Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Math Can Wait
(or The Problem with Statistical Approaches to Understanding Art's Importance)

Two days ago the world learned of the passing of one of this country's greatest living painters. In the wake of that news, heartfelt tributes began pouring in from around the globe. Here are but a few of the descriptions of the man and his art that speak to his importance to contemporary art:

Roberta Smith: "An Artist of Selective Abandon"
Few 20th-century artists corroborated as insistently Schiller’s assertion that “all art is dedicated to joy.”
"Jerry Saltz Celebrate the Life and Art of Cy Twombly"
Twombly’s fusing of thought, mark-making, narrative, history, myth, and formalism made me see that there is no such thing as purely abstract or representational art. He’s the artist who made me see that all art is equally abstract and that something as simple as handwriting and scribbling, unleashed, can be art.
The Economist: The Art of Cy Twombly: Hypnotic scribbles and abstract allusions
Indeed it is this divisiveness—this singular ability to excite—that has helped to secure his place as one of America's most important postwar painters.
Christopher Masters: Cy Twombly obituary
American artist who drew on the high culture of the past to forge a distinctive, at times thrilling, body of work.
This morning, however, barely two full days after this giant breathed his last, when those of us who marveled at his vision are still processing the loss, I get the following descriptive summary of his life's work via email:
Cy Twombly, the world's 6th most valuable living artist and 49th most valuable artist overall, has passed away yesterday at the age of 83, some 56 days after seeing an all-time record for his art set at Christie's New York auction in May of this year.

With 28 artworks listed in Skate's Top 5000 , Twombly has seen over US $200 million being paid for his art at auctions during his lifetime (his more valuable artworks eligible for Skate's Top 5000 alone being worth $136 million at the day of Twombly's death).
Note that there is nothing at all about his cultural importance (although I guess one could assert that it's implied in the sales tallies).

I really shouldn't make too much of this, I suppose. After all, Skate's exists to translate art world events into dollars and cents, but I can't get this creepy image out of my mind of some statistician coldly switching the tag from "living" to "deceased" in some database to then recalculate Twombly's numbers and standing.

I've had plenty of conversations with people in the art world who are utterly frustrated with the opaqueness of the market, calling for more transparency and regulation in what is a stubbornly secretive domain. But now that I think about it a bit, I realize they're usually speculators, statisticians, or market-based journalists. People who truly trade in or write about information rather than objects. The class of art world insiders who seek to make sense of it all via numbers and trends.

Now, I"ll admit that my first thought when I heard Twombly died was a profound regret that I never had the pleasure of meeting him. His finished paintings are still here for me to stand before in awe, but I had always hoped of shaking his hand. It was a selfish thought, all about my lost opportunity. And I don't imagine for a minute that would provide much comfort to his friends and family. But I still can't shake the sense that the epitaph "the world's 6th most valuable living artist and 49th most valuable artist overall" would simply horrify them.

Yes, the great man's estate will need to be tended to, and considerations for his heirs and his legacy will need to be secured. But someone prepared that email summary less than 48 hours after his passing. Can't we focus on why his art matters for just a bit longer? Is it really that urgent that people begin calculating how they could cash in on his death?

It's not the idea that secrets in business arenas are bad that makes me recoil from the calls for more transparency and regulation, but more this lack of decorum in the purely statistical approaches to the art market. We're talking here about people, their visions, and their impact on others. The math can wait.

Labels: art market, values


Anonymous Gam said...

just in reading some of the related "obituaries" it reaffirms what most people inherently know - regardless of how much there is mass appeal to art, it is an intensely personal relationship that it evokes.

Your abhorrance from placing that artistic evocation into ratios of columns of numbers is founded. That however is where our epoch of stats seems to be nudging us in every domain. Maybe its just the difference between effect and affect.

7/07/2011 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

I heard Skate speak once, which was enough. His reduction of art to computable commodity was chilling. Yes, I know it's his business, but unlike most dealers and collectors who seem to genuinely connect with art and its makers, this guy seemed to have no awareness of the life, the energy, the vision imbued in the commodities he was tracking. The quote you selected is not surprising.

So here's to "number 49th most valuable overall." To most of us he will be remembered not for his rank but for his vision and his art.

7/07/2011 09:34:00 PM  
Anonymous said...

I was really trying to ignore this, but this morning I received an email from Art Market Insight with the subject line, "Cy Twombly (1928-2011) - subliminal creation," and inside was a price history graph.

It was the last straw after artnet basically announced Twombly's death last week by featuring his prints in their "what's it worth?" auctions promo on the front page.

7/12/2011 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Wayne said...

I found the coverage disappointing - from the NY Times using the phrase "childlike scribbles" to "distinctive" (isn't this word used to describe housewares?) and "distinctive brand."

Fortunately I did not receive these repulsive emails.

7/12/2011 03:45:00 PM  

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