It's a sign the art world is rebounding, but is that a good thing?
Remember that bubble? The one that was supposed to burst and send the art market spiraling toward rock bottom along with all the other markets that collapsed in the wake of the recession? Guess what? It didn’t, a fact proven by last week’s record-breaking sale of the Picasso painting “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” at Christie’s.
In eight minutes, an anonymous telephone bidder outbid four others to claim the large 1932 oil painting of Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, for $106 million.
While it’s not especially shocking that a painting of this magnitude broke the world record for the price of a single piece of art at auction, it’s important to note the previous record had only been set in February—a Giacometti sculpture that fetched $104.3 million at Sotheby’s in London.
How ’bout that bubble?
It’s undeniable that the art market suffered in solidarity with the rest of the economy for the last two years. Revenues shrank, donations dried up and many independent galleries closed up shop. But the reset button on the exponential extravagances of the past decade in art was never pushed. People never stopped buying art.
The blockbuster sale of the Picasso painting has polarized much of the art world.
There is a pervasive code of ethics among many wide-eyed independent artists that the market side of art is evil. Warm in their cocoons of authentic decisions, a warehouse studio and a blogspot portfolio, the sale of a dead artist’s painting to an ultra-rich investor stirs up a number of negative reactions. The champions of the sale are, of course, the staff of Christie’s. The haters are, well, everyone else.
From Jonathan Jones, art writer for the Guardian, who called the sale “a tragedy,” to art critic Jerry Saltz, who rallied the bohemian troops with a recent Facebook status update. Saltz denounced the “imbecilic anonymous telephone bidder,” imagining that the same amount of money could have been used to buy a building in New York and rent it out to galleries and artists at cost, thereby changing “American art and the American art world, forever.”
Creative minds seem unanimous in their derision of the sale, mostly because, as local video artist Nick Salvatore poetically put it, “It seems like a big waste of money.”
It probably is, but $106 million spent on art is nothing to sneeze at. Such a monumental purchase shouldn’t be written off as grotesque. Instead, it should be taken as a happy indication that buyers have confidence in the market again, and a cue for artists to up their participation in the economy of their craft.
The promise of the recession drowned the art world’s sticky idealism, filled with doomsday folk-punk fantasies of equalization. While small-market artists can’t eliminate the disparity between ultra-rich collectors and themselves, they can steer it in a way that is mutually beneficial. Treating creative outpourings as potential sales is not inauthentic. It is not an affront to artistic integrity. It is not a soul for sale. Wealth is not the enemy of art, DIY or otherwise. Independent art’s only hope for survival is if the people who recognize its monetary value take a resolute stand, and if young artists become participants in the market.
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