American Culture in the 1980s

By Graham Thompson | Go to book overview
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Chapter 2
Art and Photography

The Art Market

When his painting Three Flags (1958) was bought by the New York Whitney Museum for $1 million in September 1980, Jasper Johns offered the following thoughts: ‘I was brought up in the Depression, and $1 million is a very important figure to one who grew up at that time. It has a rather neat sound, but it has nothing to do with painting.’ Having come to prominence as an artist in the 1950s, Johns, like his friend Robert Rauschenberg, made his reputation as a neoDadaist. Taking popular objects and imagery from the public domain most notably the Stars and Stripes flag and turning them into works of art, Johns exercised a critical commentary on the status of those objects as they were transposed from one medium to another and transformed in the process. But while the conceptual and aesthetic elements of artistic production may be of primary importance to the artist, at least since the systems of patronage operating during the Renaissance, art has always also circulated in financial markets where monetary value accrues in proportion to perceived aesthetic value. In 1931, Andrew Mellon paid $1.2 million for Raphael’s Alba Madonna, while Washington’s National Gallery paid an estimated $6 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra dei Benci in 1967. What marked the American art world of the 1980s was the degree to which late-nineteenth and twentieth-century art now attracted such sums and the fact that money, business and art became so intimately entwined that the buying and selling of art was as much of a story as the art itself. When Three Flags was originally bought by Mr and Mrs Burton Tremaine from the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1959 it cost $900 (plus a $15 delivery charge). To find himself the first living artist to see one of his pieces sell for $1 million may for Johns not have had


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