19 May 2017*
When the world of art collectors creates a price of $110 million for a Basquiat painting, something he’d just as soon have painted on a broken wall, it deforms the meaning of what a painter does, why he does it, how he does it. (Or she, yes, but not in this case; and indeed are any of the $50+ million painters women?**) In the end the underlying, unconscious impulse is to subdue art, to disempower it, to turn Aphrodite into a gaudy hooker. I’m sure the collectors believe they love art but what they love are themselves owning art, and their money alters everyone’s relationship to art, in the largest sense of that word. Thus you go to the Metropolitan Museum, already something of a robber baron mausoleum, and wander in the modern painting sections, from one room to the next, each named after some thuggish billionaire and his wife, truly awful humans: it poisons you to see their names and to some detectable degree it poisons for you every work in the space. Art has always had rich patrons, yes; and the artists that the rich patrons chose to support delivered not merely artistic talent but social cachet. The ones that didn’t have that cachet to deliver tended to suffer, underfed and under recognized — in this context I think of Andrea del Sarto, in Browning’s poem of that name, whence comes the line, ‘less is more’. Less is never more for these guys, only more is more. Rich patronage is one thing; one hundred million dollars is something else altogether, enough money that the earnings on it as an investment alone could feed the poor of a small country for years and years, theoretically forever. Basquiat sold the painting in ’84 for $19,000; that’s rich patronage. One hundred million is an assault. Satan comes to a fasting, delirious Jesus, takes him to a mountaintop and shows him the glories and riches of the world, sweetness, comfort and beauty: all this is yours, Satan says, if you but bow down and worship me. Would Basquiat bow? Would Van Gogh? Cezanne? (Picasso, you never know: he might just do it for the laugh.) Of course it doesn’t take long to figure out what Satan does when you bend over. The NY Times reports today that Basquiat’s price “perhaps poignantly” exceeds the highest price paid for an Andy Warhol’s work (only $105 million don’t you know) . Poignant my ass. I think of Basquiat, whose work I loved when I began seeing it on those broken walls downtown, and I think of the kind of angry drive to express, in terms native to the downtown New York City streets of the late 70s and early 80s, expressions that even in their anger frequently evoked certain deep traditions, particularly of classical sub-Saharan African art — the masks, the heads, warding off evil while depicting it. The Japanese billionaire who bragged out his buy, on Instagram, minutes after completing it, plans to house the painting in a museum he’s building for his collection, in Chiba. He should call the place Ozymandias House.**
*The painting shown here is “Dustheads”, 1982. It is not the untitled head that brought $110 million last night. I couldn’t bear to add to its newly-acquired, falsely iconic status by reproducing it here but you can find it all over the ‘net. Indeed, currently, if you google “Basquiat”, that’s what shows in the images. The photograph of the two figures are from Malawi, this century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo by moi.
**Answer: no. Not by a long shot. As you’d expect. Since the whole enterprise is about commodity and not art, of course the men are worth ten times more. See https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-highest-price-ever-paid-for-a-work-of-art-by-a-woman-artist . As of 2013, says that site, it was Berthe Morisot’s Aprés le déjeuner, 1881, which at $10.9 million was top among women painters, followed by Natalia Goncharova (Les fleurs, 1912). Louise Bourgeois was very close to Morisot, also over $10 million, but for a large iron sculpture. I’d pay a lot more for the huge spider than for the picture of the window and flowerbox and l’ingénue insipide digesting her café au lait et croissant avec confiture de fraise, but that’s just me.
***Just for fun, the Shelly poem, thanks to the Poetry Foundation website: