24 February 2015

The cult of the object

When will you marry? Paul Gauguin 1892
by Marc Masurovsky

In the hyper-inflated art market that we witness nowadays, sums are being spent on works of art equal to the annual budgets of municipalities around the world.

Works of art, especially paintings and the occasional decorative object, have become part trophy, part idol, poor excuses for conversation pieces, to be worshipped and paraded in the privacy of one’s estate until the current owner becomes bored with it and unloads it on the private art market or as a gift or loan to a public institution that can afford the insurance payments.

What work of art could be worth 300 million dollars? Of course, we are thinking about “Nafea Faa Ipoipo-When Will You Marry?", painted by Paul Gauguin in 1892.

Sure, it’s a beautiful work not unlike many of Gauguin’s other works which chronicle his sexual and quasi-mystical adventures and mishaps in Tahiti. But three hundred million one-dollar bills?

300,000,000 x
It defies any reasonable person’s imagination that such prices can be paid. But there you have it. As a member of the incredulous public, I read the news of such a transaction and my emotions shift from perplexed to thoroughly disgusted; I end up experiencing a mixture of sadness, anger and bewilderment, at the impervious behavior of the world’s billionaires who use art to make statements about themselves. 

Is it really about them, their cronies and their vision of life? We do share the same planet, but we definitely do not share the same world. The ecosystems in which we live are mutually exclusive. Those who write for mass media outlets tend to cater to the whims of the hyper-wealthy by hatching uncritical paeans to these hyper-spenders. They wrongly assume that we, the general public, cannot wait to hear about these people’s foibles and follies.

Spending 300 million dollars on a Gauguin painting is not likely to make me like him any more than if someone had spent 1 million or 10 thousand dollars on his work. The money spent on art does not induce me to “appreciate” art any differently, for better or for worse. If I don’t like the object, no amount of money will make me like it more or unlike my “unlike” (to use Facebook-type language).

Not all members of the media were thrilled about the acquisition and its message to the world about "great art." Read the following:

“How many people have $300 million to spend on a great work of art?” Frances Beatty, president of Richard L. Feigen & Co. gallery in New York, said in an interview. “That’s where you start from. It wouldn’t be worth $300 million if there wasn’t a small group of people out there with billions to spend on works of art as opposed to roads, vaccines, whatever.”

The price paid for a work of art should never serve as a bellwether for taste and esthetics and it certainly should not be used as a factor in judging its worthiness.