Culture / Peter Campion

What has art become?

Frans Francken – Kunst und Raritätenkammer (1636)

On the 20th July 2011 Lucien Freud, one of Britain’s most celebrated artists, died.  His work looked to see beyond the surface of a person and reveal their true nature, resulting in works that were praised as beautiful yet unsettling. He holds the record for the most expensive painting sold by a living artist, with his Benefits Supervisor Sleeping being sold for just under £21 million. Now that he has passed on the value of his work is undoubtedly going to soar and this leads to question, what has the art world become?

To me the world of art seems to have been tainted by the outrageous prices pieces are being sold for. Nowadays truly wonderful works of art are valued, it seems, not because of their excellence but because of the artist’s reputation or because of what is known in the art world as ‘provenance’; the ownership history of a piece of art.

The main degrading impact exuberant prices have on the art world is that the collectors who can afford these extravagantly priced pieces often treat them as status symbols,  just another luxury item and much like the latest sports car or piece of ostentatious jewellery they bought. They are not fully appreciated for the masterpieces they are as, if they were, the world’s most expensive paintings would be widely available for the world to see in galleries, and whilst there are those for which this is true, there are others that unforgivably are kept hidden. One of the most famous paintings in the world, Portrait of Dr Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, was sold to Ryoei Saito in 1990 for what was at the time the highest price ever paid for a painting, just under £51 million, leading to a standing ovation in the Sotheby’s auction room. Saito then withheld the piece from the public, at one point threatening to burn it rather than sell it on. It is believed to have been subsequently sold, however its current whereabouts are unknown. How is it that a piece of art so strongly recognised by the world has become lost to it, possibly never to be seen again? In the BBC documentary, ‘The world’s most expensive paintings’, the Sotheby’s auctioneer overseeing the sale of the Portrait of Dr Gachet, Christopher Burge, captured the tone of the modern day art world when he said, “my feeling was one of extreme distaste. They weren’t applauding art, they were applauding money”.

There are many factors that have contributed to the escalating price of art. Provenance has proved to play an important role, in many cases a piece of art with previous high status owners will sell for an inflated price. A prime example of this is Rothko’s White centre, which was sold for just under £45 million in 2007. Despite it typifying Rothko’s block colour style it is better known by many because of its previous owner: David Rockefeller. This association is to the extent that the piece is now often referred to as ‘The Rockefeller Rothko”- emphasising the power provenance has in the art world and demonstrating graphically how much more provenance is valued above genius.

The ridiculous prices of the modern art world have led to the definition of art being changed, where technique, beauty and daring have now taken a back seat to art’s new meanings: Luxury, status and greed. When in the future Freud’s paintings are sold for values near £100 million, would he have approved of that happening to his work? Destined to stay hidden from the eyes of the public would he have applauded like those at the selling of the Portrait of Dr Gachet? I think not.

Peter Campion


4 thoughts on “What has art become?

  1. Interesting article. I re-evaluated my opinion of where art should live last week after a visit to an archive. When the two artists in question created their paintings and monotypes, surely they wouldn’t have aspired to it having a bubble-wrapped existence, never looked at, albeit safe from light degradation?

    I put my counter-argument together on the train this morning:

    With regards.

    • I read your article and I’d have to agree with you. Paintings are there to be looked at, not to be stored away in some archive. Having a painting in a private collection is preferable to it being locked away somewhere.

      However, I do object to a private collector seeing his new artwork as a commodity rather than a piece of art, no better than a new car or a fancy new boat. With the exorbitant prices you do wonder whether the private collector values the artwork for what it is, or whether he sees it as a boost to his own status.

  2. True. I guess it depends on the motive of the collector. A monotype, say, at a couple of hundred pounds might be acquired publically then sit in a box. That same piece could be looked at, written about, discussed and generally nurtured by the right sort of private collector. It would then get a new lease of life as a piece of art.

    Burdened is too emotive a word, but I suspect that many public galleries have had work bequeathed to them. Even where only some of the work is selected out of a sense of duty, looking after the work would load an already stretched public budget. Coupled with that, I suspect there has been some “use it or lose it” in terms of public money available for acquisitions. As a result, the public archives have many “lesser” works.

    In my Utopia, the “big works” would be publically owned. The museums would sell the lesser pieces (a debate in itself as to their definition!) and retain (not lose) the proceeds, these being used to acquire more significant work. Overall, the number of works in the public collection goes down that way making for a more manageable (and significant) collection with less need for archiving.

  3. I completely agree with your art utopia. If museums owned the ‘big works’ we would be assured that it would be on display and open to the public. No museum is going to let a van Gogh or a Picasso wither away in some archive. With private collectors there is just no saying what is going to happen to an artwork. There are far too many examples of private collectors buying beautiful and important art pieces for exorbitant prices, which are then never to be seen again.

    However, with wealthy private collectors pumping money into the artworld, inflating prices more and more, I don’t see how museums and galleries are going to be able to afford any of the ‘big works’ anymore.

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