Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Modern Art: Fool's Gold

First you laugh. Or make a face of incredulity. You shake your head in wonder about the mental health of anyone who would pay nearly $143 million for "doodle art" that looks water-damaged, or perhaps was done DUI – drawing under the influence of alcohol.

Carol Vogel in the New York Times reported on November 12th  on the above "art," "Bacon's Study of Freud Sells for $142.4 Million," and that
For at least 10 minutes Christie's overflowing salesroom watched in rapt attention as a 1969 triptych by Francis Bacon [no, not the Elizabethan philosopher, statesman and scientist] sold for $142.4 million, described as the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction. (This was the original opening of the New York Times article; the article was later revised.)
It took seven superrich bidders to propel a 1969 Francis Bacon triptych to $142.4 million at Christie’s on Tuesday night, making it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. William Acquavella, the New York dealer, is thought to have bought the painting on behalf of an unidentified client, from one of Christie’s skyboxes overlooking the auction.
The price surpassed the nearly $120 million paid at Sotheby's in…2012 for Edvard Munch's fabled pastel of "The Scream," even after adjusting for inflation. It also topped the previous high sale for the artist at auction set in Sotheby's in 2008, just as the art market was peaking, when Sotheby's sold a 1976 Bacon triptych to the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich for $86 million.
Seven bidders vied for the painting – "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" – that depicts Bacon's friend and rival, Lucian Freud [yes, appropriately enough, a grandson of Sigmund Freud] , sitting on a wooden chair against an orange background. It ended up selling for $142,405,000. [Final prices include the commission paid to Christie's, Sotheby's and other "glamour" auction houses, including percentages ranging from 20 to 12 percent.] Italics and brackets mine.
The question is: Did Bacon (1909-1992) not much like his "friend" Lucian Freud that he mangled his face? What is the purpose of the rhomboid box? Is there something wrong with the purchaser? Does he really "appreciate" it? Has he nothing more productive to do with his money than throwing it at rubbish? Or is this his way of investing in insanity, of betting on nihilism, of gambling on the irrational, hoping the market for it will increase its value in the future?
It is difficult to answer any of those questions. While the irrational and the illogical can be examined, only the living, breathing vehicles of the irrational and illogical can answer, be they the "artists" or the tasteless, status-seeking parvenus.  The market for the irrational in art has certainly kept in pace with inflation and the irrational in political trends.
Lucian Freud (1922-2011) was a "friend and rival' of Francis Bacon. How so? Here are examples of Freud's work.
And this revolting "realism":
You can readily see why Freud was a "rival" of Bacon's: He believed in painting subjects as he "really saw them," as opposed to Bacon's anti-epistemological exercises in madness. However, the question is: Would you really want to contemplate the sleeping supervisor? Is this really a proper object of artistic recreation? Would you want this hanging on your wall? Would you want anyone to know that you own it, or that this is your conception of "good" art?
Further, all Freud's self-portraits (the one above is only one of many) seem to suggest that he was poisoned with the same kind of dioxin that was fed to Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 in an assassination attempt. Sadly, Yushchenko  may have to appear in public as part of his job, but I very much doubt he would want his scarred face rendered into an iconic symbol.
Some of Freud's work is, at best, inoffensive, of the caliber of pretentious mediocrity and amateurishness one can see in the typical town art fair, right next to a booth that sells hand-crafted jewelry and other junk. Bacon's work, however, is evocative of Brad Pitt's stellar spiel as the nattering psychiatric inmate in Twelve Monkeys (1995). But most of it is what I would call "grunge" or "kitchen sink" naturalism. Freud's work can be characterized as the image of a manic depressive.
 Carol Vogel also reported in the revised Times article:
When the bidding … finally stopped, after more than 10 fraught minutes, the overflowing crowd in the salesroom burst into applause. Two disappointed bidders could be seen leaving the room. “I went to $101 million but it hardly mattered,” said Larry Gagosian, the super-dealer who was trying to buy the painting on behalf of a client. Another contender was Hong Gyu Shin, the director of the Shin Gallery on Grand Street in Manhattan, who said he was bidding for himself.
These haute art auctions are also social events.
The sale was also a place to see and be seen. Christie’s Rockefeller Center salesroom was standing room only, with collectors including Michael Ovitz, the Los Angeles talent agent; Aby Rosen, the New York real estate developer; Martin Margulies, from Miami; Donald B. Marron, the New York financier; and Daniel S. Loeb, the activist investor and hedge fund manager.
All birds of a feather yearning after fool's gold. Jason and the Argonauts at least searched for Phrixus's Golden Fleece. No matter what price is paid for any of Bacon's work, the purchaser is being fleeced of a fortune. His artistic values, his money, and his "prestige" are all "owned" by the fraudsters in art and in the art "marketing" realms, from gallery owners to auctioneers.
Vogel reported in her May 2012 New York Times article, that the salesroom crowd also applauded the sale of Munch's "The Scream":
It took 12 nail-biting minutes and five eager bidders for Edvard Munch’s famed 1895 pastel of “The Scream” to sell for $119.9 million, becoming the world’s most expensive work of art ever to sell at auction.
Bidders could be heard speaking Chinese and English (and, some said, Norwegian), but the mystery winner bid over the phone, through Charles Moffett, Sotheby’s executive vice president and vice chairman of its worldwide Impressionist, modern and contemporary art department. Gasps could be heard as the bidding climbed higher and higher, until there was a pause at $99 million, prompting Tobias Meyer, the evening’s auctioneer, to smile and say, “I have all the time in the world.” When $100 million was bid, the audience began to applaud.
The price eclipsed the previous record, made two years ago at Christie’s in New York when Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” brought $106.5 million.
Fools and their money are soon parted. Shall we scream? Or laugh?
Vogel mentioned the price paid for one of four renderings of Munch's "The Scream":
There are several explanations for Munch's symbolic cry of angst, pain, and hopelessness. Munch himself wrote:
"One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream."
Slate offers another tale, one appropriate to the subject:
Alternatively, it has been suggested that the proximity of both a slaughterhouse and a lunatic asylum to the site depicted in the painting may have offered some inspiration.
Ayn Rand, the novelist/philosopher, wrote in her article, "Art and Cognition":
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.1.
About Modern Art, she had this to say:
As a re-creation of reality, a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.2.
What are the tell-tale symptoms of those who create Modern Art and those who "consume" it?
Decomposition is the postscript to the death of a human body; disintegration is the preface to the death of a human mind. Disintegration is the keynote and goal of modern art—the disintegration of man’s conceptual faculty, and the retrogression of an adult mind to the state of a mewling infant….
To reduce man’s consciousness to the level of sensations, with no capacity to integrate them, is the intention behind the reducing of language to grunts, of literature to “moods,” of painting to smears, of sculpture to slabs, of music to noise.3.
Rand ended her article with:
There is no place for whim in any human activity—if it is to be regarded as human. There is no place for the unknowable, the unintelligible, the undefinable, the non-objective in any human product. This side of an insane asylum, the actions of a human being are motivated by a conscious purpose; when they are not, they are of no interest to anyone outside a psychotherapist’s office. And when the practitioners of modern art declare that they don’t know what they are doing or what makes them do it, we should take their word for it and give them no further consideration.4.
Which we will not give them here. I think the point has been made.
What is an antidote to the irrational and illogical in art? I can offer many examples, very, very few from my own lifetime, and many before it, but one comes to mind almost immediately:
Malika Bouabdellah Dorbani, who wrote the Louvre article on the painting, summarized the meaning of Delacroix's work and also the transition from this caliber of art to the decomposition (or deconstruction) of art in the 20th century:
Delacroix's historical and political painting—a blend of document and symbol, actuality and fiction, reality and allegory—bears witness to the death throes of the Ancien Régime.
This realistic and innovative work, a symbol of Liberty and the pictorial revolution, was rejected by the critics, who were used to more classical representations of reality. Having hailed the accession of Louis-Philippe, the work was hidden from public view during the king's reign, and only entered the Musée du Luxembourg in 1863 and the Louvre in 1874. It is now perceived as a universal work—a representation of romantic and revolutionary fervor, heir to the historical painting of the 18th century and forerunner of Picasso's Guernica in the 20th.
It will take the same romantic and revolutionary fervor to ignite a renewal of the Romantic school of art, to see the works of artists whose pro-life and pro-existence metaphysical value-judgments are worth contemplating and worth the money, to see such work flourish and be rewarded with a justice that is completely absent in our time.
Then the works of the Bacons and Freuds will be consigned to the dust heap where they have always belonged.

1. "Art and Cognition," by Ayn Rand, in The Romantic Manifesto. New York: Signet/New American Library, 1971. p. 45.
2. Ibid, p. 75.
3. Ibid, pp. 76-77.
4. Ibid, p. 78-79


Edward Cline said...

Chris in Britain had this to say: "I saw that many years ago and marvelled at the sheer brassneck of anyone who could pass off his own ordure as a thing of value requiring talent to produce it. I love that Andersen story about the King's New Clothes and always call it to mind when I see anything remotely like this. This type of horse xxxt could not exist at all if it were not for a carefully engineered racket of dealers and critics in support of this circus. The dealers I can understand. They are simply making a market and do not in the main appear to be concerned with esoterics. I do however have a particular dislike of 'art critics'. I ve met one or two in my time and they (together with rock critics) amount to just about the most useless people on the planet. Essentially the Eunuchs of the arts, with no creativity of their own, they acting no doubt from an entrenched and almost ape like envy of the truly talented garner a living by putting down things of value and escalating the mundane in a way that the child in the Andersen story would giggle at. To me the fact that they so bare facedly lack and seem to despise even the most basic appreciation for ideas of form and originality makes them the people least qualified to pronnounce on such things. To me putting the word 'modern' in front of the word art is much like putting the word 'processed' in front of the word heese....however I do have a sneaking liking for some of Banksy's efforts.

Edward Cline said...

I might have included this piece of news in the column.

I could have also dwelt on Jackson Pollack, Picasso, and all their ilk, as well, including Warthol, but the subject was Francis Bacon. Some other time.

Edward Cline said...

In the column, I quote Rand: "To reduce man's consciousness to the level of sensations, with no capacity to integrate them, is the intention behind the reducing of language to grunts, literature to "moods," of painting to smears, of sculpture to slabs, of music to noise." And all that is the starting point of an infant's consciousness, which will normally progress to integrations of language, literature, painting, sculpture, and music – depending on an individual's willingness to think and integrate. So, in reference to the Warhol sale of a montage of pictures of a car fender I noted in a previous comment, what can you say about people who "appreciate" such a retrograde reduction of their consciousnesses to the infant level? For that is all they're doing: grasping the raw sense data of a car fender. Something like Delacroix's painting is beyond their perception.