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In Praise of Sky High Art Auction Prices

Plenty of people seem set to blame money spent at art auctions for the terrible shortcomings of society. Thinking people everywhere should be afraid when simplistic platitudes become public policy.
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Read the headlines: The auction prices are rising for top works of art! And guess what, the scolds are out. There are three arguments that the scolds use to bemoan artworks publicly selling for outrageous sums. Each of these arguments are backward and terribly wrong. When art sells for high prices and grabs headlines, the clucking negativity begins from those who believe they know best. But lovers of art should tune them out and celebrate. Let's look at (and debunk) the fallacious arguments making the rounds after record highs for an art auction were reached.

francis bacon freud

Argument #1: Money is better spent elsewhere.
A friend of mine posted on her Facebook page:

I value art but this is absolutely ridiculous. I can think of other places to put this kind of money (i.e. clean water, health care, scientific research, education).

This mindset is based on the assumption that money is a guaranteed solver of "problems". Instead of buying a $100 million Warhol, suppose the private buyer spent that money on health care. Last year billions were spent on health care and people still got sick. Where would you spend the money? Choose a disease and you are immediately discriminating against another disease. Cancer research doesn't cure heart disease.

And the worst part of the assertion that art money should go to "causes" is that these causes have billions sent their way each year and yet the "problems" they address remain. I just cannot see the Secretary of Education announcing "Oh darn, we were just $142 million away from teaching every single child in America to become a rocket scientist but someone bought a Francis Bacon at auction for that amount and now not a single high schooler can read Dr. Seuss." But plenty of people seem set to blame money spent at art auctions for the terrible shortcomings of society. Thinking people everywhere should be afraid when simplistic platitudes become public policy.

warhol auction

Argument #2: Art is a bad investment
In an historic era where Enron and Lehman Brothers ceased to exist, this hardly makes sense. If anything, big money spent on art brings relief to the economic downtrodden in every other field. Consider this: If the buyer of the $104 million Andy Warhol painting had bought the city block next to your house to develop into luxury condos, your rent would be looking to fly through the roof.

Be glad the money went to a painting instead of helping your landlord be worth ten times what he or she is today.

munch auction

Argument #3: You cannot put a price on art
This is a wonderfully romantic notion. When a 19-year old with his or her first sketchbooks makes this profound observation, I take off my critic cap and smile at the wonderment of someone in the bliss-love state of relating to art. It is a state that wears off. The trick is, of course, to not let it wear off into cynicism but rather the understanding that ideals can survive occasionally uncomfortable contexts.

When the auction prices grab headlines, true idealists usually get big-eyed, smile and say "Wow!" It is the cynics who are pretending to be idealists, that splash cold water over the celebration. Should art be reduced to a dollar sign? Does not great art have an intrinsic value that cannot be defined by money? These and many other questions from freshman philosophy classes are raised with a tone of apocalypse. Should they be?

In Art Appreciation 101, it is common to remind students that Vincent van Gogh never made any money from his art while he was alive. Students are taught that the painters of "The Salon" were becoming wealthy while many Impressionist painters couldn't sell a single picture. Among many reasons for introducing money into the discussion of art, the economic value of art is part of the context in understanding why some art is more valued much more now than in the past. And of course, the opposite happens and the giants of yesteryear sell for a pittance today and that shows us how our values have changed since back then.

But the cynics just want the headlines to go away. Art might get popular and attract more people. The critics of art should be delighted in getting a bigger audience interested in what they write about. It seems their fear of exciting headlines reveals them to be worried that if enough people read about art the public will demand better art commentary.

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