Seeing the Value in Art
Fig. 44 Sylvie Fleury, Serie ELA 75/K (Plumpity . . . Plump), 2000. Gold-plated shopping cart, plexiglas handle with vinyl text, rotating pedestal (mirror, aluminum, motor). 32 3/4 37 3/4 215/8 in. Pedestal 121/4 393/8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zürich, Switzerland.
t the end of Chapter 2, we briefly mentioned the explosive career of JeanMichel Basquiat after a number of his graffiti-like paintings were exhibited in the 1981 New York/New Wave exhibit at P. S. 1, an alternative art gallery across the 59th Street Bridge from Manhattan. Henry Geldzahler, then Cultural Commissioner for New York City, saw his paintings at P. S. 1 and “just flipped out.” Alauna Heiss, founder of P. S. 1, recalls “standing in front of Jean-Michel’s work with a director of Philip Morris. We were paralyzed. It was so obvious that he was enormously talented.” By 1982, Basquiat was earning an average of about $4,000 a week by painting. Two years later, at age 24, he became the first black artist to grace the cover of
The New York Times Magazine. At the time of his death, four months before his 28th birthday, the victim, according to the medical examiner’s report, of “acute mixed drug intoxication (opiates–cocaine),” his paintings were selling for about $30,000 each (normally a dealer keeps 50 to 60 percent of the sale price). Soon after his death, the auction house Christie’s sold a 1981 canvas for $110,000. Now, 20 years since his death, the current auction record for a Basquiat is $14.6 million for Untitled, a painting featuring a figure with large hands. It sold at Sotheby’s in 2007. As an obituary ironically entitled “Banking on Basquiat,” put it, “There’s no artist like a dead artist, some dealers are fond of saying.”
A World of Art, Sixth Edition, by Henry M. Sayre. Published by Prentice Hall. Copyright © 2010 by Pearson Education, Inc.
Fig. 45 Installation view of Giorgio Armani exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October, 20, 2000–January, 17, 2001. Photo: Ellen Labenski © SRGF, NY.
If these numbers seem staggering, it is worth remembering that the monetary value of works of art is closely tied to the business of art, and, from a business point of view, art works are commodities to be bought and sold like any others, ideally for profit. Sylvie Fleury’s Serie ELA 75/K (Plumpity . . . Plump) (Fig. 44) is a wry commentary on this fact. Here the art work is literally a shopping cart, placed on a revolving pedestal and plated in 24K gold. Art, Fleury’s work implies, is literally shopping. And very high-end shopping, at that. The art market depends on the participation of wealthy clients through their investment, ownership, and patronage. It is no accident, then, that the major financial centers of the world also support the most prestigious art galleries, auction houses, and museums of modern and contemporary art. Art galleries bring artists and collectors together. They usually sign exclusive contracts with artists whose works they believe they can sell. Collectors may purchase work as an investment but, because the value of a given work depends largely
upon the artist’s reputation, and artists’ reputations are finicky at best, the practice is very risky. As a result, what motivates most collectors is the pleasure of owning art and the prestige it confers upon them (the latter is especially important to corporate collectors). It is at auction that the monetary value of works of art is most clearly established. But auction houses are, after all, publicly owned corporations legally obligated to maximize their profits, and prices at auction are often inflated. The business of art informs the practices of museums as well, which market their exhibitions as “events” in every way comparable to a rock concert or major motion picture. In fact, in order to finance their work, museums have...