The other day in New York City, Christie's, the famous auction house set a new record: 71 million dollars for an Andy Warhol painting. It seems that every few months, Christie's or Sotheby's or some other auction house around the world gleefully announces a new record price paid for a painting, while those that happen upon the story in the news shake their heads in wonder at how a piece of art could possibly be worth so much. Well, the reality is that they're not. Let's call these high-class art auctions what they are, which is nothing but a glorified excuse that rich people have concocted to publicly enhance their status and declare how much money they have to the world. (Regarding the bank accounts of the super rich, size does matter.) After all, after one of these phenomenal bids is accepted doesn't the audience burst into applause? And it's not for the painting, it's for the money, that one person can so boldly, so publicly pay 71 million dollars for a work of art! What an art lover! What a patron of the arts! What BULLSHIT! It's a sham and for God's sake it's not about art. If it were then Joe Blow's painting (which is much better than Andy Warhol's) could conceivably get as much or even more at Christie's. But here's the rub: since Joe Blow is working as a waiter at a cafe on Mott Street and can barely get his stuff in a gallery he's not on the rich people's radar. How does one get on the radar, you ask? Well, they must first do two things: 1. Become Famous 2. Become Rich. You see, the rich only regard fellow members of the club. Art is decidedly not the point, unless it is by some famous dead guy, and then they arbitrarily agree to elevate his work in the public consciousness by paying ridiculous sums at auction. And this is done for two reasons. The first is that if they paid 70 million, this means that two years down the road someone else might pay 100 million! ($30 million profit!) For the rich, EVERYTHING is looked at for its investment potential, and this is especially true in the world of high price art where what they're really buying is the artist's "name". The second reason is perhaps the more despicable of the two: that by paying 70 million dollars at auction for a painting, the rich person reclaims the virility they never had in the first place and which they compensated for all these years by becoming extremely rich. For them, to publicly flaunt the size of their bank account-cum-penis is their summum bonum. And this brings us back to Joe Blow (the truly great and inspired artist living a life of obscurity making ends meet as a part-time waiter in the Village). There's no cachet to supporting such a nobody--no investment value, no Viagra-like boner from putting his work on the wall (unless like Basquiat, the arbitrary forces conspire to make him a viable investment opportunity), but for every Basquiat there are tens of thousands relegated to anonymity. (And besides, look what happened to Basquiat!) Which brings me to my final point. Who actually makes the money at these art auctions besides the auction house itself? A recent event at Sotheby's netted $91 million for a Klimt painting, however the heirs of the Klimt estate received not a penny. It turns out that a rich person bought the painting from Gustave himself for a song back in the day, and now the heirs of this rich person, not the heirs of Klimt, made the 91 million. What else is new? The rich get richer, the artists get by as best they can.
(reprinted from SAMIZDAT June/July 2007)