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Monday, July 18, 2011

Is art a Ponzi scheme?

Earlier today, I ran into an interview with neo-Marxist David Harvey, who offered this interesting paragraph:
There was a long-term process in which the rich looked for reasonably high rates of return and began to invest in a whole series of Ponzi schemes - but without Bernard Madoff at the top. In the property market, stock market, art market and derivatives markets, the more people that invest, the more prices go up, which leads to even more people investing. All of those markets have a Ponzi character to them.
This observation reminded me of a recent BBC documentary titled "The World's Most Expensive Paintings." Most of the paintings on this list were produced fairly recently -- and a number of them, to be frank, aren't all that good.

Mine is a subjective (albeit educated) opinion, of course. And that's the point. All of this money is being poured into an area where few objective standards of value hold.

The people investing in modern art are (not to put too fine a point on it) the pigs of the planet, and the piggiest of all may be the Russian oligarchs. The works they are buying may one day be reconsidered. The ultra-affluent invest in names, not in paintings. There is an inescapable element of the faddish -- and the snobbish -- at play here.

I fail to see what either faddishness or snobbery has to do with art. Art is supposed to be about beauty and truth, isn't it?

Here are the most expensive paintings in the world (as per the BBC; Wikipedia lists other works). Conclude for yourself whether the spirit of Ponzi motivated these evaluations. I present the works in no particular order.



Someone paid $72.8 million for Mark Rothko's "White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)." I'm not a big Rothko fan. Even by Rothko standards, this one seems like a failed experiment.




"Le Rêve" By Picasso. "Oh my God! The face is actually a profile with a PENIS attached! That must be the cleverest thing in the entire history of art!" All kidding aside, I really like this painting. But I'm not sure it's worth $139 million, which is what Steve Wynn was asking for it before he knocked a hole in the thing with his elbow.




Another Picasso: "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust." $106 million. I'm conflicted about the value of this work. In art school, one of the first things they teach you is not to have a strong horizontal at or very near the middle of the canvas. The moment the professor tells you this, you'll notice that great artists break this so-called "rule" all the freaking time.

I'm not sure that this was one of the times when breakage was justified.

We are supposed to be very impressed the Picasso put big black Ps all over the body of his mistress, as if stamping his ownership. That has kind of a BDSM feel, dunnit?




Monet's "Le Bassin aux Nymphéas." An excellent painting, although there are any number of Monets I like better. This one cost $80.5 million.




Picasso's "Boy With a Pipe." $104 million was spent on a work that is just...meh. The face is well-executed, if you don't mind the Alfred E. Neuman-ish mis-matched eyes. The arms are sloppily drawn. The composition seems "off" (and not in a good way). The flowers in the background are just ugly.

Hey, don't take my word for it:
Picasso expert Pepe Karmel, reached in New York the morning after the sale, was waxing wroth about the whole affair. "I'm stunned," he said, "that a pleasant, minor painting could command a price appropriate to a real masterwork by Picasso. This just shows how much the marketplace is divorced from the true values of art."



Francis Bacon's 1976 "Triptych." $86.3 million. I love Bacon, but paying this much of one of his works is kind of obscene. Then again, Bacon is always kind of obscene.

This piece was purchased by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. His Wikipedia page is here; you may be particularly interested in the "Alleged crimes and wrongdoing" section.
It is also alleged that, at one time, then Russian president Boris Yeltsin himself provided Abramovich with protection from prosecution for various criminal activities ranging from stealing diesel fuel to illegally acquiring Sibneft at a staged contest. The Times said that Abramovich "famously emerged triumphant after the “aluminium wars”, in which more than 100 people are believed to have been killed in gangland feuds over control of the lucrative smelters.
In 2008, The Times reported that Abramovich admitted that he, along with close associate and partner, oil titan, Constantine Alexander-Goulandris, paid billions of dollars for political favours and protection fees to obtain a big share of Russia's oil and aluminium assets as was shown by court papers The Times obtained.
I love this guy! Now, if he had spent this kind of money on a Monet, I might get pissed off. But a Bacon? That seems right. It's very satisfying to visualize Abramovich working out his latest Machiavellian scheme while those writhing, agonized Baconian figures silently scream overhead.




"Bal du moulin de la Galette" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. A great work purchased by nutty Japanese megamillionaire Ryoei Saito for $78.1 million. It is said that Saito had this painting and a major Van Gogh (see below) destroyed at the time of his death in 1996 -- just to prove he could do it, you know?

It is also said that he sold it to an unnamed Swiss collector. At any rate, Renoir painted another version of this scene, which still hangs in the Musée d'Orsay. When the Ayn Randroids rule the world, that socialist institution will be forced to sell the work to another collector who will also destroy it if he wants to because doing so is his right goddammit something something John Galt something something Atlas Shrugged.




"Massacre of the Innocents" by Peter Paul Rubens. The reproduction does not do it justice. $117 million. Worth it. Good God, what a painting!




"Portrait of Dr. Gachet" by If You Can't Guess You're an Idiot. This is the other picture purchased by Saito for $82.5 million. Allegedly destroyed on the occasion of Saito's death. Other sources say it was sold to Austrian investment fund manager Wolfgang Flöttl. Flöttl's firm is called Ross Capital, and you should read what Wikipedia has to say about that.




"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II" by Gustav Klimt. $87.9 million. I love Klimt, but this painting is just ugly. When I saw it exhibited in Los Angeles near the other Portrait of Adele (the one that everyone likes), no-one could look at this garishly mis-colored thing for very long.

The better painting is said to have sold for $135 million. The BBC did not include that work on its list because they could not verify the price. The first painting (the one in gold) has been called a new Mona Lisa, which really is going much too far. But it is nevertheless a fine, fine work.




Picasso's "Dora Maar au Chat," which I like, was purchased for $95.2 million by Boris Ivanishvili.
The source of his wealth is metals and banking. Forbes's description of the secret of his success could apply to dozens of other oligarchs. "He bought firms that nobody needed for tens of millions of dollars and sold them for billions of dollars."
You may also want to check out the bio on the Russian mafia site.

* * *

So again, the question arises: Has art become a Ponzi scheme?

Two other questions: How many hungry people could have eaten if this money had been spent on jobs creation? And how many artists who have taken the time to master realistic figure drawing will die unrecognized?
Comments:
I haven't researched the graphs, but the last time I remember that art asset prices were skyrocketing (in part due to purchases by banks, including Japanese ones) was during the financial boom of the 1980s.

It's not as crazy as it sounds to draw a parallel between now and then.

To judge by how many entreaties to buy financial 'products' (insurance and loans) the average person in the UK is subjected to every day, the gap between the power of finance capital and the power of industrial capital seems to be accelerating. The financial sector hasn't 'crashed' at all. It's on the loose and looting (and polluting) every fucking thing that moves.

A big crash this October, anyone?

A few years ago I worked out why the prices of rich bastards' houses in the UK have continuously increased, through thick and thin, with regard to the prices of other people's houses. It's simple: just consider that the rich get richer relative to the poor pretty much the whole time, boom or bust, and then apply the usual considerations of supply and demand.

But never mind the rich bastards' houses for the moment. I still don't think it's sunk in to the heads of many people in the UK that soaring absolute house prices for the majority of the population are wholly due to the huge increase in personal debt. This is in a country where most people are 'owner occupiers', albeit indebted up to their eyeballs, the 'owners' of houses they've offered up as collateral for loans worth several years of their salaries.

A 'mortgage' - a block that a creditor puts on the title to a house to stop the formal 'owner' from selling it without paying him off - is generally viewed as something the bank 'gives' you.

And it's seen as 'wise' to 'get' the biggest mortgage you can. To a much greater extent than in nearby places such as France, Germany, and Scandinavia.

And yet...and yet...I still overhear conversations in which people say things like, "They (i.e. on the telly) say things are going to get better and house prices are going to go up again."

Since 2008 it's become OK to criticise 'the banks' in a very mild and 'acceptable' way. Ooh, don't they give themselves big bonuses! Ooh, isn't the City like a casino! Ooh, isn't my criticism with it!

Interestingly the insurance 'industry' has come in for hardly any flak at all. What an excellent illustration of how even 'social criticism' is under such tight and successful control. Some issues just aren't fashionable. Others are OK. Just so long as people don't ask their own questions and try to find the answers.

But go to any supermarket or look on your doormat in the UK, and you'll see just as many adverts for insurance scams as for ones involving credit arrangements.

Few realise the extent of the shit that's going down.

Within a few years, I think in many parts of the 'advanced' west the most important consideration in most people's lives will be...where to get food.
 
I'm not sure the horizontal in the second Picasso is that big a problem. The head, bust and leaves are all pretty much on the rule-of-threee intersections and make a strong enough visual statement that the horizontal division is backgrounded.

I broke the same rule last week. Sometimes you just gotta.

okasha
 
Those exorbitant sales do not prove that art is a ponzi scheme. They only prove that capitalism destroys everything it touches. Is there any doubt of this?
 
any thing with the word " Dealer" after it is a scam
art dealer
arms dealer
drug dealer
card dealer
 
How many hungry people could have eaten if this money had been spent on jobs creation?

Fair point. But at least buying art is not destructive of the environment like hording gold (pushing up value of gold, meaning more gold mines).
 
What! No Dali?
 
Interesting post! With the exception of the Rothko rubbish (first pic) all of these are memorable on some level - but those prices are truly obscene.

It probably doesn't apply to any of the artists featured, but so many artists - painters, and musicians & writers died in poverty back in the day. Now, in some cases their work commands prices almost as high as those featured. Which simply adds to the obscenity of it all.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
I wanted to point out three things about this post (as Jospeh and I watched this documentary together, and had a lot to say about it afterward):

A) One of my favorite quotes is, "Contemporary art starts with 'contempt' for a reason."

B) I've coined a new -ism for the sheeple...Fraudism. The term is used to describe the contemporary art market and profiteers like Damien Hirst. (Sorry, I just cannot call him an artist.)

C) One of my favorite professors was one of the Rubens experts who helped to authenticate the "Massacre of the Innocents." It was a phenomenal class and he was a phenomenal professor (with one of the best French accents EVER!)

Ms. Vandal.
 
I wanted to point out three things about this post (as Joseph and I watched this documentary together, and had a lot to say about it afterward):

A) One of my favorite quotes is, "Contemporary art starts with 'contempt' for a reason."

B) I've coined a new -ism for the sheeple...Fraudism. The term is used to describe the contemporary art market and profiteers like Damien Hirst. (Sorry, I just cannot call him an artist.)

C) One of my favorite professors was one of the Rubens experts who helped to authenticate the "Massacre of the Innocents." It was a phenomenal class and he was a phenomenal professor (with one of the best French accents EVER!)

Ms. Vandal.
 
On a somewhat related note, I have been reading "American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century" by Kevin Phillips. I abandoned it two chapters in a couple of years or more ago, but current events have, unfortunately, turned it from tedious to gripping. Nothing good comes of concentrating vast wealth in the hands of just a few people, not even, ultimately, for the obscenely wealthy.
 
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