The debate between the critic and the art market took an unexpected turn earlier this week when Peter Plagens wrote this response to Robert Hughes’s angry film about the art market, “The Mona Lisa Curse:”
Big money has always been entwined with fine art, because fine art is expensive and has to be purchased with funds that don’t have to be strictly accounted for. The pharoahs could go off-books for their palace and temple blings, so could the ancient Greeks and Romans, so could the medieval church, so could Renaissance counts and dukes, so could Enlightenment kings, so could wealthy Dutch burghers, so could American robber-barons (whose collections and founded institutions make possible much of the art-for-art’s-sake sentiment Hughes longs for), and so can–with some intricate accounting–the likes of Steven A. Cohen. Auction prices in the millions are startling, but they shouldn’t be any more startling than Federal budgets in the trillions or AOL’s tip-sheet bulletin to economizing home-buyers, “What you can get for $900,000.” In the art world as everywhere else, the money required to play is bigger, hours are longer, the competition sharper, and the tolerances closer. In the old days when Robert Rauschenberg (in the film, Hughes’s seeming favorite artist) was a revelation, one could rent a downtown storefront for a couple of hundred bucks a month, slap some flat white latex paint on the walls, put up some track lights, and get your significant other to sit at the reception desk, and you had a shot at becoming an “important” gallery. Today, the up-front money is half a mil to a mil, backers (who want to make a profit) are needed, sophisticated networking and public relations are required, and the gallery needs to be able to run in the red for three years.
Second, art-collecting since the Middle Ages has been substantially competitive on extra-esthetic grounds. Appointments as diplomats, invites to palace banquets, positions at court, and access to power were the customary rewards. Today’s art collectors who amass large, “serious,” museum-quality collections are no more–to put it lightly–immune than their predecessors to the swinging dick syndrome. Big-time collectors today want to be seen as hip, and as makers of artists’ reputations; they want to be appointed to museum and foundation boards; they want to be given VIP treatment at the auction houses; they want to go to swell parties. Only those mythical reclusive Japanese businessmen pay multiple millions for works of art with the exclusive intent of enjoying them entirely in private. And nobody, but nobody, plunks down the price of a nice house on a work of art without considering whether it’ll increase in value. Most of the “speculator” collectors keep on collecting when they make a killing on a sale; they “deacession” in order to buy more art, just like museums do.
Art and Money, Part Nth (National Arts Journalism Program)