Saturday, July 01, 2006

Art at all costs: taking a moment to ponder the cost of art early in the 21st century. By Paul J. Thomas

Top selling artists such as Damien Hirst and their artwork are truly a wonder, and by ìwonderî I do not mean a wonder of quality or skill, but rather quite externally to that is their worth in the world. It is wonder, if not complete anomaly, in that at no previous time in human history could a person make so much money and gain so much notoriety out of so very little. By this I mean simply: a person, known professionally as an artist, takes some materials, assembles them and voila! The resulting painting can be sold for half a million dollars. Having been familiar with Hirst's work and reputation in the Art world for many years, the prices that his work sells for no longer shock me, although in reality they should. Damien Hurst is currently the world's top-selling artist according to, followed at a close second by German painter Gerhard Richter, and I wouldn't normally be alerted to the exuberant costs of art, but stepping back for a second and putting most all other notions aside I decided to actually do the numbers. A painting currently for sale at a London gallery for $500,000 depicted a real (dead, of course) butterfly adhered to the surface of a canvas painted blue with a black streak across it with a bit of sand mixed into the paint. After a bit or research into the materials used for the painting (paint, sand, canvas, butterfly) I came up with a potential material cost of $249. This means that the artist's name alone is worth 2,000 times the value of the materials, and therefore artwork, if anyone else had created the piece, a fascinating fact really and one to have only emerged within the last half (of not quarter) century, which brings us to the art market at hand; a market in which it is not uncommon that the two New York auction houses, Christies and Southebys, can sell enough artwork in one week to equal the entire annual GDP of a small third-world country. One could almost go so far as to ask: ìIs this even ethical? That the decadence of the west presents itself in such extremes?î Which it probably isn't, but that is beyond the scope of the argument.

However, it is nevertheless still a wonder that since the latter-half of the 20th Century such economic activity is possible, that such a spell has been cast on the populace to have us believe that $249 is really $500,000 or more. That artists can wave their magic wands over materials and suddenly make them near-priceless. Art superstars are a special variety of superstar, in that if you compare them to other types of stars the same rules do not necessarily apply. Let us take for example movie stars. Tom Cruise, one of the top-paid actors in Hollywood has now been booted from his studio, Paramount, due to his unusual behavior. The fact that they were able to claim that this behavior resulted in the loss of $100 million dollars in box-office ticket sales for Mission Impossible III. However, the fact that Cruise was in the film to begin with is what made it a worthwhile venture, and potentially profitable. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which an artist could lose as much face, particularly since their worth (or the worth of their work, shall we say) has slightly less to do with their public persona and how they are perceived. In this way,the artist might even be more closely related to the rockstar, whom the public almost expects to have an eccentric and unusual existence, however the way in which they choose to live rarely seems to affect record sales so long the music is appealing to a large enough buying public.

The stereotypical art museum experience, which I would imagine many people are familiar with; there you are in a museum looking up at a Pollock or a De Koonig, a really big mess of paint, and another museum-goer walks by huffing ìI could've done that!î BUT the thing is that he didn't do that, Hirst or Pollock or De Koonig DID and their mess is worth millions in today's art market, whereas the rest of us will just have to settle with our messes being worth exactly that of their material costs- or less.

I do need to credit ceas as this blog is a result of a conversation we have had. Her version will most likely appear on the Visual Codec site.
Google Book Search


Post a Comment

<< Home