Art is a global business in an increasingly globalised world, and blue chip art, sold by blue chip dealers and auction houses, has become a prime currency in the one common culture that extends from Brooklyn to Basel to Beijing: money, and the social prestige that follows upon it. [emphasis added]There’s not a ton else that we all share when you spread the boundaries that wide, and this is reflected in the art market. The things that generate high bids generate lust and envy, and the counter-bids soar higher. It was ever thus, but not to the degree we’re seeing now. Sales based on taste, or some desire for spiritual edification, are losing out to sales based on financial speculation or raw status competition.
That’s why much of the art world’s growth comes from obscene, record-shattering sales like the $179 million Picasso sold in 2015, or the $500 million Da Vinci sold in 2017. The top ten biggest sales in history, all in excess of $100 million, have taken place in the past seven years. [emphasis added] It’s great to show your friends that you have a Warhol or Basquiat, even better if you got it by outbidding all those other obscenely rich sons of bitches peacocking at Sotheby’s, or waiting in line to wine and dine with Larry Gagosian.
Life is awash with inducements to stupidity and greed. The bizarre, defiantly anti-utilitarian practice of making and enjoying art can function as a respite, a space for genuine reflection and reevaluation – as R.M. Rilke learned while staring at a broken ancient statue of Apollo, art can help us see that we must change our lives, if we want to live truly well in our short time. In our time that space is being increasingly colonised by the same venal lusts that already run so much of the wider world.
That world isn’t ending this year or next, let’s hope, so there’ll be time for correction. The new money pouring out of Asia will calm down eventually. There’s no need for garment-rending, but it is sad for us. We’re living through a moment in art history that will look at least a little gross when we, or our descendants, look back on it. A global gilded age, too busy acquiring to think about much of anything. You can fight back, for yourself and the obsessive, paint-spattered oddballs past and present, by looking – really looking – at the things they’ve produced. If you’re lucky you’ll see that there are better things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the social registers of our hyper-competitive, status-obsessed moment.
That British journalists and writers have started noticing that participation in or contribution to theater is a distinctly not-very-working-class prospect is only surprising in the sense that they are surprised by this realization. If the prescribed remedy for this is simply a purer and better art religion, though, then perhaps the patient just needs to die. Hans Rookmaaker might have been on to something suggesting that some people have asked painting to do too much.