for £10.7 million including commission, breaking the previous record of £7.5 million for a Titian in auction in Christie’s in London in 1991. The sale was described by the auctioneer as ‘anticlimatic’, because the painting had been expected to break the $2o million mark (approximately £12.7 million). A mysterious European bidder bought the painting over the telephone.

The entire affair raises a number of interesting points, but the most startling to me is the sheer volume of cash that people part with for famous and esteemed works of art. I had always assumed that it was virtually impossible to make money out of artistic creativity, and that any painting or novels that one might produce had to be done essentially as labours of love, or to convey one’s interior life to the world (part of: ‘the heart’s immortal thirst to be completely known and all forgiven’, said originally about love, but applying equally well to artistic creativity).

On the lower rungs of the artistic ladder this does appear to be true. Someone can sweat over a book for a decade and then sell a 1000 copies and make, after the dividends have scattered on the four winds between agents, book shops, publishing houses and printers, barely a £1000. And financial remuneration is not always or even often in direct proportion to artistic merit either. No one reads poems, so no poets ever make any money. This is not a reflection of their poetic inadequacy, but rather the whims and deficiencies in taste of the public.

But there does seem to be a tipping point, above which artists (of whichever variety) can make huge sums of money. This is never more true than with paintings. I never cease to be amazed by the sums of money that people part with for works of art. You can’t buy a Picasso for less that a million pounds, and not only was he ludicrously productive, but most of his works are daubs. Old master works rarely change hands for less than £5 million. I am always flabbergasted because I scarcely ever meet anyone who likes art, particularly fine art of the sort that commands mega-prices at auction houses in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong. Most people could walk past a £20 million pound painting and not even begin to recognise its providence or price. I suppose this dearth in demand is compensated for by an extreme scarcity of supply.

Paintings are the supreme example of a scarce resource. Unlike books (whose worth by and large resides in the intelluctual worth of their texts, not their physical qualities, and so can be printed ad infinitum without losing value), paintings are worth nothing expect in their original copy. A photograph of a painting is not worth a millionth of the original. There is a need to have the single, real original, which never be duplicated or replaced, but only protected, preserved or lost. This pushes up prices.

But art is also an all or nothing business. 99.9% of the artists in the world never sell a painting for more than a thousand pounds, or perhaps ever sell anything to anyone expect obliging and sympathetic relatives. But then there is that 0.1% who don’t make a little bit more money, or 5 or 10 times as much. Instead they make 10,000 times as much, or even 100,000 times as much. If an artist becomes one of the ‘elect’, his or her work then rises in price exponentially, shattering all rhyme or reason.

But these artists were not born amongst the elect. They were not even often members of the elect during the first parts of their careers, or even sometimes during their lifetimes. So that leaves a time gap during which paintings which will one day command £10 million in an auction, can be bought for a thousand pounds.

This is a gap that has potential for exploitation. Enter the man of taste and foresight, the artistic clairvoyant. If you have an outstanding eye for talent or can predict the currents of art, then one can swoop on works of art before they become established pieces, before everybody is clamouring for a piece of their work. Some art dealers or collectors (Charles Saatchi types) are so influential in their milieu that they can essentially form future art trends. Art becomes popular because they buy it, or exhibit it in their galleries. This is almost like insider trading.

But I think there exists a niche for the sagacious collector, someone who scours exhibitions of young unknowns, who are keen just to sell a painting. If you can pick winners, then there is a fortune to be made.

Consider the case of Van Gogh. He sold only one painting in his lifetime, for about $1600 (in today’s money). One could have strolled in and purchased his whole studio for $50000. Over the last few decades he has sold paintings for: 1) $140 million (1990), 2) $102 million (1989), 3) $102 million (1987). The list goes on and on. He must have sold about a billion dollars’ worth of art since his death. And none of the most valuable works ever comes up for sale. If some fabulously astute individual had walked into Van Gogh’s studio as the artist lay dying in 1890, and purchased its contents, it is no exaggeration to say that they would by now own billions and billions of dollars’ worth of art. And this is a from an artist who could hardly palm off a painting in his own lifetime.

So the key to an easy fortune? Learn to appreciate art, come to understand the fickleness of fame and popularity. And now go to art colleges up and down the land and plunder the gems of the future.

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Art adds up

Belshazzar's Feast

You have been weighed in the balance, and found wanting

Returning to the theme that was touched on briefly in my last blog, that of art forms reinforcing one another.  I notice more and more that two complementary art forms well combined will serve to reinforce one another, enhancing each other to a higher aesthetic plateau that either could hope to attain to alone. Anyone who doubt that this is the case need only think about the experience of listening to music in certain venues. A hymn or an organ resonating through the nave of a great cathedral, or a Christmas carol sung on a winter street, snow glowing in the lamp light, stars flickering overhead, will sound more beautiful than the same notes struck in dull, dampening environs. The visual encasement of the music enhances it. Similarly, the stars, the snow or the vault will look more moving if their sight is accompanied by music that fits them. The visual art of the surroundings and auditory art of the music combine and enhance one another, just in the way that waves in phase will superimpose and reinforce one another.

This superimposition of art forms is at work all the time when one walks around an art gallery and looks at paintings. When one sees a painting that particularly appeals, one is experiencing that painting resonating with a narrative that rests deep inside you. A visual art is complementing a narrative art. A story, an idea, a line of poetry within you is being complemented by the painting. That is the meaning of artistic resonance- the painting is superimposing with a different, complementary narrative or idea inside you. That is why you wander around an art gallery, impassively skimming over works of vast technical merit, and then are suddenly smitten by one. It may not be a better piece of art than the others. But it has struck a chord, superimposed with a piece of art that lies dormant within you.

That is why different works of art affect different people to differing degrees. Because people have different works of art within them, different ideas within them, waiting to be struck. That is why different types of art can go out of fashion, because they cease to resonate with the prevailing aesthetic zeitgeist of the day. Religious art illustrates this perfectly. The less people are crammed with religious stories, the less they imbibe religious imagery from childhood, then the less the will be affected by umpteen paintings of Christ on the cross. The image is not superimposing or resonating with a powerful narrative or verbal piece of art within them. So the key to painting popular art is to paint something that superimposes with the interior art or culture of the day.

So art never simply speaks for itself, because paintings never come face to face with blank slates. They come face to face with people more or less ready to recieve them. People with different art inside them.

I personally encountered this phenomenon recently in the National Gallery. In a room full of fine art the work that struck me most profoundly was Belshazzar’s Feast, a painting by Rembrandt depicting the moment in the Old Testament when the Babylonian king Belshazzar is feasting, profaning by using the sacred golden and silver vessels of the Israelites. The painting captures the moment when a disembodied hand begins to write on the wall, inscribing the words ‘mene mene tekel upharsin’, meaning something along the lines of ‘you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.’ This means that God has judged Belshazzar, and he has failed. Later that same night he dies.

This painting affected me above all the others because I was so familiar with the powerful story that lies behind it. Anybody who has been to Sunday school as a child or been in some way versed in the Christian tradition will similarly view this painting with a backlog of literary, narrative art inside them. I experienced a superimposition of art forms, the painting adding up with the story. I believe that anyone unfamiliar with the story would be less impressed by the painting. This is an obvious refutation of the notion that art can or should speak for itself in isolation. Art is most powerful when it combines.

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In praise of plaques

Cezanne's Card Players

'I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs'

A famous art critic (whose name conveniently escapes me) has said that a painting should be delivered to a viewer without explanation or adornment. It should be an island, speaking solely for itself. In this vision, a work of art should have the maximum latitude of interpretation. This is an argument against the ubiquitous little plauques which art galleries stick next to paintings as a matter of course in order to shed light on them.

Now it is certainly the case that such plaques are often dry and dull to read, and sometimes a painting would do better without their sluggish commentary. But occasionally a blurb accompanying a painting can have a transformatory effect. Earlier in the week I visited a small exhibition currently on in the Courtauld Gallery. It is called Cezanne’s Card Players, and consists of about twenty paintings Cezanne made of peasants who worked on his family estate in the region of Aix-en-Provence, many of whom appear to have spent a lot of their time thoroughly engrossed in card games.

I was busy studying the works appreciatively- but without being set on fire by them- when I came across a plaque which transformed them for me. It was a simple quote from Cezanne explaining why these simple people with their simple dress and simple habits were worth painting obsessively.  He said: ‘I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs.’ And with this quietly poetic phrase, suddenly the poetry of the paintings was revealed to me. I knew what to look for in them, and I understood the poetic crux of their subjects. I knew why these people- ordinary and unremarkable in themselves- were worth painting. They embody something poetic that occurs in life. They can readily be used to illustrate a poetic notion, that of timelessness, of age, of tradition, of stolidity. They are people forgotten by time and progress, or who choose out or pride to stand outside them. They stand for weather beaten faces and gnarled hands the world over, for the rusticity in man. I remembered seeing their type on holidays in Italy and Spain, old men playing cards and drinking coffee, taciturn and browned by the sun.

Until I saw the plaque I didn’t understand precisely what magic they possessed, even if I could vaguely sense that they possessed something. But the plaque told me. And what is wrong with the artist directing you? They, after-all, paint with an idea in mind. Only a blank piece of paper has an infinity of interpretations. As soon as one creates an image, one directs towards an idea or an emotion.

Blurbs can have a powerful role in augmenting paintings. They are at their worst when they are dry and dull and simply note something about the artist’s technique. One can see the results of the technique- it doesn’t have to be described for you. It is the destination rather than the prosaic details of the journey that matters. Blurbs are at their best when they echo the prevailing or intended emotion of the painting. That is what this line from Cezanne does. It is not a dry description. It echos and augments the message of the paintings. It the verbal equivalent of the what is laid down in paint. Together they make each other stronger. The words illuminated the paintings, and the paintings gave richness to the words.

So paintings should not stand alone and speak solely for themselves. They should be partnered with other art forms. Normally that other art form is the written word. Plaques in galleries work when they add another layer of art to the paintings they accompany. That is what Cezanne’s poetic phrase did. Music can also play a heightening role when combined with visual art. But that is the subject of my next blog, the way in which art forms are strongest when they add up.

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Turner Prize Musings- Is Everything Art?

Having been along to see this year’s Turner Prize contestants, I am forced to ask the question of what actually qualifies as being art. This quandary was evoked in its sharpest and most extreme form by looking at the Tate exhibited work of the ‘artist’ Angela de la Cruz. She is one of the four contestants in the running to win the Turner prize this year, and thus is within a whisper of pocketing not only acclaim, but also £40000.

The work she is exhibiting includes two pieces entitled ‘Clutter’ and ‘Super-Clutter’. The labels are all too accurate. It is quite literally the case that if they were left on the side of the road then a civic individual would call the local council and request that they be cleaned up. They are only classified as art at all because a) de la Cruz has said that they’re art, and b) because they have recieved official sanction by being placed within the rooms of Tate Britain, a place which is intended to exhibit art.

So this raises a question about what does and does not qualify as art. Can something be deemed art purely by dint of being called such by its producer, or being placed in a room which is designated as an art gallery? Would the two pieces still be art if they were placed out on the street? Or would they then simply be termed public nuisances? Does something’s nature mutate simply because it is dragged over the threshold of a building?

When questioned about the artistic credentials of something she’d produced Tracey Emin once said something along the lines of ‘well if it isn’t art then why is it in an art gallery and why are people looking at it?’ But this is justification after the event. Or rather, it is just a re-phrasing of the same fundamental question. One could turn round to Emin and say ‘Yes, why is it in an art gallery, and why are people looking at it? Because it isn’t art.’

If a chair on top of a stool (another work from hand of de la Cruz) can be art, then would the same thing be art if it happened accidently in a storage room? Or if no one ever saw it? Life on its own generates multiple twisted objects that look indistinguishable from some of the things I saw as part of the Turner Prize. Are they art? Are their accidental creators deserving of £40,000?

With current trends perhaps we will move toward a situation whereby art is defined as anything that can be seen, smelt, touched or heard. Anything in short that can be held under the microscope of perception. Perhaps this would not be a bad thing. If the flood gates were open then the distinction would not be between art and non-art, but between good art and bad art. The Turner Prize would be open to every object, every heap of rubble on a building site, every leaf and every paper bag being gusted down an empty street. It would include paintings and sculptures, the works of man and nature, the intentional and the un-intentional. And the Prize would go each year to the most beautiful thing that had been percieved in the previous 12 months, regardless of its provenance. This could revitalise art, moving it beyond squabbles over whether an unmade bed or a toilet is or isn’t art. One could answer without hesitation, ‘yes, but a very poor example.’ Everything would be art, but it would not all be equally worthy, equally good. In this open competition, the cream would once again rise to the top. In such a world, de la Cruz’s work would stand even less chance of netting £40000.

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Dalwood to scoop Turner by default

The Tate Britain is currently hosting the Turner Prize, which is in its 27th year. Going along to visit it on Tuesday, I was baffled by the competing entries on one intrinsic level. Firstly I should make clear exactly what the Turner Prize is given out for: It is supposed to be awarded to the artist under the age of fifty, who is either British or lives/works in the country, and who has produced the best ‘visual art’ in the preceding 12 months. Now, out of the the four different projects competing this year, over which I tried to cast a discerning eye, only one can reasonably be said to even fulfill the basic criteria of eligibility for the prize. Three quarters of the works are either not truly visual, or not art.

The winner by default must be Dexter Dalwood. He displayed a number of canvases of differing quality. ‘Greenham Common’ was extremely abstract and quite poor. It looked like nothing and had no hook from which one could extrapolate an idea or seed from which to grow an emotion. Others were more potent. The painting entitled ‘The Death of David Kelly’ was the single most affecting piece in the exhibition. The three key elements of the blue sky, the tree and the moon combine very strongly. There is something lonely and inhuman about it- you would be shocked to find a human being in such a quiet eerie place, and so it is fitting that it is implied (but not shown) that there is a dead body at the foot of the scene.

But aside from Dalwood I fail to see how any of the other three contestants can be decribed as having contributed visual art. The most stark of the non-qualifiers is Susan Philipsz. Her work consists of her singing Scottish laments about a drowned lover. It isn’t actually as bad as this makes it sound. In fact the work is quite haunting. But I fail to see how sitting in an empty room listening to a woman singing counts as a piece of ‘visual art.’ They try to squeeze her in by saying that she is making ‘sound sculpture’, and that she is interested in how sounds define architectural space. But this applies to any music. Why not regard Beethoven as the greatest visual artist of all time, or nominate Oasis for the Turner Prize. Music is obsessed with the shape of building in which it sounds- that is why the construction of Opera houses and concert halls is such a fine art. But that doesn’t make the sound of a tenor’s voice a piece of visual art. If Philipsz’s work wants to stand for prizes, then it should do so in the field of music.

Thirdly there was the contribution of the Otolith group. This work was the most philosophically stimulating, consisting of a long defunct tv program about Greek cultural heritage and a video in which the Otolith Group imagined the destinies of a group of Indian characters froma film script that was never produced. The characters rage that they were never given life, doomed to reside for all eternity on a forgotten piece of paper. The Otolith group set them free, imagining them confronting the director who had refused to breath life into them. This was interesting, but describing it as visual art is once again stretching things. Why does it not compete in some niche film festival. If films are eligible for the Turner Prize, then why couldn’t a feature length film like Slumdog Millionare (British made) compete?

Finally, there was the contribution of Angela De La Cruz. This doesn’t count because it was so awful. Her work consisted of things like a red canvas crumpled on the floor or a chair on top of a stool. Unless the only necessary qualification for something to be art is that it was intended to be so by its perpetrator, then this is not art. It is ugly and conceptually nugatory. Art is a nebulous concept, but we know intuitively that it is not this.

So there we have it. Dexter Dalwood by default.

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Cy Twombly and disappointment at the Tate

Visited the Tate Modern to do a follow up on an article I was writing on the debacle surrounding Ai Weiwei’s recently closed installation in the Turbine Hall. This installation, numbering 100 million replica sunflower seeds (although the number must be dwindling rapidly- during the five minutes that I stood sentinel at its perimeter I must have seen twenty hands dart forth like little fish from behind the barrier to grab a souvenir seed), is still closed due to some vague excuse about minute quantities of potentially noxious dust being emitted when thousands of feet trample the seeds. This all seems very strange. No one seems to have the considered the fact that to even access the Tate you have to walk a part of London that is under heavy construction, cranes, winches and drills combining to create a constant plume of dust that dwarfs anything generated by a few soft feet on a carpet of sunflowers.

But never mind. With Weiwei’s exhibit still on lockdown I voyaged out into the rest of the gallery. What I found left me sorely unimpressed. Obviously the Tate runs the whole gamut of modern art, some styles and trends more worthwhile than others. I wandered into a room that probably represents the nadir of anything produced in the art world over the last century. It may not be the single worst piece produced, but it is exemplary of the absolute worst trends in art.

This was Cy Twombly’s group of enormous canvases which form part of his Bacchus series of works. They literally consist of nothing more impressive than enormous white canvases covered from head to foot in loops of red paint. Some of the loops have dribbled down the canvas. These are described by the blurb accompanying the paintings as ‘saguine floods of paint that ooze and cascade down the canvas.’ We are told that they are intended to contrast strongly with the ‘euphoric’ loops of the work. This is a classic example of trying to make the best of a bad situation. Twombly was probably too lazy to let the work dry properly, and returning to find that the colours had run, sat down in a heap on the floor and tried to dream up some pseudo-philosophical justification for his negligence.

Indeed the entire work- and much art like it- relies almost entirely on justifications for the fact that it isn’t immediately pleasing to look at. What would modern art be without the blurbs that accompany it? One looks at a painting, recognises nothing, is impressed by nothing, and then walks over to read about what it is intended to signify. Sometimes the idea behind it is genuinely impressive, and one leaves feeling less irritated. But then this is philosophy, not art. Often the only impressive thing is the idea behind the art, but this idea could be delivered without an enormous canvas covered in arbitrary daubs of red.

Twombly’s piece is said to represent the dual nature of the god Bacchus, showing both the sensuality of his debauchry and the violence of his nature. The red of the painting is because of blood and wine. But the painting is such a flimsy accompaniment to a big idea that it might as well not be there. One could have taken any chaotic looking smudge of red paint and appended the same philosophical justification to it. The skill of an artist like Twombly is not that he can paint or indeed create anything artistic, but that he has a talent for justifying and describing average things that he has done.   

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