Friday, February 12, 2010

About the Price of Art

Puzzled by the sale of Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man for one hundred and four million dollars, I read all the NYTimes articles I could find. What I can’t get a grip on is what this kind of money has to do with the sculpture. Does the new owner really like it? Is that why he bought it? The previous owner was a bank, which I imagine saw the sculpture as a good investment. Damn right. I know enough about the creative process to be sure that Giacometti wasn’t thinking about the price this work would bring while he was working on it — even though it was a commission for a public venue. I know an honest piece of work when I see it.

This caught my attention: “Money is ready to flow as never before. But the ups and downs of the bidding pattern, not clearly connected with the intrinsic merit of the works being offered, indicate that the market remains haphazard…” Another Times article noted that some of the works that sell for these huge amounts are not the artists’ best work: “A steep £4.4 million was paid for Matisse’s picture of a woman asleep on a couch done around 1917. The rendition of the reclining figure is not immune from clumsiness and the maroon band spreading across most of the wall above the woman is unfortunate. The sketch in Conté crayon of a seated boy by Seurat shot up to £1.94 million despite the confused interpretation of the figure. Oddly, a deeply poetic sketch by the same Seurat, was unsold as the hammer fell at £220,000. One of Max Liebermann’s finer landscapes, painted in 1919, merely matched the low estimate at £241,250.”

In my world artists are advised to set their prices by some combination of the following procedures: knowing their costs and determining an hourly wage, (“This is your retail price. At this price you will have covered production costs plus an hourly wage for yourself. Since most galleries or representatives take a 50 percent commission you will not lose money if you sell through a gallery.”). These typical instructions go on to suggest pricing by the square inch and comparison pricing (“Check out local galleries and note what sells at what price.”). And finally: “Leave emotions out of it.”

There’s marketing art, which is what my artist friends and I do, and then there’s the art market. Not quite the same. It is hard to put it all together into a coherent picture. Some years ago I saw a show of Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was a huge show, took twelve years to orchestrate, and it was amazingly beautiful. There was everything: paintings, mosaics, fabrics, lamps, and artifacts of every description. I spent the better part of three days wandering through and could discern the intent and focus given to each of the items displayed. It all looked like the makers had to have been totally delivered unto constructing the object. They were also, I suspect and hope, making an honest day's wages.

The Times ArtBeat blog about the sale provoked all kinds of responses. Some raged abut the fact that this money was not being spent to help those who live in poverty. Some lamented that it was not a museum purchase. Still others thought the sculpture unworthy at any price.  This was my favorite: “If you gave me $104 Million, I'd stand in your house while you looked at me. I'd come to work daily, and I'd even dust myself off.”

The image above is Spinney, 2009,  50 x 38" Acrylic & Mixed Media Collage on Etching Paper. For information about any of the paintings seen on this site please email Joan

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