The Downward Spiral

Does art have actual social worth and significance, or is it just another commodity to be bought and sold by the wealthy? My beliefs place me in the former camp, as I loath the very idea that something as magical, spiritual and ephemeral as art – could or should be controlled, influenced or marginalized by market forces. However, there are many who hold a contrary point of view.

To such people artworks are simply good investments that enhance one’s social status. The clash of these two perspectives creates just one of the many frameworks where all art is made political.

In the trendy art world of today, Art Basel is the epitome of the art as commodity camp. Celebrating its 36th year, the international art fair concluded on June 20th, 2005, after exhibiting works by 3,000 artists from more than 800 galleries. Like a swarm of locust, over 50,000 collectors, dealers, and curators descended upon the medieval city of Basel in a feeding frenzy of acquisition and deal making. Clearly driven by greed, buyers were desperate to purchase works from the next crop of “art stars” while prices were still low.

Innumerable sales were made just hours after the fair opened, with entire bodies of work snatched up by avaricious collectors. And what did these movers and shakers in the art world spend their money on? Well, one of the most sought after works was by video artist, Mark Wallinger. This leading light in new media created a video titled, Sleeper, which is nothing more than the artist wondering around the empty galleries of Germany’s Neue Nationalgalerie at night dressed in a bear suite.

Someone lacking judgment has actually priced this work of genius at $100,000 and it’s being held off the market so that it can be included in a museum collection.

Then there was The Lovers, the latest video wall installation from superstar Bill Viola. The video merely displays two people embracing in a torrent of water, but it sells for $180,000. However, Mr. Viola’s work comes in an “edition” of twelve, each going for the aforementioned price. The grueling and labor intensive process of duplicating his magnum opus by pressing the record button on the video machine must have been awfully demanding work.

Ever feel like you've been cheated? Motti’s bar of soap photographed by REUTERS/Siggi Bucher
A bar of soap, $18,000.

However, nothing quite compared to the masterwork created by Gianni Motti, whose grand artwork become the focus of the art fair and received international attention. It sold to a collector for a hefty price, assuring the artist a place in the pantheon of immortals. Motti’s artwork… a bar of soap, was mounted on black velour under a square plexiglas shield where it was stared at by art lovers and photographed by hordes of paparazzi.

The extraordinary little bar of soap sold for 15,000 Euros, or $18,000.

The artist alleges the bar of soap was rendered from Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s liposuctioned fat, but he offers absolutely no evidence to verify his claim. Whether Motti can prove his assertion or not still leaves us with an act of crude hucksterism perpetrated in the name of art – which pretty much sums up the general theme presented at Art Basel Switzerland.

Also in late June, at the prestigious London auction house of Bonhams, the art world continued its downward spiral when a painting by a chimpanzee was snapped up for $26,250. It should come as no surprise that the artwork by Congo the chimp fetched more money than works by lesser artists also on the auction block… artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Fernand Leger, and Andy Warhol. The primate’s painting was snatched up by Howard Hong, an American collector who describes himself as an “enthusiast of modern and contemporary painting.”

Mr. Hong was prepared to pay up to $50,000 for the chimpanzee masterpiece – which he compared to the early work of Kandinsky. The savvy art collector disclosed he was motivated to purchase the simian tour de force, because in his words, Congo was “the ultimate chimp of the art world.” But I think that might be a title best shared by a number of artists, collectors, curators, and critics in the realm of contemporary art.

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