Why Can't More Artists Paint Like Andrews? (or, Philip Hensher Goes Off the Deep End)
The monstrous figures now being achieved are all very well, but in the end they are anti-art, based largely on ideas of what will hold its value best. It not only fetishises art beyond all reason, but effectively shifts art back into the private realm, since no museum can justify paying such prices. It also damagingly squashes one of the most vital factors in the development of taste, superficial trends and fashions, by insisting that all signed art is potentially good, because - look at the index - it outperforms any other investment. A small but devastating crash would, in the long run, do the world of good.Lord knows, I hate to dispel such a passionate rant, but, alas, someone has to do the heavy lifting here since Hensher apparently didn't take the time in between polishing his hyperbole to check his logic (or his bias). Let's look a bit more closely at Mr. Hensher's thesis:
When even the most monstrous works of art cost millions, it's time for a price crashOK, so from the title and this cherry-picking of works from different auctions (and different auction houses, no less) it's clear Hensher feels that now that even "monstrous" art (e.g., Soutines, Bacons, Munchs) are doing well at auction, clearly the market is out of control. It's fair enough that he, personally, may not like such works, but a quick browse through the auction records demonstrates that he could have chosen any number of perfectly pleasant works to illustrate the point that the market is historically strong. But why waste the opportunity to bloviate against art you resent when it's simple enough to disguise your prose as a commentary on the market? Think I'm overstating my case? Read on...
The great London auction houses have been having rather a good week. One of Chaim Soutine's celebrated paintings of a flayed beef carcass sold at Christie's for £7.8m. At the same house, later in the week, two Francis Bacons went for around £5m each. Down the road, at Sotheby's, a private collection of Edvard Munch exceeded predictions dramatically. Eight of Fred Olsen's Munchs proved very strong; one - a perfectly hideous Summer Day - went for £6.2m. A major Gauguin went for £12.3m at the same sale. Later in the week, Lucian Freud's well-known portrait of Bruce Bernard fetched £3.5m. Perhaps more tellingly, Sotheby's sold an Anthony Caro steel sculpture on the same evening for £1.3m. That may now sound like small change. But it's worth pointing out that the previous auction-house record for an Anthony Caro, an artist with a huge international reputation and a long-running career, was £77,675.
Of course, this is not a universal phenomenon. It was surprising to learn that, at one of these extraordinary events, a painter as splendid and celebrated as Michael Andrews broke a record for his work at the relatively modest amount of £176,000.
OK, so what Philip Hensher doesn't mention here is that he wrote on Michael Andrews in an issue of Modern Painters (Vol 15 no 2). Still, its' clear enough that he resents the fact that "monstrous" works by Soutine or Bacon earn so much more than so those by his favorite artists. Further, what the Guardian article also doesn't tell you, but Hensher's bio does, is that he wrote his doctorate at Cambridge on 18th Century English painting, suggesting he's not exactly an unbiased judge of contemporary art.
Now, here's the thing. I don't necessarily disagree that the market could use a correction (I shudder at the thought that it would affect my business, but I do understand enough to know it's a bit over-active at the moment), but I really can't endorse the sort of lapse in logic whereby one concludes that because works he finds unappealling are doing well that a "devastating crash" is the remedy. I mean it's not like artists are going to conclude they should return to pastoral landscapes and the like anytime soon, even if a crash comes to pass.