Features Magazine

Weighing up the real value of art

Why galleries are now cogs in a not-so-creative industry

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Jeremy Clarkson praised Amsterdam as a cool place, “not for its windmills and tulips” but for its “Liverpudlians vomiting on Filipino prostitutes”. Sadly, this was a true enough description. But during the Covid years we saw few Liverpudlian drunks, prompting sighs of relief from residents, even if shops and pubs groaned at the loss of tourist income. 

But the art world groans as well: for many of the city’s theatres, concert halls, festivals, museums and its opera house also depend heavily on tourism, and they struggled under the Covid lockdown. Closed for months, they could not sell tickets, for the loss of which revenue they are only partially compensated. 

Moreover, the Corona-crisis engendered an inverse — and perhaps perverse — selective mechanism: the more dependent on government subsidies an institution is, the less it suffered from the Covid crisis, whereas those that mostly support themselves are correspondingly more affected. 

In addition, we are said to be suffering from a “diversity crisis”. During the last distribution cycle, some institutions were denied subsidy for not employing enough people of colour — that concept dividing humanity into two categories, white and everyone else, which seems more reminiscent of 1930s Alabama than of a progressive city such as Amsterdam. 

In spite of my protests as a city councillor, an outdoor theatre in a park putting on popular performances of Shakespeare lost funding to make way for venues deemed more multicultural. With the consequences of Covid policy having strained the city budgets to breaking point, these are challenging times for the art world. So I put forward an idea that could provide much-needed relief. The city owns the vast collection of the Stedelijk Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art: more than 100,000 works, mostly stored in depots. Why not sell a few? 

Take, for instance, the pop-art triptych As I Opened Fire by Roy Lichtenstein. This painting was bought in the 1970s by the city, which fully controlled the museum, for roughly $16,000, but its insurance value was recently estimated at €60 million. A fraction of this sum could prevent a host of struggling art institutions from going bankrupt and help them recover. 

Part of these revenues could also be used to support talented artists whose work does not fetch astronomical prices, a function the museum previously fulfilled but has now lost. And to be honest, €60 million seems an absurd amount of money for a rather uninteresting painting. 

Perhaps to transfer a scene from a comic book to canvas was remarkable at the time, supposedly poking fun at the pretensions of abstract expressionism while also serving as an ironic commentary of American jingoism. But this was already quite lame when painted in 1964. This work is no Picasso, no Francis Bacon. It is not even an Andy Warhol. 

My suggestion … sparked national outrage

My suggestion at a meeting of the city council, however, sparked national outrage and threw the Dutch art community into a prolonged hissy-fit. The NRC, deemed the Dutch equivalent of the Guardian and the New York Times, and the country’s most serious newspaper, wrote a commentary bubbling with rage about how hurtful, insensitive, and disturbing the mere suggestion was, especially from a Christian politician chronically reluctant to spend taxpayers’ money. 

Only a knuckle-dragging nincompoop deprived of any artistic feeling could possibly suggest such a thing. Why, this would be like shipping off our Vermeers and Rembrandts to Abu Dhabi or the United States. One art critic wrote a lengthy op-ed lamenting the existence of those who “confuse artistic values with euro bills” and the rampant materialism afflicting the arts, adding: If only there could be fewer Diederik Boomsmas in the world! 

Personally I hope that this number, that I suspect is either one or close to one, will remain roughly the same, at least for the foreseeable future. I expected angry rebuttals, but also hoped for a serious discussion. Plenty of arguments can be made against “deaccessioning”. It would be foolish for a museum to sell its prized possessions for short-term gain. Great works should be kept safe to be admired by future generations. 

If museums founded to preserve a collection “monetize” their collection only to preserve the museum as an institution, ends will have been lost sight of (athough the Stedelijk museum does not claim to function purely as an historic collection). 

Perhaps one could make a case for the Lichtenstein painting to be considered so canonical that selling it would deprive visitors of the chance to understand a crucial work in the history of art. But you could do many important things with €60 million — whether it’s supporting theatres, orchestras, promising artists, or say, providing the homeless with dental care. Precisely because the value of those things might appear more tangible, urgent but also unenduring to many people, it might well feel unfair and cheap to make the comparison. 

Interestingly though, amongst all the rage and fury, there was not a single person who tried to defend the Lichtenstein painting for its artistic or aesthetic merits. No critic, journalist, director, or curator described his or her enduring love of the work, extolled its brilliant use of colour and light, its abiding significance, the deep truths about the human condition it illumines, the inspiration they drew or the consolation the work had given them. Or even what a new and exciting developments it represented in twentieth century painting. Nada. 

In fact, nothing specific was said about the painting at all, except that the director of the museum did point out it was most popular with tourists for taking selfies. All the outrage was generalised and abstract, taking the form of vacuous statements that Art is “essential,” if only more people could understand it. 

In his 1925 essay “The Dehumanisation of Art”, José Ortega y Gasset argued that the new art that was gaining ground in his day was not so much un-popular as anti-popular, because its underlying motive was to divide the audience into a small in-crowd, who could claim to understand it, and the masses, who could not. A man who does not like a painting because it is ugly, feels superior to it. But if he cannot understand it, he will feel offended by it. 

Perhaps As I Opened Fire is hinting at such a theory, since the work is unabashedly derivative, having been adapted from a popular comic book. It seems not particularly difficult to understand. If Ortega’s theory holds true, however, anti-popular art permanently provokes conflict, for the small in-crowd expects the masses to foot the bill through taxes. 

As, indeed, the Amsterdam Museum does. A family of four in the city contributes about $100 annually to the museum through the subsidies it receives. One might legitimately fear that selling expensive works would set a dangerous precedent. But perhaps this response still tells us something, not merely about knuckle-dragging nincompoops, who no doubt are many, but also about the contemporary art world itself and its gatekeepers. 

They seem to have ensconced themselves, not in a lofty ivory tower, but in its damp basement. They dig a moat to protect their citadel against the hungry barbarians of the forest, but as a result, they are merely flooding the basement. To cry “barbarian” at anyone who appears to question the sanctity of any work considered high art, or more importantly, its entitlements from the public purse, might not be a winning strategy in the long run. 

Nevertheless, when lamenting the way money dominates the contemporary art world, my frothing critics were on to something. Contemporary art has become a playground for speculating billionaires. In the 20 years to 2019, annual art sales have tripled to $64 billion, twice the turnover of professional European football. In recent decades, museum directors and investors have developed lucrative schemes of mutual backscratching. One common approach is this: wealthy collector sits on a museum board, hears things, and buys several paintings from a contemporary artist who has sparked interest. Then, the museum director agrees to exhibit and praise them. Hey presto, the market value of the artist’s work goes up. 

This is so because the price of contemporary art is almost wholly determined by endorsements by its high priests who run the museums and galleries. Although absolved by a later investigation, the former director of the Stedelijk Museum, German-born Beatrix Ruf, was forced to resign her position after failing to disclose possible conflicts of interest. 

During her two years as director, she was paid millions for having advised wealthy billionaires on which works to buy. After such advice, such works, or others by the same artist, would often be exhibited, which increases their reputation, and thus, their price. This is all too like insider trading. The growing involvement of a spiritually empty but needy strata of the super-rich ensures that the profits of buying and selling say, a banana taped to a wall, could support an orchestra or theatre for decades. 

But does this mean that there are works of art with a monetary value now vastly greater than their intrinsic, artistic worth? Not that those two measure of worth are commensurate, but at some point, collectors must ponder such questions. So I asked the director of the Stedelijk Museum whether, if it was too painful to let the Lichtenstein go, surely among the tens of thousands of works of art stored in its depots there might be a few that are artistically less important to the collection? He responded: “Everything expensive is important to the collection.” 

To equate market value automatically with artistic merit is to surrender

To equate market value automatically with artistic merit is to surrender the purpose of a museum of contemporary art, which is to set its own standards of quality and meaning and to buy and display work of true aesthetic and artistic value, rather than to participate in a new Tulipomania — with inevitably collapsing monetary values in a few years’ time. To assume that every single work ever bought or displayed is automatically and irreversibly incorporated in an eternally fixed canon, is to stop all meaningful discussion of artistic value. 

The comparison with Vermeer and Rembrandt with Lichtenstein seems particularly unhelpful. The meaning and value of the former are hardly determined by the whims of art critics but lie rather in the quality and beauty of the paintings themselves. Historically, works of art would be made to be displayed in homes, palaces, offices, or churches, where they would have to be loved and appreciated. But a lot of contemporary art skips this stage, and is made directly for the museum, there to lie forgotten in enormous vaults. Why not be thankful for the bad taste of billionaires and take advantage of it by selling acquisitions at inflated prices while there is still time to do so? 

One is reminded of Oscar Wilde, and Lord Darlington’s quip that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, but also to Cecil Graham’s response that a sentimentalist is a man who sees absurd value in everything without knowing the market price of anything. Perhaps it is possible to be sentimental cynic.

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