Thursday
August 24, 2017

Flavour of the week

Friday, June 16, 2017

Run up the skull and boodle flag!

Basquiat’s Untitled.
Basquiat’s Untitled.
Basquiat’s Untitled.
By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald

While the art world continues to digest the fact that US$110.5 million was paid for a painting of a skull which many people would consider an eyesore, two things are worth considering.

One: quite independently of its aesthetics — although done on canvas, the painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, purposely gave it the look of mural graffiti of the most slapdash kind — the image packs an unarguable punch.

Two: turn to one of the summits of Western high art, the religious paintings of the great masters of the Renaissance. Notice the very frequent pictorial convention of denoting characters’ holiness by giving them languid faces and boneless hands with fingers like boiled noodles (google, e.g., Titian’s The Tribute Money). Discounting an automatic reverence for the old masters’ stylistic conventions, and with repose no longer an ideal, Basquiat’s skull is actually closer to our jangly modern sensibility.

Even if it’s considered to go too far in the other direction. That would be the direction of the expression of raw feeling unmediated by any apparent effort to look artistic in the traditional sense.

Now, does all that mean that Untitled — that’s the name Basquiat’s jackpot winner goes by — is worth US$110 million? Or US$10 million, or even US$10?

If one considers “worth” to be something intrinsic, tied only to some ideal standard, that would depend on which standard one upholds. If, instead, one adheres to the view that something’s worth doesn’t reside in itself but in the value that people attach to it (the basis of the value of, for example, diamonds), then the art market has spoken.

It could be a bubble, of course, but the odds are that paying that outrageous amount isn’t idiotic from an investment standpoint. By jacking the price up, the bidders for an artwork turn the value into self-fulfilling matter: they are defining it as they go. Besides, the buyer, Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese entrepreneur, has US$3.5 billion, so buying Untitled affected his economy less than the average working stiff would be affected by buying a print of a tenth-rate painting of a sad clown. Maezawa doesn’t have to give up buying anything else to buy this. He may make the amount up in a year anyway.

Prediction: the day can’t be too far off that a work in far greater favour, say a major Impressionist painting, goes for US$1 billion. (The current record is around US$300 million).

Something else: while it’s impossible to arrive at any widespread agreement on the real worth of an artwork in absolute terms, relative worth is an easier subject of consensus. So, if this Neo-Expressionist skull is worth US$110 million, a Leonardo, if it somehow went on the auction block, should in proportion be worth US$ 110 billion, not a cent less. Except that the actual prices curve probably wouldn’t be a straight line, but a flattening curve.

Is it offensive that someone (not a museum) should plunk down US$110 million for a painting — even one that adhered to mainstream tastes — when famine stalks Africa, and many theoretically conquerable diseases persist? Yes. (Of course, the same reasoning, if not at the same scale, would need to be applied to such actions as spending an amount for a meal at a fancy restaurant that would feed a destitute family for months.)

However, if anyone thinks that such conspicuous consumption in an unequal world is something exclusive to contemporary society, he or she might profitably read, for instance, Barbara Tuchman’s exuberant history A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Mediaeval lords staged banquets so spectacularly lavish it might ruin them, not to mention their tax-paying subjects, while hunger faced others who were not a continent away but close by.

A consoling thought is that a possibly higher proportion of today’s fantastic fortunes, the kind that can indulge in cento-mega-dollar Basquiats, originated in some kind of useful work, not murderous plunder.

meyercolumns@hotmail.com

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