Friday, March 27, 2015

Why a Painting is Now as Costly as a Jet-Plane

Pablo Picasso’s 1955 painting Women of Algiers (Version O), is being auctioned by Christie’s in London for US$140 million. This had me thinking as to why an object consisting of wood, canvas and oil paints, is evaluated – by the free-market – roughly to the same as a sizable company or even a 737 jet-plane

It does seem in direct contradiction to the image of artists as activists against convention – especially bourgeois capitalism. It might be a stereotype, but this was Picasso’s own politics

Impassive all the way to the bank.

Moreover, the vast majority of working artists today are politically left-wing. This doesn't prevent the most famous of them from selling their works for millions of dollars, usually to admen or investment bankers: the cream of the crop of modern capitalism. These are the only people who can afford to pay for today’s modern art.  

More basically, though, the artist is legitimized through participation in the marketplace. That is, a “real” artist is someone is able to sell her work – be it a painting, sculpture or mixed-media installation. It is then that she stops being an amateur or a dabbler, and is now legitimately a painter, sculptor or mixed-media artist. 

Aside from the Renaissance development of perspective techniques to simulate reality, a key innovation in Western art was to turn the painting into marketable commodity. 

Prior to the fifteenth century, paintings were created on varnished wood, a very expensive medium due to the lengthy preparation and drying required after application of paints. A byproduct of the voluminous Mediterranean trade of Renaissance times, canvas was readily available to artists in Venice and other seaports, as cheap waste material from the making of sails.  

Even so, wood-panels remained a central medium for painting for a couple of centuries after the introduction of canvas. Only later in the Italian renaissance, and especially when the visual arts blossomed in Holland during the seventeenth century, did the canvas become the standard form for painting. Not coincidentally, the Netherlands had by then assumed economic primacy over the Italian city-states, its commercial and naval fleets controlling most of the world’s shipping-lanes. Demand for sailing canvas only intensified, and with it the availability of rags for use in oil painting. 

Canvas was not only very cheap compared to all other media. It was easy to prepare, and quick to dry. In 100 Ideas That Changed Art, Michael Bird writes (p. 92) that 

In Northern Europe, where the climate made fresco a less suitable medium than in the warmer, drier atmosphere of Italy, artists used canvas for wall-hung paintings, sometimes as a cheaper alternative to tapestry. For the purposes of painting, cloth has to be stretched taut and sealed to prevent oil- or water-based paint from seeping into the fibers and depositing a dry, dull layer of pigment on the surface. It became standard practice to stretch canvases on a wooden frame and to coat them with diluted animal glue, or size, followed by a chalky ground to which paint was applied. Even the very largest paintings constructed in this way are portable and can be removed from their stretchers or frames and rolled for transportation and storage, making it possible for artists to produce work for distant patrons and locations. As Church and aristocratic patronage of wall paintings and altarpieces was superseded from the sixteenth century onward, especially in the Protestant North, by private portrait commissions and a market for smaller paintings, canvas became the favored support. The assertive, often lifesize dynastic portraits that populated European elite residences would have been difficult to produce without canvas… 

Some of the greatest canvas paintings have been quite large. Rembrandt’s Militia Company of Captain Franz Banning Coq, for example, was originally larger than its current dimensions of nearly twelve by fourteen feet. The so-called Night Watch was cropped at each end when, more than a century after its commission, the painting was moved from its original place to the Amsterdam civic hall (obscuring the fact that the “captain and his worthy squad of keepers standing fast”, were assembling for a day-parade, not a night-watch). 

More like "Day Parade" actually

But most canvas paintings have been small enough for a single person to carry. The canvas, too, was ideal for the application the perspective techniques that were more awkward with other media. It thereby took its place in townhouses as just another window. It could also be easily removed from the wall, and sold off or otherwise disposed of as the owner saw fit. 

The canvas painting was, in short, the commodification of art. The cultural ground of the Dutch renaissance was a bourgeoisie class made prosperous through international trade. It was not a mass-market by today’s standards, but certainly a much larger one that had ever existed before. Their relationship toward the painter was that of customer, as opposed to patron. 

The presumed role of the visual artist, during Renaissance and long after, was to create paintings for a market. If this was, to contemporary sensibilities, the surrender of artistic vision to commerce, no one would disagree that it was responsible for the most beautiful images created by a human hand. 

Market forces created the environment in which painters perfected the ultra-realistic approach to art. The arts flourish generally in centres of political and economic power. Canvas painting in particular finds a ready home in centres of modern finance and transport. There was Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, London in the eighteenth and nineteenth (with the Romantic predecessors of modern art), Paris later on in the eighteen-hundreds, as well as New York city following the second world war. 

Even after the perspective painting was gradually made obsolete through the invention of photography, the canvas form has persisted as a medium for artistic expression up to the present day. Its primacy has been lessened by the use of non-traditional media and materials, as well as a resurgence in sculpture (itself a result of government support of the arts). 

But the most common artform traded for commercial purposes, remains the canvass painting, whether its subject is rendered photo-realistically, or more commonly as an “impression”, or even in complete abstraction. No one places a multimedia art installation in their home. These things exist because arts councils, supported by the state or charitable foundations, provide the space and funding to make them happen. 

People do buy canvas paintings to place on their walls, which is why such artworks, cannot escape their status as commodity. Since the Romantics, the painter has developed a stance at least, of contempt for and rejection of traditional forms, and thus the “philistine” demands of the marketplace. 

The portrait of the Artist as outsider, became more clearer with the Impressionist and attendant movements, which sought to use oil and canvas to convey what the new visual media of photo and film, could not. These painters didn’t work to satisfy any particular demand. They instead used the canvas as expression for subjective perceptions and feelings. Yet, in a roundabout way, the modern canvas painting — everything from the Impressionists on — was dependent on the marketplace even more so than previous artforms. 

The naturalistic, perspective canvas was generally painted in response to demand, either on commission or in a particular style (pastoral, portrait, etc.) likely to attract buyers. But how could the idiosyncratic vision of the Impressionists, Cubists and so on, be subject to commission, or to any demand at all? It would somehow violate the spirit of modern art, for a Monet or a Picasso to create according to some specification, or even a vague outline. No, the post-Impressionist painter had to work according to his “vision”, and then subsequently market what is created, placing it on exhibit to the public, in the hope that an anonymous member thereof, will offer money for it. 

Certainly, this art market was already in place by the time post-realist French painting came into existence. Indeed, Paul Gauguin, regarded as a pioneering post-Impressionist artist, made his living originally as an art dealer. Theodorus van Gogh, younger brother to and champion of Vincent, was also an art-seller. Christopher St. John, a young British Marxist who fought and died in the Spanish civil war, wrote (under the pseudonym “Christopher Caudwell”) perceptively in the 1930s about the role of the market in the visual arts: “In later bourgeois culture economic differentiation becomes crippling and coercive instead of being the road to individuation of freedom. There is a reaction against content, which, as long as it remains within the bourgeois categories, appears as "commodity fetishism." The social forms which make the content marketable and give it an exchange value are elevated as ends in themselves. Hence, cubism, futurism, and various forms of so called "abstract" art.” 

If Caudwell was correct in his conclusions, the art world nevertheless no longer views, if it ever did, these works as “crippling” or “corrupt” at all. The modern painter rebels so decisively against capitalism, precisely because it is an inevitable part of the medium — canvas as opposed to large-scale multimedia or metallic and other nontraditional sculpture — in which he works. 

The sort of commerce that is characteristic of the art market, is hardly capitalism of the mass-industrial type. As the name “dealer” implies, the business is more so a throwback to an earlier type of merchantry, a sector dominated by small single-proprietors, engaged in haggling and chicanery to scratch out even a decent living. Certainly, there are larger players, but in general, no one becomes involved in the art business strictly to get rich. 

Unlike most other consumer products, too, a prize canvas painting can be given in lieu of cash, either as bequeathments in a last will and testament, or through direct exchange of goods and services. The canvas painting is, in that sense, precisely like a commodity. Specifically, the canvas can obtain the status of silver and gold, objects universally recognized for their exchange value, but which are valued in themselves. 

In this, works of art are like money (which was originally minted silver and gold) in that they are useless. Whatever pleasing or other effects a painting may have, it is not to be used for an instrumental purpose. Like all other works of art, it simply is. Money’s instrumental value ends with its exchange for other things, and it too is presented as “illustration”. Going back millennia, coinage displayed icons of kings and gods, and artistic sophistication only increased with the invention of the printing press. Banknotes present imagery in abstraction, and the beauty found in specie often has no correlation to its actual exchange value. 

In Making Modernism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995, p. 4), Michael Fitzgerald writes that Picasso and other avant-garde painters “were deeply immersed in the wide ranging business of the marketplace. Moreover, the market was not peripheral to the development of modernism but central to it. It was the crucible in which individual artists' reputations were forged as critics, collectors, and curators joined with artists and dealers to define and confer artistic standing.” 

Modern art in particular, which objectifies the subjective feelings and thoughts of the artists, must exist in an anonymous marketplace. It is the only through which, that the subjective expression could find a buyer who, according to his own subjective standards, would choose it over others. Fitzgerald writes (p. 7): 

By the middle of the nineteenth century, acclaim in the commercial arena rivaled the importance of institutional honors in making an artist's reputation, and the academy's prestige began to be usurped by artists who built their careers in the open marketplace. Whether one chooses to begin with Courbet's presentation of his own work in his Pavilion of Realism across from the Universal Exposition of 1855 or with the furor surrounding the Salon des Refuses in 1863, it is apparent that artists were searching for ways to establish themselves outside the purview of the academy and official patronage. The growing network of dealers began to respond. It was, of course, the Impressionists who achieved this breakthrough. ... the Impressionists did not simply create an art that repudiated the aesthetic norms of the academy. If they had done only that, they might well have remained as obscure as they were in the 1870s. The success of the Impressionists was based on a more remarkable — and more complex — achievement. By coupling their new aesthetic with the establishment of a commercial and critical system to support their art, they not only created the movement of Impressionism but also laid the foundation for the succession of modern movements that would dominate art through the twentieth century.

There is plentiful irony to all this.  Fitzgerald describes the lengths to which Pablo Picasso went to market his works - including the creation of an appropriate image to go along with it, one that emphasized the artist's disdain for the marketplace.  

Of course, no Picasso work sold for anywhere near 140 million green-backs during the artist's lifetime.  But two paintings did sell for more than a million dollars in 1968 - which is about 10 million dollars U.S. in 2014 currency.

Paintings such as Women of Algiers have achieved such high valuations, though, in large part due to the entrepreneurial spirit of Pablo Picasso, and his predecessors in Modern Art.

It is a lesson learned well by those contemporary artists, who might be called Pablo's Stepchildren.  Eschewing canvas mostly, artists in today's scene use all sorts of media and materials for their works - including a great-white shark placed in a tank of formaldehyde, which sold a few years ago for US$12 million.

Even Jaws cost less.

Hence another irony.  A key part of contemporary conservative philosophy is free-market economics.  At the same time, though, conservatives today and going back decades, are the biggest critics of modern art.  Yet, the art market is, as we've seen, a bastion of free-market capitalism.

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