Lost Art: Does the Market Make Art Disappear?

originally published on ArtSlant on December 22, 2014

The business of buying and selling art is one that the art world knows all too well. From reading about the latest Warhol sold at auction to following commercial gallery sales, we’re constantly reminded of art’s shift from object of visual and aesthetic pleasure to commodity item. As artworks are removed from their original creative and expressive origins, they can become lost—both literally and figuratively—in the commodification process. Often an artwork's provenance, catalogued by galleries and auction houses, represents a pause in its movement, visibility, and audience engagement (specifically when a work rests unseen in a storage facility).

This subject feels doubly urgent following the recent art fair season, during which talk is less about artworks themselves, and more about which modern, contemporary, and emerging works led collectors to dig into their wallets and buy a slice. At the latest high profile fair, Art Basel Miami Beach, what key works caught collectors’ affection? According to Art Price, “The Helly Nahmad Gallery sold the most imposing piece at the fair on the first day: the Sumac mobile by Alexander Calder was acquired for $35 million. James Rosenquist’s quadriptych, Terrarium, sold for $2 million at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery.” These are merely two examples of outsized Miami sales; recent auction reports revealed even higher prices for a vast array of works.

Andy Warhol, Triple Elvis, 1963, Silkscreen, Ink, and silver paint on linen, 82 x 69 in. and Four Marlons, 1966, Silkscreen ink on unprimed linen, 81 x 65 in.; © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.; Image via Art Media Agency

Last month, Christie’s sold $853 million in contemporary and post-war works in their largest auction to date. The NY Post wrote that the auction led with works by Andy Warhol with his Triple Elvis[Ferus Type] at $81.9 million and his Four Marlons at $69.9 million. High sales were also seen for works by Cy Twombly, Christopher Wool, Willem de Kooning, and Cindy Sherman, all with record-setting results. As the numbers rise for art prices, I can’t help but wonder if these buyers are seeing these works or merely seeing the artists’ names and buying a piece of that brand. I worry about the latter. I worry that something is being lost.

Art can be lost or damaged in any number of ways (as recent attention to the Monet-punching man attests), and I’d like to argue that one way in which art can get lost—both literally and figuratively—is through the sort of commodification and purchasing I’ve discussed above.

As a former art registrar for an art storage and shipping facility, I worked with hundreds of thousands of works of art for various museums, galleries, and private collectors. Of the more than 45,000 works at this facility, a large number of them lived solely within the confines of packing materials, stuffed to the brim within a storage space, existing within the darkness of a temperature-regulated room. Occasionally, works were discarded or deemed as “waste.” Sometimes, the artists or collectors did not care and asked for these disposal protocols but, as someone who is in love with art, whose knees melt and whose heart skips a beat when able to engage with an extraordinary physical artwork, I could not even fathom the idea of these precious works being hidden or discarded.

While it’s unrealistic and challenging to exhibit every single work in a collection—whether private or commercial—most artwork in storage loses sight of the public eye. The Robert Motherwell and Peter Max works I processed rarely came out of their isolated containers; some clients even had unused, seldom visited pieces of gorgeous antique furniture. I often asked myself: Why purchase a work of art if the intention is to leave it in storage?

From museum basements to external storage facilities, the majority of art collections (museum, commercial, and private) are unseen and stored—and in many cases the works act as liquid assets so collectors can make a future profit. Is that where the integrity of the art world has gone? Have spectators lost sight of creativity? Are we satisfied when artworks are turned into objects solely of monetary value?

The late philosopher Arthur C. Danto defines the artworld as two contrasting concepts: the first regards the aesthetic and emotion of a work as a way to identify the phantasm and development of art; the second definition describes the art world as a sociological and cultural phenomenon. He dedicated a chapter of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace to the distinction between “Works of Art and Mere Real Things,” arguing that:

...parallel perplexities remain in the parallel theory of art according to which a material object (or artifact) is said to be an artwork when so regarded from the institutional framework of the artworld. For the Institutional Theory of Art leaves unexplained, even if it can account for why such a work as Duchamp’s Fountain might have been elevated from a mere thing to an artwork, why that particular urinal should have sustained so impressive a promotion, while other urinals, like it in every obvious respect, should remain in an ontologically degraded category.

In this section, Danto expresses concern for the sociological art world and its inability to distinguish works of art from everyday objects. He also poses a question regarding the “chosen” art objects and how to validate their category as art. Do art buyers ask this same question? Do they only purchase objects that have been deemed “art” by the art world? Are they able to comprehend a work as art when compared to an everyday thing, or are they just aware of the monetary value of it? Are the players in this corner of Danto's art world merely those who wish to indicate their lush wealth or high status by purchasing highly admired and accepted works in society? Is there still a place for those who have a true love for authentic creative expression?

In line with this transition, many artists have created artworks that obey the market and buyer’s wishes, while others critique the very system they participate in. Some, like Jonas Lund, as my colleaguereported this fall, at once critique and embrace this contemporary system. In Lund's Studio Practice, for example, he embodied the power of the market and “would sign and take ownership of positively assessed artworks, which would then be sold.” Although the art market gives value to artworks through money, I’m worried that there might be a lack of aesthetic value given to these works which hold expansive power beyond the transaction.

Pablo Picasso, Le Rêve, Oil on canvas, 1932, 130 cm × 97 cm (51 in × 38 in); Private collection of Steven A. Cohen

It's not only artists who complicate these relationships between art and monetary value. In 2006, Steve Wynn, owner of Wynn Hotels and Casinos, tried to sell Pablo Picasso’s Le Rêve to collector Steven Cohen for $139 million. While showing off this painting to friends, Wynn’s elbow hit the painting, puncturing it. The deal was off until the painting was repaired. Seven years after this incident, Cohen finally purchased the restored painting for the higher price of $155 million. What sort of deal was this? Wouldn't the need for restoration weaken the monetary value of the original work? Did Cohen buy the painting simply because it was a Picasso or was he in love with it? While the motive is unclear, he did not let a damaged painting fall within the “lost art” category. He purchased the revived work, further exhibiting an artwork's power and Picasso’s masterful abilities. 

In any case, as a commodity, art loses some of its full authentic power and expression. When emotion is turned into a monetary value, the work holding the emotion appears to slowly shed its core visceral meaning to appease the likes of spectators and collectors. Yes, art is purchased in order to support the arts, artists, institutions, events, public programming, and more. It's certainly not a bad thing for art to be bought, the problem is when an artwork is purchased by someone who is blind to emotion but savvy to popularity. What do collectors and museums buy when they buy art: an artist’s creative expression, a piece of history, or a financially objectified object?

Correction: It was reported by Art Price that  Helly Nahmad Gallery sold Alexander Calder's Sumac .  It was learned that the work was not sold during Art Basel Miami Beach 2014.

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