Price vs Value in Art

Art that explores the edges of our time is the avant-garde of contemporary art.  The ‘avant-garde will necessarily be renamed as it slips past the present on the river of time and the edge will be breached again.  But while it is up there at the forefront, for most of us, it will range from being vaguely disquieting to outraging.  It is the dealer’s or curator’s job to translate the new and find the language to capture the purely conceptual.  We are often affronted or mystified by the art babble. Describing a cow sawn in half is a taxing challenge to create the cachet that will match the price slapped on the piece – should you wish to own it – or even pay to see it.

In a recent film of the Basel Miami Art Fair, a group gushed over an installation which was a tangle of green extension cords.  The curator sought rapport with the artist by expressing that she felt the inherent sadness in her work.  Everyone but Morley Safer nodded in numbed bemusement.  The curator, uber polished in her dress and delivery – strung multi-syllabic words words together with enthusiasm – peripatetic was one of them, but what did she actually say?  No one wants to ask – lest they appear a Neanderthal.

I think that the art world which exists in the stratosphere of modernity and money – the bastion of contemporary art fairs and international auctions – is a tacit cartel protecting its own sanctity. It has its own language: art babble, on which Morley comments is ‘as opaque as spilled alphabet soup’. The cartel’s entrance criteria is absurd amounts of disposable income and its creed; don’t ask too many questions. Its collective agreement? I’ll pretend to believe your nonsense if you pretend to believe mine.

A California dealer confesses in the film, “It’s all theatre”.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist of the extension cords wasn’t sad when she carefully knotted and draped, but does everything that tumbles out of one’s psyche constitute art? Are some tanglings more articulate than others? Are some tanglings best left in the box in the basement? And who decides?

Well, the cartel decides. And what drives the cartel? A great big marketing machine. And what fuels the machine? Desire. Desire for anything one doesn’t have. Desire for anything that sets one above. The desire for superiority. By and large the rarified art world is driven by speculators or status seekers, shares the L.A. Agent.

Jeff Koons Elephant

Jeff Koons "Elephant"

Koons, like his work or not, has escalated from $250,000 to $25 million over twenty years.

This is not to say that there isn’t some terrific, truly evocative and inspired art being produced and collected by in-tune collectors. As the Los Angeles gallery owner suggested, some collectors purchase art in a ‘organic biographical way’;  it means something to them personally. What I do say is that desire fuelled by money and prestige is an ever open maw and stoking the marketing machine that feeds it means that the pink slime gets thrown in with the prime rib. There is no dearth of artists but there does seem to be a paucity of genuine art. The cartel keeps its secrets and only the discerning see through them.

Marshall McLuhan said “Art … is a Distant Early Warning (DEW) System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it”  If that is so, what can we take from this current epoch?  Well, if we distance ourselves from the hype and sift out the prime from the slime, we might have a collection of artists who portend a future that is most excellent.  (I am ever the optimist).  However, the art scene is more about the marketing of art and less about the creation of art.  And that is a foreboding future for sure.  It means that we’ve not only dropped our aesthetic compass but have crushed it under foot.

I quote Warhol who borrowed from McLuhan, “Art is anything you can get away with”.  And if money equalled truth – Warhol is the proof.  We are no longer guided by inner knowing but by the surging of contrived opinion . Simply put, we have been jettisoned out of our hearts and into our heads. Thoughts rule and feelings are suspect. And if you follow the bouncing dollar signs that seems to be true. But true is never derived from collective agreement – no matter how much money changes hands.  There is value in art that has nothing to do with price.

This is my definition of art borrowed from Aldous Huxley: “The finest works of art are precious, among other reasons, because they make it possible for us to know, if only imperfectly and for awhile, what it actually feels like to think subtly and feel nobly.”  If you are a collector, no matter how modest, and the works of art you buy aren’t doing that, you have paid too much.



Picasso earned the right to do anything he wanted,” Andy Rooney