Thursday, February 28, 2013

Value in art

$138 mil, actually.
As I was pulling together that De Kooning post, I came across this factoid re: the sale of his painting Woman III for 100+ million dollars— a figure that happens to be close to the total US federal budget for arts funding for the year 2012. A common major stumbling block to dealing with modern work is reconciling the price tag with the work itself— which often looks informal, expressive, non-technical. “Like something my kid could do.”

Woman III is especially rough looking, and doesn't really track as an extreme luxury item. It was not painted for effect, and is as much an artifact a process as it is a finished work of art. What it is is ambitious street level art-making; the work of an painter who was becoming well-known in New York's local modern art circles, but who was still quite poor. It's more a symbol of an artist defiantly expending all of his resources to do his work. At the time De Kooning could barely afford to use actual artist's oils, yet he would expend huge amounts of paint working all day, then scrubbing the canvas down with turpentine and starting over the next, sometimes for months on a single painting.

Prices like that say more about the scale of contemporary wealth than they do the works themselves. The people buying famous artworks are, in fact, so ludicrously, obscenely rich, that of course prices are wildly out of proportion with most people's idea of the ordinary value of a painting. If they could, those people would be paying the same money for a 10-minute conversation with Julius Caesar, or a sleepover date with Marylin Monroe. Those things would be great, and so unique as to be nearly priceless, but not for quality of the of the conversation and companionship. Like virtually all other individual human works, they couldn't support the burden of being $100 million worth of awesome.

So we have to leave these billionaires to fight over possession of the corpse, and judge these things on their human-scale value. How much of your time does it command? If you get to see it in a museum, how well does it hold the room? What kind of impression did it make vs. the hundreds of other things you saw that day? How does it hold up on seeing it in reproduction decade after decade? What does the thing have to say to you? Did you learn anything in trying to figure it out?  

No comments: