Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger
|Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O) was painted in 1955 as the final work of a series inspired by Delacroix and painted in homage to Matisse. Photograph: Alamy/ukartpics|
Is any painting really worth $179m?
It must have been something to be in the room at the Rockerfeller Center last Monday evening. As bidding on Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O) reached $151m, Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen – auctioneer for the night – said: “We’re in new territory.” As the final bids rose in $500,000 increments, he spread his arms wide, as if to capture the sensation of the global art market reaching the stratosphere.
And when he brought his gavel down on a sale of $160m (the figure rises to $179.4m once you include all the fees) a new record had been set. This was the highest ever for a work of art sold at auction – terrifyingly, works sold privately have realised even more.
But to the casual observer, once the giddiness and excitement had died down, it was hard not to feel slightly queasy. In a world where 21 children under five die each minute, mainly from preventable causes, how can any work of art – however beautiful or significant – be worth this amount? How can any single object? You’re going to tell me you can’t put a price on genius (and Picasso, were he here today would probably agree with you) but it seems to me a frightening waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere.
Is $179m a lot of money? Most certainly. Is it a waste of money to spend this fantastic sum on one painting, a canvas depicting a mess of jagged female limbs? Certainly not. We are, after all, talking about Picasso, one of the greatest and most influential artists that ever lived. Why shouldn’t someone spend a fortune to own a work by – yes – a genius?
It’s true, spending money on art won’t cure cancer, or stop the children you mention from dying, but is it not human to want both? To take care of our basic needs and the more elevated ones? A civilised society cares for the soul as well as the body – let us not neglect hearts and minds. Most sick people don’t just want to get better, they want life to be worth living – and art contributes to this latter need. Following your logic, we could stop the state from funding the arts altogether, because the money could be better spent on health; and we could prevent the rich from spending their cash as they choose, so as to make sure it goes towards something more worthy, but wouldn’t that also be the most spiritually empty and bland world in which to live? (Not to mention terrifying in its illiberalism.)
Is this painting worth $179m? In financial terms, it’s worth what someone will pay for it. The trick is not to confuse this with the critical or cultural value of the work – that is something far more intangible, and will never be summed up by a price tag.
SC I can’t disagree that a civilised society needs art as well as bread. But this isn’t about public good; this painting has gone into private hands and although, if we are lucky, it might be lent to galleries to take its place in the great history of Picasso’s art, the likelihood is that its record sale means that it will vanish from public view.
Think of the galleries you could fund with that $179m as well as the children you could save! The inflated price is not about any real value or any desire to share art with the world. It is driven instead by a combination of two things: firstly, the unfettered power of global capitalism, where art is seen as an investment, and where the limited supply of modernist masters drives prices ever upwards. Secondly, those hyper-rich collectors who want the world to know they have taste and discrimination. That’s why instantly recognisable trophy pieces – a Picasso, a Giacometti, a Klimt, a Bacon – command such ridiculously high prices.
We don’t know who the buyer is, but we can guess that he or she is a billionaire who wants to dazzle people with both their wealth and their discrimination. They now own a painting that museums around the world would want to buy – what better expression of personal power could you purchase? And if their blue‑chip investment increases in value over the years, so much the better. This is all about money and not much about art.
TJ Art has always been tied to power and money. There would be no Sistine Chapel without the Holy See; no Dutch old masters without the bourgeoisie and their desire for portraiture. So now a new class of very wealthy people want to show that they have arrived – ’twas ever thus. Why hold it against them? There is an element of inverted snobbery here: we, the poor-but-cultured are genuinely discerning, whereas those super-rich oligarchs don’t know the meaning of good taste.
I concede, though, that the painting may be removed from public view, and that would be a shame. It may hang in a private collection, or worse – be stashed in a safe. But private collectors in general greatly benefit public collections. If anything, we could do with more private collectors acting philanthropically.
The Picasso is a good investment in this economic climate, and it would be unfortunate if we saw the value of art only in terms of a financial return, but how did this situation come to pass? The sluggish, underinvesting western economies are rich in profits, and all that liquidity has to go somewhere. If the wealthy don’t splash this cash on property, fine wine or caviar, it goes on art. There is so much unhelpful hand-wringing about the art market today. It’s an easy target, but the wrong one – the problem is the economy.
SC I recognise that art has always been reliant on the munificence of rich, private patrons. But collectors in the past – such as Victor and Sally Ganz, who once owned this Picasso – were willing to take a punt on unknown and struggling artists as well as established talents. Many modern art buyers still fall into that category and sustain the art market as a result of their enthusiasm.
But this hyper-inflated price is not about wanting to support art. It’s about vanity and a desire to splash the cash. As the New York Times pointed out last week, the astronomical rise in the price of the most sought-after works of art in the past 25 years is an indication of rising global inequality; because there are more billionaires with money to burn, they are pushing prices through the roof.
Of course, this is down to market forces. But it sends out the message that art is a rich man’s plaything, a bauble to hang on a wall. It demeans the genius of Picasso. It makes people feel that art is out of their reach, something that is not for them.
If we really wanted, we could intervene in the market and force a proportion of giddy prices such as these to be used to support the Picassos of tomorrow – or prevent them dying from starvation before they even get a chance to paint.
TJ I accept that the art world is conservative and that collectors don’t take risks, and would add another problem: art made today slavishly reflects and flatters the taste of those who will buy it – artists are culpable here, supine when fortunes are waved in front of their faces.
I too am interested in what best supports art, but I don’t accept your argument that these astronomical prices mean ordinary people feel art is out of their reach, or that it is not for them. That’s not the case with Picasso, a painter who is both aesthetically significant and hugely popular, no matter how much his paintings fetch at auction. Great art speaks to everyone regardless of the astronomical price it fetches under the hammer.
The problem we are facing in supporting art is not the excesses of market, it is that our society finds it difficult to articulate the value of art beyond the financial. Rarely – if ever – do we hear a defence of art for art’s sake or a discussion about the intrinsic value it holds. Significantly, this silence emanates from the cultural sector, which only champions culture as something that is good for the economy or for social instrumentalism. We cannot blame the art market and the super-rich for this broader and profound failing.
Thanks to Tiffany Jenkins and Sarah Crompton.