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Throwing Eggs at Bacon: Roberta Smith Joins Critical Backlash Against Megabucks Art Buyers

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," 1969 Presale estimate: In excess of $85 million Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Golden Idol: Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” 1969
Photo at Christie’s by Lee Rosenbaum


Memo from CultureGrrl to esteemed art critics: Art costs money. The most sought-after art is incredibly expensive. You and I can’t afford it. Get over it.

The sad fact that we’ll never be able to own what the super-rich can doesn’t mean that we should denigrate them for “flex[ing] their monetary clout, mostly for one another”—a “spectacle” that is “deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.”

Those words came today in a NY Times “Critic’s Notebook” appraisal—Art Is Hard to See Through the Clutter of Dollar Signs—by a writer whose astute assessments of art I invariably admire, Roberta Smith.

In what has become an art critics’ ritual whenever a new world record is set for any artwork sold at auction, the “grousing” that I predicted at the end of this post has begun over the astonishing $142.4-million price for Francis Bacon‘s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud.”

Roberta seems to assume that megabucks purchasers collect art chiefly for “ultra-conspicuous consumption,” not because they “love art for its own sake.” My own knowledge of collectors suggests that it can be both, or even (in some cases) just the latter.

As I wrote the last time a record was set for an artwork, my own view is that it’s more praiseworthy to buy and cherish great art than it is to squander money on furs, jewels, cars and weapons of mass destruction. (That last expenditure is as much of a non sequitur as others’ comparisons, cited by Smith, to the most recent budget request for the National Endowment for the Arts or the cost of renovating the Queens Museum.)

Would I pay that much for that Bacon? It’s a ridiculous question. But in my fantasy shopping spree, I would have preferred to pick up at Christie’s (for a thrifty $32.6 million) this little Pollock on paper:

Jackson Pollock, "Number 16, 1949"

Jackson Pollock, “Number 16, 1949”
Photo at Christie’s by Lee Rosenbaum

Having made a huge auction-related gaffe of my own, I have no right to throw stones. But where were the Times’ copy editors when Roberta wrote that one of the “recent highs at Christie’s [emphasis added]…arrived in spring 2012, when Edvard Munch’s “Scream” sold for $119 million”?

That just-broken auction record for any work of art, as any art-market follower knows, was famously set at Sotheby’s. And the price, if you’re rounding off to the nearest million, was not $119 million; it was $120 million ($119.92 million).

Roberta’s piece was published online last night. But it wasn’t until after my 9:57 a.m. tweet today about the Christie’s/Sotheby’s mix-up that it was corrected on the Times’ website (as you’ll see at the end of Roberta’s article, linked at the top of this post). I didn’t tweet about the price error, still uncorrected at this writing.

At that level, who’s counting?

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