Up until now I have resisted making fun of overpriced art because in the majority of the cases it’s not the author’s fault. Many of today’s bestselling artists had no clue their paintings were going to be worth shitloads of money.
It’s not because they were stupid. For example Edvard Munch was a very intelligent person. He was really good in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Just like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, he became a college dropout but he didn’t cancel his studies to start a company that would pursue world domination. He did it to become a painter.
For Edvard Munch art was a personal, intimate affair. “In my art”, he said, “I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.”
Whether he succeeded or not is a question only he can answer. But apart from that, art has another function – to provoke similar epiphanies in the public. That’s the tricky part because here the affair stops being personal and enters society’s playground. The possible outcomes can be generalized in three distinct major scenarios.
In the first scenario nobody pays attention and your artwork, regardless of its aesthetic or technical qualities, is simply ignored. This is what actually happens in the majority of the cases.
In the second scenario your artwork ends up in a museum as a part of a thematically organized collection. It fails to make an impact on its own but is nonetheless appreciated as part of something bigger.
In the third scenario your artwork becomes a culture icon.
This last one is supposed to be the epitome of success. But in fact, the opposite can be argued. Culture icons have the same function as street signs. They can help you navigate but not understand the society you’re in. They don’t transmit emotions, just directions. It doesn’t matter how well made they are, actually it’s a real shame when something artistically significant becomes an icon because it loses all its genuineness and relinquishes its meaningful artistic impact. As art critic Robert Hughes speculates in his wonderful documentary The Mona Lisa Curse – if someone back in the day told Leonardo that Mona Lisa would become the most famous artwork in the 20th Century, the poor Italian would have declared him mad.
I’m sure despite the enormous difference between the Renaissance artist and the father of Expressionism, Edvard Munch will react pretty much the same way to the news that The Scream, his best known painting, just made a record when it was sold for 120 million dollars.
As it usually happens, there are plenty of people who try to rationalize such an absurd event. In the article linked above, BBC News arts editor Will Gompertz pretends there is a reasonable explanation behind it:
The reason for the record-breaking auction price achieved by The Scream is a simple case of market economics in an age of global capitalism: demand for Grade A art far outstrips supply. In a world of jittery stock markets and double-dip recessions, top-end artworks have become a reliable and highly desirable investment for the world’s super-rich.
Putting the words “painting” and “reliable investment” in the same sentence is disturbing enough but linking them grammatically is – if we have to use Alan Greenspan’s terminology – pure irrational exuberance. One day, somehow, the art market bubble is going to blow and I would give 121 million dollars to be there.
It will tickle me just the right way.