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The Super-Rich Are Ruining Art for the Rest of Us

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News

If you can believe all the hand-wringing and soul-searching these days among artists, art critics, and sundry other arts professionals, you’d imagine that nobody is really happy about the $142.4 million paid for a Francis Bacon triptych at Christie’s the other day—or the $58.4 million for a Jeff Koons at the same auction or the $104.5 million for a Warhol at Sotheby’s the following night. Those prices are as repellent as Leonardo DiCaprio’s baronial frat house shenanigans in the coming attractions for Martin Scorsese’s new tale of Gilded Age excess, The Wolf of Wall Street. Among the most revolting sports favored by the super-rich is the devaluation of any reasonable sense of value. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s some of the wealthiest members of society, the people who can’t believe in anything until it’s been monetized, are trashing one of our last hopes for transcendence. They don’t know the difference between avidity and avarice. Why drink an excellent $30 or $50 bottle of wine when you can pour a $500 or $1000 bottle down your throat? Why buy a magnificent $20,000 or $1 million painting when you can spend $50 or $100 million and really impress friends and enemies alike?

These questions will not go away. And it is a little too easy to blame it all on the super-rich and the various counselors and courtiers who cheer them on at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Of course there’s nothing we can do about what Steven A. Cohen and Peter Brant choose to sell at the auctions or what Roman Abramovich and Sheikha al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani choose to buy. But the total lack of embarrassment with which everybody involved conducts themselves must at least in part be blamed on an educated public that has become embarrassed about discussing—much less advocating for—anything that suggests a principle or standard of taste. While the professional people who worry about every $10,000 in their 401(k) may shake their heads at the stratospheric auction prices, they get a kick out of them, too—too much of a kick, I tend to think.

The art world has become a fantasy object for the professional classes—and that’s a troubling turn of events, because art must be experienced concretely, immediately. Since the democratization of culture began in the nineteenth century, a rising middle class has seen in the arts a dazzling enrichment and complication of its own ideas and ideals—of its belief in fairness, seriousness, standards, transcendence. And now, with the middle class in disarray, art is no longer embraced as anything close to an ideal. Art is just another hope to be abandoned, along with the hope that your children might do better than you’ve done. In place of art as an ideal we have art as an idol. (Or art as an educational tool, by way of the numbingly utilitarian logic that if you learn to play Bach you will improve your math skills.) No wonder everybody is following not the art but the sky-high prices at the auction houses—and the parties at Art Basel Miami Beach, where the same dealers and collectors are gathering this week to play more or less the same games.

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
The Christopher Wool painting sold for $26.4 million at Christie's on November 12.

The super-rich are never embarrassed. What causes embarrassment in the art world today is the assertion of any value other than the almighty dollar. To argue that an artist whose work sells for a few hundred or a few thousand dollars is superior to an artist whose work sells for millions is to invite condescension if not outright ridicule. The relationship between culture and commerce is frozen, with commerce invariably the winner. It is a sign of the times that John Elderfield, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture, has been consulting for the Gagosian Gallery. Whatever happened to the firewall that separated the long-term cultural thinking of the museums from the short-term commercial gains of the galleries? Isn’t anybody troubled by Elderfield’s organizing “Willem de Kooning: Ten Paintings, 1983-1985,” the show currently at Gagosian, not long after he organized a de Kooning retrospective at MoMA? Isn’t anybody embarrassed by Elderfield’s fulsome (and economically convenient) praise of the late works of an artist who many of the finest minds of his own generation believed had been in a steep artistic decline since 1960, if not a few years earlier? On the question of quality thoughtful people can surely disagree. I would have imagined, however, that the same thoughtful people would be deeply troubled by Elderfield’s willingness to turn MoMA’s prestige into Larry Gagosian’s financial advantage. The sad fact is that Gagosian’s de Kooning catalogue—with its full-cloth binding, tipped-in plates, over-the-top text, and lavish supporting illustrations of work by Rubens, Matisse, Picasso, and Mondrian—is engineered to brook no disagreement. The super-rich have no problem with John Elderfield, you can be sure about that. They also have no problem with Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, who next summer is dedicating nearly the museum’s entire Madison Avenue building to a Jeff Koons retrospective.

Considering how ubiquitous Koons’s work has become in recent years, what possible curatorial or scholarly justification can there be for a retrospective? And what reason is there for Elderfield to become a consultant to the Gagosian Gallery? Aren’t the answers very simple? The cash registers are ringing and that’s the only music anybody any longer really hears in the art world. Among the lesser but still considerable prices achieved during auction week was $26.4 million for a painting by the mid-career artist Christopher Wool, who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The painting, Apocalypse Now, is one of Wool’s early word works, this one emblazoned with a line from the Francis Ford Coppola movie: “SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS.” Just about the first thing you see in Wool’s Guggenheim retrospective is another word painting, Blue Fool, this one with nothing but the letters “F O O L” emblazoned in blue on a white ground. I like to imagine the fool is the person who paid $26.4 million for Wool’s Apocalypse Now. But of course if you believe that money talks and nobody walks—well, then I’m the fool for regarding Wool’s works as vacuous Dadaist signage. Blue Fool has been borrowed for the Guggenheim retrospective from a private collection. One thing is certain. Its value is climbing even as you read these words. In the art world as it is now, it’s difficult to convince most people that anything matters more than that.