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Art Basel Frazzle: Curmudgeons’ High Dudgeon on High-Priced Art


Seventh Annual Art Basel Miami Sour Grapes Soufflé

Memo to disgruntled critics, ranting about the recent “obscene” prices for “trophy art”: Highly coveted artworks cost big bucks—today and always. Art writers whose bank accounts don’t rise to the level of their exquisite taste can’t afford a square inch of an Andy Warhol silkscreen or of any other blue-chip art.

So what else is new?

Warhol, “Statue of Liberty,” $43.76 million on Nov. 14 at Christie’s

This post constitutes my seventh annual curdled Art Basel Miami Sour Grapes Soufflé, wherein I vent my cynical take on this event (which ended on Saturday). Skipping Miami again this year, I opted for another form of conspicuous consumption: I savored my “sour grapes soufflé” (actually “corn and poblano fritters rémoulade”) at a tasting in Arlington, VA, in connection with menu planning for CultureDaughter‘s upcoming May wedding in Maryland.

So I didn’t get to see Owen Wilson or Will Ferrell, to hobnob with Steve Wynn, or to wonder whether the otherwise occupied Steve Cohen‘s absence from Miami “barely registered”  or was “disconcerting,” or whether his more prolonged absence from the market, should it occur, would “have a narrow effect on that high end of the market,” as journalist Katya Kazakina speculated today on Bloomberg Radio (after posting this piece on Cohen’s art-related activities).

This year, I’ve been bemused by the swarm of art journalist/critics who are “attacking the art world, arguing that the staggering sums of money being spent on works are distorting judgments about art and undermining its long-term cultural significance,” as described by the estimable Patricia Cohen of the NY Times on Saturday. Perhaps these writers are filled with remorse for playing a role in fueling the art-market publicity machine during these financially challenging times, when throwing megabucks at art may seem especially unseemly.

There’s nothing new, though, about high prices for great (or even not-so-great) art. What bothers me is not the huge resources that the well-heeled spend (wisely or not) on personal cultural enrichment. Better to lavish riches on a Richter than on extravagant personal adornments or a fourth megamansion. It’s particularly hard to fault collectors whose sense of being fortunate but temporary custodians of culture impels them to share their treasures with the public through loans to museums.

Stratospheric art prices are a fact of life in a free-market economy. Far more pernicious is the fixation of many buyers and sellers, fueled by cheerleaders in the art-market press, on the market’s (always uncertain) upward momentum, rather than on artistic value. This diversified-portfolio mentality deemphasizes serious collecting and encourages financial speculation.

So it was in Kelly Crow‘s Searching for the Next Art-World Star in the Wall Street Journal, which listed “five artists that the establishment is betting on” and told us that “wagering on…these artists has…become a speculative sport among the world’s wealthy, so navigating this arena now requires a nimble understanding of the market’s machinery as much as any artistic merits [emphasis added].”

My beef against art fairs, as exemplified by Art Basel Miami Beach (whose Dec. 10 post-sale wrap-up can be found here), is that they are a fabulous backdrop for partying but a miserable environment for contemplating and understanding art, let alone for making informed, well considered decisions about whether to spend serious money to acquire it. In art collecting, as in other types of relationships, speed-dating sometimes works. But more prolonged, less frenetic contact is needed to confirm and deepen first impressions, or to disabuse oneself of superficial infatuation.

As an antidote to the speculative-sport commentary, here’s the last paragraph of my book, The Complete Guide to Collecting Art. It’s long out-of-print and out-of-date when it comes to elucidating the complex workings of the art market, but (as Prof. Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art, assured me during my enjoyable visit to his institution for a speaking gig two weeks ago), it’s still relevant in defining core principles of intelligent, passionate acquiring:

Paradoxically, the best way to buy art to appreciate is probably to appreciate art. Unless you have some personal feeling for the artistic value of what you buy, you have no objective way of evaluating the wisdom and reliability of others’ advice….

To invest well in art, one should probably not approach it as an investment at all, but simply follow the principles of intelligent collecting that are presented throughout this book. Buying, preserving and selling art with knowledge and care is the surest way to enjoy its lasting rewards, whether you collect for love, money or both.

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