Saturday, October 29, 2011

Art and money

It has occurred to every one of us, the idea that stratospheric prices turn art into money, nothing more and nothing less. This idea certainly simplifies things. It even seems to explain things. But what, exactly, does it explain? I mean, if art is money, why pay money for it? Trying to salvage the idea that art is money, you might say, well, people pay cash for more abstract kinds of money--shares of stock, options, futures, securitized mortgages. . . so maybe at the high end of the market artworks are financial instruments of some sort. Or, at the very least, vehicles for investment, and of course some collectors--or, shall we say, buyers--do use art that way. Buy low, sell high.  In other words, art is not money, it's a commodity, if you use it to make a profit.
But even the shrewdest art investor is not in it merely for the money.  Because a work of art is never merely a commodity, right?. It has a value you can't quantify. It is priceless. So, whatever you pay for it, you've gotten a bargain--and often it feels that, the more you pay, the better the bargain. An outrageously high price pays homage to pricelessness.   By paying too much you signal  your devotion to transcendent greatness. And what does transcendent greatness transcend? Mere money. So the transcendently great work of art--or the work of art so pricey that it simply must be great--functions as a sort of money laundering machine, but better, for it doesn't simply render your money clean. It lofts your money to a place far above the market, a heaven of socio-cultural prestige where considerations of price are lost in the glow of art-historical significance. So, no, art is not money, not even at the high end of the market in the hottest of boom times. Art is an investment vehicle that pays off with the blessings of history.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Richard Prince on the Paintings of Bob Dylan

Richard Prince’s remarks about the paintings of Bob Dylan recently appeared in a blog published by The New York Review of Books, of all places. This is the staid literary/political mag that used to run simple-minded attacks on Andy Warhol by Robert Hughes, the blunderbuss from Down Under. Did I say simple-minded? Simple-mindedly vicious is more like it. It was as if the world could be made safe for middle-brow solemnity if only The New York Review of Books was snotty enough about Warhol. And now they’re showcasing the faux-hip ramblings of Richard Prince, one of the many faux-Warhols who sprouted like mushrooms in the darkness that came over the New York art world in the 1980s. Did I say faux-Warhol? Sub-Warhol would be more like it. Prince performs as many of Warhol’s tricks as he can manage. The trouble is that he considers them tricks. That is because he is too mediocre in mind and spirit to understand Warhol’s gambits as the subtle plays of irony that they were. Am I being vicious? Yes, Your Honor. Guilty as charged. But I would argue in extenuation that I am not being simple-mindedly vicious, as you will see if you work out the distinction I have made, between Warhol’s still-surprising brilliance and Prince’s rule-bound predictability..
Prince’s remarks, which appear in the catalog of Dylan’s recent show at Gagosian, are online at
In any case, Bob Dylan’s paintings are not bad. He can’t draw but, then, who can? His brushwork is earnest and scratchy. His colors are glum. His compositions, his handling of depth—it’s all respectable but dull. He takes his subjects from daily life in the Far East and presents them from the outside—a slide show of the exotic. So this is the picturesque in a down mood. For a look at Dylan’s paintings, see the Gagosian website. This was not an especially interesting show. What’s interesting is the light it shines on the notion of value in art..
In recent years, Gagosian has offered exhibitions of work by artists most people would consider major: Picasso, de Kooning, Lichtenstein. He also shows such mediocrities as Richard Prince and John Currin. You see disparities like this at all the powerhouse galleries—Pace, Zwirner, and so on. The usual understanding is that the lousy artists gain some luster from their proximity to great artists. And indeed they do. Thus you hear people saying, well, Currin is no Picasso but Gagosian shows them both, so maybe Currin is better than I think he is. After all, Gagosian is very bright and he’s supporting Currin so it’s possible, I guess, that Currin is really great and I just can’t see it. Anyway, shows at Gagosian are big events, so why not just drop by, check it out, suspend judgment . . . at least I won’t be swimming against any powerful art-world currents . . . .
Understood this way, the proximity of bad artists to great ones in major galleries is a problem of aesthetic value: the bad artists tend to be overestimated. But Bob Dylan’s appearance on the Gagosian roster shows that the problem is far worse than that. At the art world’s upper levels, aesthetic value is no longer at stake. What counts is the strength of the brand. Dylan’s is very strong. Arguably, it is stronger than Picasso’s. That is what got him into the Gagosian Gallery. And what earned de Kooning’s paintings a place on Gagosian’s walls? De Kooning’s splendid brushwork? No, the strength of the de Kooning brand. This artist’s greatness as a painter is beside the point. Likewise, Currin’s badness is beside the point. Richard Prince’s sheer cheesiness is beside the point. The point is that Richard Prince, like John Currin, is a brand. Their brands are not as big as Dylan’s or de Kooning’s but they’re big enough to be profitable for Gagosian. That’s why he shows them. Aesthetic value has nothing to do with it.

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