The Washington Post‘s art critic, Blake Gopnik, can’t decide which upsets him more about the Picasso record. Is bad because the painting sold was not Picasso’s most interesting work? Was it bad because he surmises the buyer just wanted to say that he or she had paid the world’s auction record for a work of art? Or is it bad because . . . well, Gopnik goes for the old chestnut that the money could be better spent:
What would a Martian anthropologist make of a society that produces a roomful of bidders with such vast reserves of surplus cash that they can drop more than $100 million on a fancy picture — while millions of their fellow citizens have their homes repossessed? Isn’t this how we imagine Paris the day before they stormed the Bastille?
Think of what that money could have been used for: buying bed-nets for 10 million kids in Africa; filling the funding gap in the D.C. teachers’ contract for three years running; installing air conditioning in a dozen Italian museums that lack it. Instead, all we’re really applauding with this sale is the transfer of treasure from one ultra-rich person to another, accompanied by the passing of a middling-fine painting from one mansion wall to the next. We’re clapping at the sheer knowledge of all that capital accruing. But wouldn’t the world in fact be a better place if this transaction had tied up less cash?
Now, Gopnik’s not wrong about the social uses of capital. How to redirect that money from the accounts two very wealthy persons into the DC teacher’s salary budget is a question of tax policy. However, in making the sale, the Brody heirs will be taxed on the proceeds providing the Federal government with some much-needed revenue. So on the basis of the argument Gopnik puts forward, he should be ecstatic about the record price.
Of course, the fact that the picture broke a record is irrelevant. Prices, economists will tell you, are set on the margins. They reflect time and opportunity, not value. What price would Picasso’s most art historically important work fetch? Surely much more than $100 million.
As for Gopnik’s assertion that the bidding stopped suspiciously upon breaching the world record price, does he think even billionaires don’t balk about crossing a line like that? With the number of bidders still pursing the painting around the $90 million mark, is it so hard to believe that the underbidders shied away from being the owner of world’s auction record work? So, instead of racing toward the title, one could easily see it the other way round and that only one buyer could be forced, in the heat of the moment, across the line.
Record $106.5 million price bought something besides a Picasso (Washington Post)