Thursday, September 25, 2008

Squillionaires are People Too

One passage in Michael Kimmelman's otherwise wonderful review of the traveling Francis Bacon exhibition (up currently at the Tate Britain in London) struck me as a gratuitous swipe at an oft-maligned group of art world participants: people with more money than knowledge of what to spend it on:
Some really appalling late pictures, like a large triptych from 1976, which some squillionaire recently paid a fortune to buy, look horribly overstuffed with ugly heads and tired gimmicks, as if Bacon, worried he had exhausted the empty stretches of color he so often painted, didn’t know when to stop filling the canvas up.
There are two possible reasons I can think of that one would be so cruel to that collector in the nation's most prestigious newspaper: 1) as a training technique, to publicly humiliate the owner into learning more about which Bacons are "appalling" and which are not (or at least learn which ones a certain critic feels are appalling...Bacon, known to edit quite vigorously, obviously thought it was passable), or 2) as an outright dismissal of judgment justified by the collector's inability to learn (in other words, as an assertion that this purchase price didn't reflect a newbie's exuberance as much as an irreversible sense of entitlement or ambivalence).

Left out of either equation, obviously, is any concession that this squillionaire would most likely have been quite happy to pay less of a fortune than he/she did for the Bacon, but that some other obstinate squillionaire kept bidding the damn thing up. Yes, the winning squillionaire could have stopped earlier, and in doing so not offended those who didn't feel the painting warranted such a high hammer price, but that would have applied equally to both bidding squillionaires.

Let's give squillionaires a break, shall we? Due to the roller coaster ride the world's financial markets have seen the past few weeks, most of them are probably now only katrillionaires anyway. Seriously, though, the arrogance expressed in mocking the purchase price of a painting serves no public purpose in my opinion. (I'm not in the secondary market business, either, so I currently have no dog in this race.) I just feel that anyone who spends that much money on a work of art is essentially making a charitable cultural donation and it should be respected as such.

Where that donation ends up serving the public is first in awareness about the artist: "Who is this Francis Bacon?" millions around the world must have asked upon learning what his painting sold for. "I should learn more about him." The piece will likely end up in a museum now as well, because who is likely to think it makes sense to take it back to auction after the New York Times called it "appalling"? (Er...uh...wait...perhaps that was the third possible explanation for the cruelty. Kimmelman is trying to ensure the squillionaire can't flip the piece and ends up donating to a museum.)

There's also a grating classist element to such charges though. God knows I'm happy to stand on my soap box and demand equality for the working and middle classes, but if we're gonna ask squillionaires to carefully consider how they spend their money (because it does impact the lives of the rest of us), I don't feel spending it on art should be high on the list of practices we criticize. Yes, there's an impact on the rest of Bacon's prices and that may make it more difficult for those with more modest means to get one for their museum or private collection, but again, it's not like the winner wouldn't have taken the piece home for less if the other bidder has just quit. (I know there's the possibility that buying "the world's most expensive work of contemporary art" might have appealed to certain types, but, again, it takes two to tango in the auction house.)

Even as I'm writing this, though, I realize I'm going in circles. I guess I just thought it unfair and uncomely to single out that buyer for such public ridicule. Collecting art should be encouraged, being rich is no crime (usually), and if the piece was good enough for Bacon, then, it stands to reason someone else would treasure it.

Labels: art criticism, art market


Blogger George said...


I'm assuming the Bacon in question is the one illustrated. The photo credits are to the Gagosian Gallery. Do we know the Bacon was sold to a US collector? According to Bloomberg, Larry makes 50% of his sales to Russia where anthing is better than a Ruble.

9/25/2008 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It was sold in New York, but I'm not sure to whom:

The auction house had estimated the monumental three canvas painting at about $US70 million, but two determined telephone bidders drove up the price to $US86,281,000, including Sotheby's commission.

Also, I should call the piece Post-war, not contemporary.

9/25/2008 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

Excuse me, but I would take this 'appalling' Bacon over the 'best' Hirst any day.

9/25/2008 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Brandon Juhasz said...

sorry. a little off topic but I find this story that started at quite interesting. It seems to really be making waves through non MSM too. Just thought I'd pass it on...

deployment of US troops in the homeland under a few caveats, one being training in civil unrest?

As for the Bacon, competition is an interesting point, it could be vanity or passion for the work, either way it sounds like it could be the scene from Seinfeld where Peterman wants Elaine to bid for JFKs golf clubs but then gets in a vanity bidding war against Sue Ellen Mishki, the O Henry candy bar heiress. I read the critique as a how can current events not be infused in this lavish spending...its about the context of the problems we face right now, if this sale happened during a boom I think the review would be differently charged...

9/25/2008 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

That attitude is what happens when a working wage earner (a journalist) repeatedly comes smack against uncomprehensible wealth. I'm assuming it was a journalistic attempt to be flip, but honestly, it doesn't bother me given what's going on lately. I mean, taxpayers of limited means, and that would include many/most artists, are being asked to fund $10 million golden parachutes for Wall Street's squillionaires.

Isn't it ironic that Bacon is the name in question, when increasingly so many people can't afford even the lower-case kind? (Well, I'm a vegetarian, but you get the symmetry here.)

9/25/2008 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger some girl who lives in brooklyn said...

buying and supporting art is one thing. spending gratuitous amounts on anything, no matter what, is always appalling, even if it's Bacon. yes, 'in reality' it's always the question of 'since it's going to happen anyways, why not let it go to art' but this feels altogether too lazy. we must end this reality, end it's being acceptable, normal, something worth defending. as art supporters we can at least try to be different then the herd

9/25/2008 11:21:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

spending gratuitous amounts on anything, no matter what, is always appalling

I'm not so sure...what if the gratuitous amount goes to building hospitals or research on cancer or that still appalling? If the goal is self-promotion, perhaps it's even more appalling...consider the mafia don or drug dealer or terrorist who buys hearts and minds with such gestures.

The question is more complex to my mind than just "spending lots of money = appalling behavior."

When you say we must end this reality the only thing I can conclude you mean is by implementing Socialism. But we've seen where that leads. Stalin, Mao, etc. etc. Oh, I know, there are those who will insist it doesn't have to lead there...that Socialism can be implemented without ending in such abuses. I wonder why they think so, though. (That was Communism, not Socialism...yes, but Socialism needs another path to realization than Communism then, because clearly once party leaders get power, they don't continue down the Socialist path, and frankly I can't imagine what that is).

If Socialism isn't what you're advocating though, what is? I honestly can't guess.

9/25/2008 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

The problem with both Capitalism and Socialism is that their paradigms fail at the extremes, fear and greed.

Free markets work, except at the extremes of fear (crashes) and greed (bubbles)

Assumptions of a homogeneously uniform society fail, there are those who cannot help themselves and those who can't help it.

Anybody remember when you could live for a week on a $20 withdrawal from the cash machine?

9/25/2008 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous SGWLIB said...


9/25/2008 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger William said...


Are you really giving Kimmelman such a hard time for such a mild-mannered barb at a collector for buying a late Bacon? No one here seems to know who the collector is, and perhaps it may take some of the vanity out of the purchase if the collector's friends are aware of the jab, but it's just a critical poke at the inflated market. We have seen ample evidence of what happens to markets when there is no oversight or in the art market, criticism. Kimmelman is acting, dare I say, like a critic here. I appreciate his consideration on the market's impact in relation to work's formal qualities. They are not always separate, which Hirst showed us last week.

Jen has already suggested an interesting direction by the way. You may want to contact witness protection if this little bit of criticism ruffled the feathers today.

9/25/2008 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger mbuitron said...

Getting back to the point of Edward's post (and playing the devil's advocate) I wonder if it's possible for a rich person to do any harm when the spend inordinate amounts of money on the arts? Surely Broad's cache of Koons is a "better" act than his conversion of the exurbs from farmland to tract homes? On the other hand, could his art investments do better by the art world (and his legacy) if he made his art investments in other ways besides buying the production of white males from Gagosian?

My sense is that Kimmelman feels that price is overly associated with artistic merit, and squillionaires walk away mostly unscathed from his sticks and stones.

Now as far as the argument about the slippery slope of socialism, it seems that capitalism has fared fairly well in other countries of the developed west even with their socialized healthcare, education, and welfare programs. From my perspective, the difference between the capitalism of Art Basel and the Armory is that in Switzerland, one isn't accosted by as many panhandlers and homeless on their way to buy some art.

9/25/2008 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Are you really giving Kimmelman such a hard time for such a mild-mannered barb at a collector for buying a late Bacon?

On a blog, it might be mild-mannered, but in the paper that only publishes what's fit to was an oddly out-of-character swipe at a collector's taste and sense.

But I actually do care because I feel it takes guts to buy art. It really does. You're making a huge investment into something that you mostly have to take on faith is worth that much. I know it's the artist's and critic's obligation to speak truth to power, I get that, but truth need not always be wrapped in mockery.

What can I say? I didn't feel that as a writer Kimmelman had laid the groundwork to make such a flippant word choice. It felt highly inconsistent, and as such it stuck out like a sore thumb to me. That made it seem all the more gratuitous.

9/25/2008 01:34:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

What truth?

It isn't the worst Bacon I've ever seen, the one in the What Is Painting exhibition at MOMA was a dog.

Somewhere in here there's a question being asked, it's how much is too much?

9/25/2008 01:50:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What truth?

In this case, that noted NYTimes art critic Michael Kimmelman feels that Bacon is appalling (for reasons he states).

9/25/2008 01:53:00 PM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Kimmelman makes smug remarks all the time. In his article regarding the appointment of Campbell as new director of the Met - a choice he approves - he mocked "contemporary-art-wheeler-dealers" and "the chattering class."

What category does he fall into?

9/25/2008 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Hmm, it sounds like an opinion rather than the truth. It's hhis taste, which is what I guess he gets paid for.

At what price would the Bacon be considered competetive with other so called "good" paintings?

I mean, if you got it for a million two, would that be a "steal" on a "lesser" Bacon?

Where is the line and is it drawn with bills laid end to end?

9/25/2008 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

OT. Did anyone see Letterman last night.

Letterman had some issues with McCain's cancellation of his scheduled appearance and poked a stick in his eye.

"What Are You Going To Do If You're Elected And Things Get Tough? Suspend Being President?"

9/25/2008 02:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Rich peoples' lives are always filled with horror stories.

This said, when someone has the money and is a big fan of an artist, they will do anything to get all the pieces they can from that artist. The prices are not the issue. Probably on that day, the buyer felt he wasn't going to get that Bacon. It's not a question of wrether it's good or not. We should know the buyer first
and find out what were his (or her) intentions.

Of course, many rich people buy art and they truly don't care. It's just to cover taxes. They are clueless when you speak with them.
When powerful people buy art out of vanity, of because they think some pieces are "cute", it creates a flow of the superfluous within the artworld. Many artist-thinkers pay the prices for the popularity of artists who repeat simple gimmicks.

As for taste, it's very personal.
The reviewer is also insulting the artist. How can someone be so certain to know what an artist had in mind? Condescension abounds in the artworld. I'd have to see the show before commenting, but many of my fave artists are not popular, and I'm sure this critic would think I'm a squill for simply not appreciating Bacon all that much. I have no need for this dark energy. I feeel like Bacon chose to remain in places from which I have long decided to move on. Oops, it's now me, the condescent?

Cedric Caspesyan

9/25/2008 05:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Wait a minute, I'm confused. Is the critic supposed to refrain from criticizing a work they don't like? If not, than, should they or should they not inform their public that the piece had recently been bought for huge money?

Isn't the journalist simply expressing his opinion or claiming that anyone ought to think about the work exactly as he does?

The word "squillionaire" is just a word like "zillionaire", right? Which is not really an insult. So the problem here would be the "sous-entente" that the critic aims to attack the buyer, but it's a difficult terrain when you think it wouldn't make much sense either to omit the information about the sale (if the Bacon really went for a spectacular price), and when there is no apparent direct insult thrown at the buyer but the innocent mention that he (or she) bought something that the critic believes to be appalling.

Let's debate the painting: is it bad or not. If it is, than why shouldn't a buyer stand up and defend their choice? Unconditional love can explain lots of misbehavings.

Cedric Caspesyan

9/25/2008 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger William said...


You should back track and read Roberta Smith's absolute destruction of the last AIM show in the Bronx. She basically said and I'm paraphrasing, I read it awhile ago, that the participants should have asked for the money they spent on their MFA's back. It takes guts to make art, and while she was consistently negative from the beginning, it was a real, no satire involved, kick in the teeth. I would have cried if that were my first foray into the market and got gutted like that.
It's nice to see you defend collectors (dealer), but the decision, however gutsy, is a luxury that I think they can afford to have second-guessed by a critic. Roberta, on the other hand, beat the hell out of a bunch of unknowns. I don't think many people went to see if she was right after that review.

Oh well, I don't think Kimmelman's bad word choice deserves so much attention. Sorry dude. Plus, Yevgeny's show negates the very privileged role of the collector. Relegates their privileged position to that of care taker, which made it accessible to commoners like me, who can't afford a slice of Bacon right now, you know?

9/25/2008 06:16:00 PM  
Blogger some girl who lives in brooklyn said...

spending money on medicine, vaccines, education blah blah blah are of course requiring of lots of money and planning but as you should know the 'gratuitous' is even caught in these 'well deserving' things. case in point our insane medical system and institutionalized racism in our school systems.
I am saying anything but enforcing, or soliciting Socialism. I'm not student or white. I am just saying that the way in which we accept this behavior is at the root the core of the larger problems in art markets, culture etc. I'm not asking for or think it would do any good to start collectively farming, but shifting, even a bit the ideological hence critical way of thinking about art and money is a minor inconvenience and possibly the only point of power any of 'us' have

9/25/2008 07:37:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

In my earlier comment I said "At what price would the Bacon be considered competetive with other so called "good" paintings?"

I'm pointing to the core of the problem which I believe is money. In Michael Kimmelman's remark "Some really appalling late pictures, like a large triptych from 1976, which some squillionaire recently paid a fortune to buy..." he merges the paintings cost with his opinions about its quality.

If the painting sold for a tenth of the sum it was auctioned for, would that have made a difference in his assessment? If so why refer to the amount paid at all?

The relationships which decisions about quality can create should be between artworks regardless of of their selling price.

In principle the market price could keep 'score' of the aesthetic judgments, in reality the market price can only do this over a long period of time as the final resale prices reach some consensus.

I am sympathetic to some girl who lives in brooklyn's remarks. The current price structure in the art market is symptomatic of something very wrong with society. At the high end prices seem inflated beyond what one could normally expect. The fact that there are collectors are willing to pay these inflated sums is an indication of either hubris of fear.

9/25/2008 08:38:00 PM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

I'm appalled by Michael Kimelman's remark- in my opinion, and I saw the show in Buffalo at the Albright knox Gallery- Francis Bacon never painted a bad picture- if anything he threw away or destroyed too many good ones

9/25/2008 08:55:00 PM  
Blogger said...

It's not the rich people's fault that because they have made lots of money people tend to presume that they spend it wisely. It is the market that should be taking a long hard look at it's self and ask why we put so much emphasis on what the rich buy when in reality we really have no idea what their motivations and reasons are.

9/25/2008 09:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a fan of Bacon i think the painting in question is indeed appalling...a bad cariacature of his early works.

It happens.

9/29/2008 02:17:00 PM  

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