The exceptionally talented New York Times art critic Holland Cotter produces a predictable display of status anxiety. Threatened by the attention these outsized prices attract (and really what does it matter that someone spent $120m on painting? Have you seen some of their silly boats?) critics feel compelled to display their aesthetic, moral and political superiority with comments like this:
Is a version worth $120 million? The only way I can answer is by asking another question: If I were suddenly handed the same amount of money for art, is that the way I’d spend it? No.
After studying and writing about art for 40 years I see too many other options, options that would allow me to put together an encyclopedic mini-museum for the same dollars. That museum, filled with art that could be bought, even in these over-the-top times, for comparative bargain prices. It would begin with early Indian Buddhist art and go on to French illuminated manuscripts, African sculpture, tons of old master paintings and drawings — art that a new generation of collectors, fixated on thoroughly branded modern and contemporary art, doesn’t even know exists.
What Mr. Cotter is trying to say is that there is great art that is under-valued by the distribution mechanism called the market. Why is that a bad thing?
It’s easy to forget that this is what Dr. Barnes faced when he assembled the world’s greatest collection of Impressionist art. The core of Barnes’s collection was a group of paintings that had been offered to the French government—and rejected. Barnes bought what was equally overlooked and undervalued in his time.
Someone can—and eventually will—do the same with works that Cotter mentions here. In fact, there’s no reason he cannot do it himself. The Vogels did something nearly as impressive as what Barnes accomplished using the proceeds of a civil service salary. Surely a Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist could do as much on his salary.
If I Had Cash, I Wouldn’t Buy That (New York Times)