by Agnes a Paris
Sun Dec 17th, 2006 at 12:01:33 PM EST
This diary might end up sketchy, a patchwork of the impressions I've had about art since it changed my life forever. As a child, I strongly believed artists were all in Paradise, for the gift of joy they had bestowed upon us, their fellow mortal human beings. Art was emotion, dazzled amazement, an invaluable gratitude for the stranger who had formalised something I would feel only confusedly.
Museums were full of messages and, if I dare say, friends, as I would go and see the same painting, over and over again, sometimes on a decade span, like and old dear friend from teenage years, whom you meet intermittently but still with the same intensity of sharing. The value of art lied in the emotions it stirred within me, within all the people who gathered in museums, concert halls, opera houses, cinemas. Then I discovered art was more about money than just the museum entrance fee.
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and more accurately for the purpose of this diary: "Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye" (William Shakespeare, in "Love's Labour's Lost"). In using the verb Buy, was Shakespeare a futurist? Indeed, the modern beholder is the market, as art has been promoted to the status of an asset, ie a vehicle not only for emotions, but for investment.
I'm focusing here on painting, as this is a form of art where the fulfilment of the artist's design will be passed on throughout ages on the same underlying medium, hence the priceless value of the vehicle as such, as the masterpiece and the vehicle are one and same. Music masterpieces are originally manuscripts; notes scrambled on paper, but only in their live performance are they accessible to the public. Manuscripts will end up with rare paper collectors, and there is no copyright on Chopin, Bach, Mozart or Rachmaninov. Same with literature, poetry.
One can own a rare recording of Gotterdammerung, a very ancient limited edition of Leaves of Grass, and the national libraries are bestowed with treasures. But still, not the same.
Two recent experiences. When I was in New York last summer, one of the 2 portraits of Adele Bloch Bauer, by Gustav Klimt went to Ronald Lauder as a $135 million prize on an auction at Christies. The painting was displayed to the public for a few days so I had the chance to admire the masterpiece.
Considering that the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), owned by the French government has the highest insurance value for a painting in history ($100 million on December 14, 1962, before the painting toured the U.S. for several months. Taking inflation into the account it would be approximately $670 million in 2006!), a $135 million Klimt did not come much as a surprise to me.
I was fine by that until I heard of the Jackson Pollock auction early November. Having seen Pollocks by the dozen at the MoMA and Tate Modern, I valued the painting as I had always done, by the emotion I felt when facing it. I must confess all Pollocks had looked alike to me, elaborated graffiti.
So the painting 'No.5, 1948', hit the $140 million threshold in a transaction between a Hollywood entertainment mogul and a Mexican financier.
The value of art is supply and demand driven, like that of crude oil, copper, and wheat on the CBT. The sways in oil prices are there to testify that the commodity itself has no more intrinsic merits when it trades at 70$ WTI than when it (will it?) trades at 30$. The merits lie in the scarcity and other complex parameters coming into play, which are widely and much more accurately discussed in other diaries here on ET.
The Jackson Pollock piece has no more "merits" than the Klimt portrait, nor the Picassos, Van Goghs and Gauguins following in the list of most expensive paintings. It merely is more in demand, more popular.
The skyrocketing prices on the art market do not rule out the unique, priceless and very personal emotion we can experience when witness a true masterpiece. In a world where beauty can so easily be turned into a commodity, it is worth remembering that emotions are essential.