Owning Art

Arthur C. Danto

  • Kings and Connoisseurs: Collecting Art in 17th-Century Europe by Jonathan Brown
    Yale, 264 pp, £35.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 300 06437 3
  • Art & Money by Marc Shell
    Chicago, 230 pp, £27.95, June 1995, ISBN 0 226 75213 5

By ironic circumstance, I spent an evening recently at the home of a major collector of contemporary art, where the topic arose of the house which Bill Gates, the legendarily successful head of Microsoft, is having built for himself at a rumoured cost of anything up to $30 million. We sought to understand how a house could cost so much, and the somewhat stammering conjecture was that it must be due to the complex system of state-of-the-art electronics a figure like Gates would insist on having. None of us was sure of this explanation, but everyone knew roughly the kind of reason that must apply. Had the question arisen that evening of how a painting by Jasper Johns could have sold at auction for a closely parallel figure, the explanations offered would surely have had little to do with the cost of encaustic medium or the size of the panel. Someone would have spoken of the importance of the particular work and, possibly, have argued that $17.5 million for Johns was perhaps not out of order if a Japanese purchaser had paid $82.5 million for Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet in 1990. But had anyone asked that evening, not why this or that painting should equal or exceed the cost of an extraordinarily costly home, but how it happens that paintings have come to be so expensive, it is difficult to imagine how the conversation would have gone.

Last autumn, Sotheby’s and Christie’s ended a week of auctions of Impressionist and modern (but not contemporary) art which, for the first time since 1990, broke the $100 million mark. Whence the willingness to pay for paintings sums vastly in excess of those of a home so costly as to exceed easily imagined explanations? The astronomical price of the Van Gogh may have been an eccentricity, rather than a milestone in the inevitable ascent to the $100 million canvas, and the same may be said of the $17.5 for which the Johns was knocked down. Indeed, the giddiness which characterised the market in contemporary art in the Eighties may itself have been a perturbation. Affluent purchasers doubtless reassured themselves with considerations bearing on investment potential and conceivably the current flat market in contemporary art testifies to the weakening of such hopes.

Still, economic calculation cannot altogether explain the ambition to own art, and it is difficult to agree with cultural critics who suppose that economic considerations must inevitably affect the way we look at art. A writer cited by Marc Shell in Art & Money asserts that ‘one thing is clear: when vast sums of money are attached to works, their artistic merit becomes confused with their value as commodities.’ But painting has been, as the expression goes, ‘commodified’ since the Renaissance, and it has never been exactly cheap. Paintings in the 17th century were, to be sure, ‘inexpensive compared to other items of luxury consumption such as jewellery or silver-plate’, according to Jonathan Brown in Kings and Connoisseurs, who makes the comparison vivid by observing that the cost of lace on a gown worn in 1613 by the daughter of James I was, at £1700, ‘more valuable than all but a few paintings in the famous collection of his brother, Charles I’. At the same time a certain value, undefinable in economic terms, came to be attached to the ownership of paintings which had no equivalent in the ownership of lace gowns or silver-plate – or even palatial dwellings. And almost certainly this value, however it is to be understood, figured in the demand for art in the Eighties, which was merely sweetened by the anticipation of irresistibly ascending resale values. To acquire art is to claim a certain symbolic status for oneself, beyond that of having enough money to acquire it.

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