Art Is Now an Acronym for Arid Retail Trade

By Lebedev, Evgeny | The Spectator, May 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Art Is Now an Acronym for Arid Retail Trade


Lebedev, Evgeny, The Spectator


As the spring auctions begin, it looks as if there's never been a greater demand for art, says Evgeny Lebedev. But despite a booming market, the art world itself is stagnant

If one was to commission a sculpture that depicted the woeful state of the British art market, then it would be difficult to improve on what Boris Johnson is proposing for the London Olympics. The Mayor's venture represents the fusion of everything that is wrong with the system: a steel billionaire, a £19 million price-tag, a world-famous artist and 1,400 tons of metal in the shape of crashed pylons.

And the end result? That the contraption will be used as a mega funfair. Publicity for the so-called Arcelor Mittal Orbit speaks of its size, price and persona. There is no majesty, no mystery. No art.

In recent years, art has become - as never before - a trophy for the wealthy. Auctions of the most expensive artworks are followed every bit as closely as the stockmarket by financial advisers who are dealing with just another commodity. Small wonder: while property prices are falling, art prices keep going up, up, up. The Damien Hirst model - of getting rich quick by becoming a brand - is now studied at the London Business School. More people than ever before (as Oscar Wilde might have put it) know the price of a work of art, but not its value.

Art auctions, of modern art in particular, have become testosterone driven contests to discover who's got the biggest wallet. Just look at the spring art auctions in New York.

On Wednesday, a Picasso painting set a new record for the most expensive work of art sold at auction. An anonymous millionaire paid $106 million for 'Nude, Green Leaves and Bust', smashing the previous record of $104 million for a Giacometti. So much for the financial crisis.

The stage for the next such battle will be set at Sotheby's, where they're offering a self-portrait of Andy Warhol for around $15 million, and a simple red canvas from Mark Rothko for up to $25 million. There is no surer sign that bonuses have returned to Wall Street.

Yet despite the artistic genius going under the hammer, these contemporary art fairs have all the soul of business conventions.

Artists joke that the word 'Art' has become an acronym for Arid Retail Trade. The great works, created more often than not to be admired by the masses, in fact rarely see the light of a public gallery. Instead they move from basement to basement, judged by their resale value almost regardless of artistic merit. How often do the billionaires who buy these paintings ever even bother to admire them?

The art market may be booming but this does not mean an artistic revival. Far from it. We may as well watch financial data on a screen. We are in the era of Portfolio Art where investors buy a Francis Bacon alongside BP shares as an investment. …

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