f you can believe all the hand-wringing and soul-searching these days among artists, art critics, and sundry other arts professionals, you’d imagine that nobody is really happy about the $142.4 million paid for a Francis Bacon triptych at Christie’s the other day—or the $58.4 million for a Jeff Koons at the same auction or the $104.5 million for a Warhol at Sotheby’s the following night.
As The New Republic suggests: “Those prices are as repellent as Leonardo DiCaprio’s baronial frat house shenanigans in the coming attractions for Martin Scorsese’s new tale of Gilded Age excess, The Wolf of Wall Street. Among the most revolting sports favored by the super-rich is the devaluation of any reasonable sense of value. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s some of the wealthiest members of society, the people who can’t believe in anything until it’s been monetized, are trashing one of our last hopes for transcendence. They don’t know the difference between avidity and avarice. Why drink an excellent $30 or $50 bottle of wine when you can pour a $500 or $1000 bottle down your throat? Why buy a magnificent $20,000 or $1 million painting when you can spend $50 or $100 million and really impress friends and enemies alike?
“These questions will not go away. And it is a little too easy to blame it all on the super-rich and the various counselors and courtiers who cheer them on at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Of course there’s nothing we can do about what Steven A. Cohen and Peter Brant choose to sell at the auctions or what Roman Abramovich and Sheikha al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani choose to buy. But the total lack of embarrassment with which everybody involved conducts themselves must at least in part be blamed on an educated public that has become embarrassed about discussing—much less advocating for—anything that suggests a principle or standard of taste. While the professional people who worry about every $10,000 in their 401(k) may shake their heads at the stratospheric auction prices, they get a kick out of them, too—too much of a kick, I tend to think.
“The art world has become a fantasy object for the professional classes—and that’s a troubling turn of events, because art must be experienced concretely, immediately. Since the democratization of culture began in the nineteenth century, a rising middle class has seen in the arts a dazzling enrichment and complication of its own ideas and ideals—of its belief in fairness, seriousness, standards, transcendence. And now, with the middle class in disarray, art is no longer embraced as anything close to an ideal. Art is just another hope to be abandoned, along with the hope that your children might do better than you’ve done. In place of art as an ideal we have art as an idol. (Or art as an educational tool, by way of the numbingly utilitarian logic that if you learn to play Bach you will improve your math skills.) No wonder everybody is following not the art but the sky-high prices at the auction houses—and the parties at Art Basel Miami Beach, where the same dealers and collectors are gathering this week to play more or less the same games.”