I’ve heard it said more than once now about today’s art market and it’s worth repeating: the emperor has no clothes!
The classic Hans Christian Andersen tale tells of the king convinced that he is wearing a fine suit that he cannot see. His people cannot see it either but don’t want to upset the king who thinks that they can see it. The curious charade of a naked king in plain sight is revealed when an innocent child blurts out “But he has nothing on at all.”
So it goes with the works that curiously lead today’s art market. Case in point is a mammoth $400 million auction coming up at Christie’s at Rockefeller Center. The Nov. 14 auction features “major Abstract Expressionist works but also seminal Pop Art icons, and Contemporary masterpieces.”
The evening sale will be led by a Franz Kline work, “Untitled 1957.” Yet, the work, valued at $20-$30 million, appears to be no more than a few incoherent large scribbles of a brush.
Call me a layman in the holy church of modern art, but the emperor plainly does not appear to be wearing anything.
Lest I lose my head, I’ll stifle my laughter and reserve judgment to listen to what the emperor’s trusted adviser, Christie’s has to say. (Remember, like an adviser, the auction house makes its money from the emperor’s pocket.)
Christie’s edifies: “A large, powerful and almost visually explosive work with its vast, sweeping brushstroke forms colliding into one another create a taut and febrile tension of surface, a classic example of the tradition established by Kline’s works. Untitled 1957 is the most important and the rarest painting by the artist ever presented on the market, and the most significant American Abstract Expressionist work to be offered at auction this season in New York. “
Let’s deconstruct what is actually being said here. The work is “large,” that is true, it’s approximately 7 feet by 8 feet. Still, while my six-year-old son might create a comparable image when trying to depict a heap of sticks, we may need to wait until he is 8 or 9 years old before he can work on such a large scale.
The next statement “powerful and almost visually explosive work with its vast, sweeping brushstroke forms colliding into one another create a taut and febrile tension of surface.” This could be said of some of my son’s existing scribbles. If there is an intellectuality that comes through with Kline’s explosive scribble, we could simply assemble some intellectually accomplished adults, with no artistic background whatsoever, and have them scribble to the same effect, could we not?
The next few phrases transform Kline’s large scribble into a “classic” and “most important and the rarest” by a simple convention whereby my son’s six-year-old scribble will be a classic when, at age 56, he is scribbling on page edges to get the ink flowing in his pen. (It could very well be his most important and rarest as well if I can get him to do the 7 feet by 8 feet version!)
And finally, we are left to dwell on the fact that the $20-$30 million price tag derives from the artistic period from which it emerged: American Abstract Expressionism. But what is American Abstract Expressionism? It’s in capital letters and Christie’s seems to think it’s important, so it must be in important, right? Still, I’m staring at the emperor’s underwear and it doesn’t look pretty.
Abstract Expressionism belongs to the genres of art that have come to define the Modern Art period in general, raking in the largest dollar sums. However, their starting point is throwing out the traditions fostered by millennia of great artists dating to antiquity. It is not hard to understand that the reasoning here itself is an abomination.
Previous art forms were truly great, from Leonardo da Vinci perfecting art through discovery of works from Ancient Rome and Greece to the exquisite works of French Academy painters of the 19th century to the increasingly marginalized realist painters of the present. Previous art forms and periods built on the traditions that came before them, perfecting the human form, mastering light and shadow, and putting their own profound insights into the arrangement and depiction of coherent subject matter.
In the last 100 years, like an old and demented emperor sitting in his underwear, today’s art market has essentially been decaying. Work’s like Kline’s “Untitled 1957” tear down the past with strange new creations that operate like malignant tumors on the skin of our society. They do not build holistically, healthily, or positively upon humanity’s evolving creations.
Incidentally, also on Nov. 14, Christie’s will hold, though with much less fanfare, a wonderful sale of Old Master and 19th Century Art in the Netherlands. These are excellent works, some of which are powerful and visually explosive in ways that are truly meaningful and truly represent a healthy humanity. I know which sale I’ll be going to.
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