A Picasso painting from his blue period is on sale for €35 million. Or maybe even €40 million. Or €50 million.
Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto (The Absinthe Drinker) , will go on sale shortly at Christies, who confidently expect to pocket commission on gigantic amounts of dosh, and all because the painter’s name is Pablo Picasso.
Will the picture fetch €50 million becuse of its exquisite, painterly execution? Well, perhaps, but there are a thousand painters who could do it just as well.
Do you remember the old John Sebastian song, Nashville Cats?
Well, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill
Yeah, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar cases in Nashville
And any one that unpacks his guitar could play twice as better than I will
Twice as better than I will.
That’s art for you, with a penniless twice-as-better painter standing behind every established name ready to jump in.
So what’s going on with sales of Picasso or Van Gogh or Caravaggio, or Pollock? Are they 30 million times as better than the penniless painter?
Don’t be ridiculous.
What’s a hollowed-out sheep worth, apart from the price to the butcher? Nothing.
What’s a pile of bricks worth? Well, it’s worth whatever you’d pay for a pile of bricks, or alternatively, £25,000 if you happen to be the Tate.
What exactly is the money value of a picture, or a sculpture or some other nebulous art-form? Does it have anything to do with art, or the quality of the artist, or is it more connected with what somebody thinks they can get for it if they sell it again?
What, for that matter, is the money value of anything?
I suppose some people would point out that the value of something is whatever a buyer is prepared to pay for it, and to that I would reply, horseshit!
Such thinking is what gave us a property bubble.
I think it was George Soros who said, price is what you pay, value is what you get.
It seems to me that I have no right to criticise anything a person produces in the name of Art, until they slap a price tag on it, and then I’m entirely at liberty to call it a heap of shite if I wish. And that’s when I’d happily call Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin chancers, while at the same time admiring them for getting away with it, by riding on the reality-distortion wave generated by spectacular bullshitters like Charles Saatchi.
That’s why I’d call the likes of Carl Andre a fraud for describing himself as a minimalist instead of admitting that he simply had no talent, while at the same time applauding him for getting money from a gallery like the Tate, which sees its role as chronicling contemporary art, no matter how shallow or debased.
Sometimes a great artist and a charlatan can produce apparently similar work on the face of it, but context and intent are everything.
I read a charming story on Ian Poulton’s website recently, about Moishe the Atheist, and I think it sums up pefectly for me the difference between great artists and charlatans. This is what Ian quoted:
“In the little Eastern European village of Chelm lived a young man, who considered himself an atheist. Chaim, the Chelmite had heard that the very famous “Moishe the Atheist” lived in the neighbouring village. Eager to find a like-minded soul to learn from, Chaim packed a bit of food in his kerchief, hung it on a stick, and made his way through the woods to find Moishe the Atheist and to study with him.
After a few days journey, and directions from a few helpful strangers, the young man found Moishe’s little cottage. He knocked on the door and received permission to enter. There was an old, bespectacled man hunched over the table, half-hidden behind a pile of books.
“Yes,” said the older man.
“I am looking for Moishe the Atheist,” said Chaim.
“I am Moishe,” said Moishe.
“Sir, I am an atheist too, and I would like to be your apprentice,” said the younger man.
Moishe slowly removed his glasses and peered at the stranger. “You are an atheist?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” replied Chaim.
“Have you read the Torah?” Moishe asked.
“No, sir,” said Chaim.
“Have you studied the Talmud?”
“No, sir,” said Chaim.
“Are you familiar with all our prayers and philosophies?” asked Moishe.
“No, sir!” said Chaim adamantly. “I am an atheist.”
“Ach,” said Moishe, waving the young man away dismissively. “You are not an atheist. You are only an ignoramus”
That, to me, says everything about art, and music and writing and philosophy and just about aany other creative pursuit you can think of.
It’s why Picasso and Van Gogh weren’t frauds, but it doesn’t explain why their work fetches such outlandish prices.
I think that can be explained by the greed of art dealers and critics, who most certainly are frauds. There’s little difference between the art market and the housing bubble, and sooner or later both are found out.