If something makes headlines simply for the amount of money that was spent on it, do we appreciate the thing as itself - a work of art, a novel - or do we look at it only in terms of how much money it cost?
I think we look at its cost, and ask ourselves if it's worth it. That is, until the work has been around a while and you can forget the amount of money someone spent on it. I you can forget it.
I bring this up because of two notable sales in the last weeks. First, at Christie's in New York someone spent $142 million for "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," a triptych by Francis Bacon and a record for a work of art at auction.
The second was the $2.2 million paid for a first novel, "City on Fire," by Garth Risk Hallberg.
Now the novel hasn't been published yet, but some people I know in publishing have read it and love it. Though, as one friend said, "Most readers who buy it probably won't finish it, good as it is." Which happens a lot with long novels (this one is about 900 pages or so). Still, will people buy it because it cost over $2 million to the publisher, or will they not buy it because it cost so much and because it's so long? In any event, they will have already judged the book not by its cover but by its cost. (I hope to read it when it's out, and hope to put aside the price the publisher paid for it.)
As for the painting, excess has become standard operating procedure at auctions of contemporary art. As Roberta Smith wrote perceptively in The New York Times,
"Auctions have become the leading indicator of ultra-conspicuous consumption, pieces of public, male-dominated theater in which collectors, art dealers and auction houses flex their monetary clout, mostly for one another.
The spectacle of watching these privileged few (mostly hedge fund managers and investment-hungry consortiums, it seems) tossing around huge amounts of money has become a rarefied spectator sport.
These events are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake." [read her entire piece here]
Also depressing. Think of all that could be done with $142 million (twice as much as the cost of the recent restoration of the Queens Museum, an entire building complex!).
Prices make news, certainly, and sometimes publishers pay a lot to make a statement and pre-sell a book to the public.
At the same time people with too much money and not enough taste want to have bragging rights to something they can point to as theirs: an identifiable icon on the wall that proclaims their financial prowess. But it's a bit much, don't you think?
There was a controversy in 1971 when the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought - also at Christie's - the "Juan de Pareja," a magnificent portrait of his assistant by Velazquez, for the then-outrageous sum of $5.5 million, a record for a work of art at auction.
But that is a masterpiece - and there aren't that many Velazquez paintings around. And it's now one of the glories of New York, on public view. On the other hand this Bacon painting is, well, it's not remotely in the same league as the Velazquez (or any Velazquez), and who knows if anyone in the public will get to see it?
And if they do, people will likely ask themselves: who in his right mind would pay $142 million for a painting, any painting?
Art will always be a way of proving one's power as a buyer (just as certain books or authors will do the same thing for traditional publishers).
And some people would rather spend money on themselves than spread it around. That's the way of the rich, and of the not-so-rich.
For some works of art, I'd really rather not know the price. I'd really rather see something and know that its price was irrelevant to its worth: you can't really pay for greatness. And, as someone whose funds are limited, I'd rather not be distracted by how much something cost.