Sunday, October 11, 2015

What is it worth?

The question of the worth of things--more properly, value-- recurs again and again in our culture. In the world of art collecting, the prices paid for works by famous artists have spiraled into the outer stratosphere, far above other perceived value.

By other perceived value I mean aesthetic value, mostly. Does the picture or sculpture provide the viewer with something besides an experience of beauty, or prettiness. Does the piece provoke thoughts of something new or new thoughts about something we've already been through? Does the work rouse admiration in us for its virtuosity of form or for its evocation of moment or emotion? Is there a story we see in the work? Does it provide us with fertile ground for our own narrative inventions? Is the image challenging or commonplace? And on and on. It might be said that some works transcend financial value. The Mona Lisa.
"When Will You Marry Me?" Paul Gauguin
On the other hand, in all other pursuits the price of a thing for sale is set by how much someone will pay. The value of the object is simply the market price. Forget aesthetics. Value is set by the dollar amount somebody will pay. In the last few years, quite paintings have sold for truly enormous sums--over $100 million. One by Gauguin called "When Will You Marry Me?" (original title Tahitian) sold a few months ago for $300 million, for example, eclipsing the record of $250 million set by the sale of Cezanne's 1893 "Card Players," to the Qatari family.

Both of these paintings are undeniably interesting works, and the Gauguin at least is attractive and pleasing. The Gauguin, unlike a lot of his work, has real depth of composition and expression while using relatively flat fields of color. It has real aesthetic value. The Cezanne is hardly his best work. A cursory look at this painting shows Cezanne's shortcomings as a draftsman very clearly (look at the arms). And no matter what his apologists say about his genius, his palette is drab enough to make us wonder if he was chronically depressed. There is a sort of helplessness in the card players, and a gut-deep feeling of unhappiness comes out of the work. In that sense, Cezanne succeeds if arousing such thoughts was his purpose. Nonetheless it is clumsy, dark, poorly composed and altogether forgettable.

Obviously neither of these pictures is worth what was paid. There are many other works, obscure and famous, that have more human content. Certainly there are thousands that are more visually arresting, better drawn or painted, or simply provide the viewer with a more transcendent experience. And neither of these is ground-breaking, neither is startling, neither makes us want more, in all honesty. The purchasers bought the painter's names and their historical and critical reputations regardless of what the image actually contains. They purchased an investment, regardless of how the acquisition was described. And stay tuned, of course, because auctions and private sales continue to push art prices beyond the stratosphere, where there is only vacuum.
"Card Players," 1893 Paul Cezanne

The Ten Most Expensive Paintings in the World

Most Expensive Paintings--Wikipedia
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