First let me encourage you to view The Price of Everything. A new documentary directed by Nathaniel Khan. There is no disputing that it is an excellent film. It has prompted me to spend some time thinking about the contents movie. It forced me to think deeply about the art world and my little place within it. Actually I was unsettled by it. But in the end I am comforted by it too.
But before I get to that here are my thoughts on the movie, art prices and more.
Where Angels Fear to Tread
Even as a child I remember people talking about the fortunes made and lost in the stratosphere of the art market. Van Gogh, Picasso, Koons, Warhol and company. Each auction would trigger increased prices and the grown ups would laugh and shake their heads.
“If only I could find one of these paintings in grandma’s attic,” would be a typical comment. Fat chance. Buy another lotto ticket.
Although we could laugh the crazy art world off, we still envied it a little. Imagine if your paintings could sell for insane sums? Take some of grandma’s advice first. Be careful of what you wish for. It might just come true.
The art market depicted in the film is not for the timid. The auction houses are run by hard people. All smiles and bon homie on the outside. But ruthless and cunning at work. You are either today’s hero or yesterday’s also-ran. They market determines who wins or loses. For some artists this is unbearable.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist who found fame in the top levels of this market. But the pressure of trying to keep up with the insatiable demands of fame took its toll. The film suggests that Basquiat was filled with self doubt as he struggled with keeping the galleries satisfied. Until his untimely death in 1988.
Who Gets Rich?
Well the auction houses certainly. Also long established collectors can mint it big. Artists? Only a few living artists get into the big league though. Many others watch as collectors, who may have purchased the painting for a song, now get to sell it for millions. Yes there is a degree of reflected glory and current artists, if they still produce work, can benefit handsomely.
The overall impression though is that the artists often are simply swept up on the crazy wave. They need to produce art because it is what they do. The fact that they are anointed by the moneymakers is often by chance.
How are prices determined?
In theory supply and demand are the factors. Of course a dead artist is not making more art so supply stops. It follows that demand will spike as a result. But why that artist’s work? We are not talking about gold bars or dollars. The art market is wild and fickle. It is like trying to figure out exotic hedge funds. You get the feeling that there is no logic to it at all. There isn’t actually. So what is going on?
The old master painters and early twentieth century artists are pretty much a safe bet. A Monet and a Matisse will always do well. But why not a Sisley? A fine impressionist artist that simply did not get the golden touch. It does not make sense.
Turn to contemporary artists and it gets worse. I suspect that the collectors/investors are playing their own game. One based on ego, speculation and tax write offs. Bragging rights and bull_____. Who will be the chosen one? The galleries and auction houses especially play a part in anointing the next big artist. Then these players create a vibe and flirt with the big spenders (collectors) until there is enough marketing to lure the players to the auction. Then greed, hype and ego take care of the rest.
Too cynical? Not really if you consider the sums involved.
Touching Sub Plot
The movie also follows the story of Larry Poons. An artist who stood out in the sixties and then exiled himself to the countryside. He grew old living in splendid isolation. Painting massive canvases that remind one of Monet’s giant water lily paintings. I like Larry Poons. He races vintage motorcycles and that makes him cool.
When Poons, now an old man, is asked if it is true that the best artist is the most expensive artist, he replies: “How could that be true?”
Larry Poons is sought out for another exhibition. Will he be persuaded to go through with it or will he remain reclusive? Watch the movie and find out.
What is the Value of Art?
The title of the documentary plays on the idea that many people know the price of art, but do not understand the value of art. There is a huge difference. What pushes up prices of one artist’s work does not mean that the art is better than others.
There is also the implied agreement among super-collectors that the art prices must keep going up. Why? Because that is the whole point. Without rising prices the bubble will burst. Then everyone suffers a hangover as the party comes to an end.
It is not a House
When contemporary art became a commodity it was taken out of the realm of art appreciation. That art work on auction is now like stocks and bonds. If the artist is still alive then he or she is forever changed. How can the living artist create more art without it joining the commodity supply chain? How awful is that? Perhaps this is why Larry Poons went to live in the woods for a few decades?
Gerhard Richter quips that his art suddenly costs the same as a house. He then remarks: “But it is not a house.”
The price and value are not the same thing.
This movie made me reassess my own work and my place as an artist. Of course I am not remotely in the Big League. I also took a look at amazing artists all over the world. Representational painters, for instance, that have a keen following from collectors. Their work is not remotely able to compete with the mega-markets of Koons, Warhol and company. Yet these ordinary artists create fantastic paintings. The sort of life affirming works that will make you happy every time you look at the paintings. No auctions at Sothebys or Christies though.
Should you envy the high fliers? Please no. That is a damnable state of mind. Instead I understand clearly that I have a market interested in my work. You have a market interested in your work. Art is not solely for billionaires. Most art is for us ordinary people looking for a transformative experience through art. Or simply the joy of creating.
Being an artist is enough. Work hard. Create quality work and you will live off your art too. What an achievement that is! Most importantly is to be grateful for that little miracle. I know I am and that makes me happy. Simple.
Do you want to make more art?
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Malcolm Dewey: Artist. Country: South Africa