What Has Art Become?

By Peter Campion

On the 20th July 2011 Lucien Freud, one of Britain’s most celebrated artists, died.  His work looked to see beyond the surface of a person and reveal their true nature, resulting in works that were praised as beautiful yet unsettling. He holds the record for the most expensive painting sold by a living artist, with his Benefits Supervisor Sleeping being sold for just under £21 million. Now that he has passed on the value of his work is undoubtedly going to soar and this leads to question, what has the art world become?
To me the world of art seems to have been tainted by the outrageous prices pieces are being sold for. Nowadays truly wonderful works of art are valued, it seems, not because of their excellence but because of the artist’s reputation or because of what is known in the art world as ‘provenance’; the ownership history of a piece of art.
The main degrading impact exuberant prices have on the art world is that the collectors who can afford these extravagantly priced pieces often treat them as status symbols,  just another luxury item and much like the latest sports car or piece of ostentatious jewellery they bought. They are not fully appreciated for the masterpieces they are as, if they were, the world’s most expensive paintings would be widely available for the world to see in galleries, and whilst there are those for which this is true, there are others that unforgivably are kept hidden. One of the most famous paintings in the world, Portrait of Dr Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, was sold to Ryoei Saito in 1990 for what was at the time the highest price ever paid for a painting, just under £51 million, leading to a standing ovation in the Sotheby’s auction room. Saito then withheld the piece from the public, at one point threatening to burn it rather than sell it on. It is believed to have been subsequently sold, however its current whereabouts are unknown. How is it that a piece of art so strongly recognised by the world has become lost to it, possibly never to be seen again? In the BBC documentary, ‘The world’s most expensive paintings’, the Sotheby’s auctioneer overseeing the sale of the Portrait of Dr Gachet, Christopher Burge, captured the tone of the modern day art world when he said, “my feeling was one of extreme distaste. They weren’t applauding art, they were applauding money”.
There are many factors that have contributed to the escalating price of art. Provenance has proved to play an important role, in many cases a piece of art with previous high status owners will sell for an inflated price. A prime example of this is Rothko’s White centre, which was sold for just under £45 million in 2007. Despite it typifying Rothko’s block colour style it is better known by many because of its previous owner: David Rockefeller. This association is to the extent that the piece is now often referred to as ‘The Rockefeller Rothko”- emphasising the power provenance has in the art world and demonstrating graphically how much more provenance is valued above genius.
The ridiculous prices of the modern art world have led to the definition of art being changed, where technique, beauty and daring have now taken a back seat to art’s new meanings: Luxury, status and greed. When in the future Freud’s paintings are sold for values near £100 million, would he have approved of that happening to his work? Destined to stay hidden from the eyes of the public would he have applauded like those at the selling of the Portrait of Dr Gachet? I think not.



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