Friday, 11 May 2012

Viewing the context

Another record price for a work of art, this time a painting entitled The Scream by Edvard Munch (pronounced Monk) for $119.9m USD at Sotheby’s New York has caused a predictable stir as to the monetary value of pictures and who should own them.  

As in the 1980s when Old Masters were achieving similar astronomical figures the Japanese financial crises was in full swing and works by dead, bankable artists became a commodity i.e. where stocks and share were highly volatile art became a safe, long-term haven for money.  

In the same week The Sleeping Girl by US Pop Art icon Roy Lichtenstein made $44.9m USD and before that it was Francis Bacon that made the headlines.   

Leaving aside the astronomical figures achieved for these works do they reflect the best works artistically in the world too? Currently RTE has a series asking viewers to select Ireland’s Best Painting, so at least a debate is out there talking about pictures, which can’t be bad.

Thus, the headline prices achieved don’t reflect the general art market and their values and certainly don’t mean artists are wealthy as a result. In fact, the general art market is very depressed when auction house prices of five years ago (often for the same works) are compared to today’s, not to mention the prospects for graduate artists currently trying to eke out a living. 

Buying art is not an essential purchase for most, so when the economy is down so are sales. The extraordinary prices achieved during the boom in Ireland were not just as a result of available cheap money but also due to the many new entrants to the market that increased the volume of output produced by artists. Many of the new entrants during this period who bought more for investment purposes than love of the work are now offloading and this is another reason for the current downward pressure on prices. 

As to the argument that The Scream and the Sleeping Girl ought to be in a public museum for all to enjoy rather than in the boudoir of some billionaire asks the question of the correlation between high price and artistic merit. True, the majority of museums around the world can never compete with the oligarchs’ money, but aren’t curators better off buying a clutch of other less celebrated works for display that convey equal artistic integrity that appeal to the public? 

Besides, works of art are often bought at auction privately and donated to museums, so even if the rich don’t want their house insurance premiums going through the roof with their purchases, showing a little altruism to the greater good is commendable.

The end of May has no less than three interesting art auctions in Dublin. Whyte’s have a batch of Louis le Brocquy’s work;  DeVere’s have a wide selection of early-mid 20th Century Irish artists and Adams have a marble sculpture by John Hogan of Francis Sylvester Mahony (he who wrote the Bells of Shandon) estimated between €4-6000. Why not buy it and donate to the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork?

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