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.

The aim of these two books is to explain the symbolic connection between art and money. Jonathan Brown offers a kind of historical explanation: in the 17th century, ‘the status of painting as the most prestigious and costly art was by no means universally accepted,’ he writes, noting that a set of jewel-encrusted liturgical objects in Cardinal Richelieu’s collection was appraised more highly than any of their owner’s paintings, which included Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, to which it would probably be impossible to assign a monetary value today (the Mona Lisa is uninsured for just that reason). And tapestries –‘which seem today to enjoy about the same esteem as secondhand clothing’ – outclassed paintings in the category of pictorial arts: a set of tapestries after Raphael’s designs (woven in gold and silver, to be sure) was valued at nearly triple the price of the artist’s painting, The Holy Family, though Raphael’s were among the most highly sought-after paintings in the time. Nevertheless, ‘during the 17th century significant steps were taken in the long process by which the symbolic value of an artwork was uncoupled from its material value’ – from the jewels in Richelieu’s liturgical utensils and from the gold and silver of the Raphael tapestries, we might observe – ‘and at the heart of this process are the collecting activities pursued at the courts of London, Madrid, Brussels and Paris.’ The characterisation of these ‘steps’ is doubtless part of the purpose of this appropriately opulent book, which takes a connoisseur’s delight in describing the formation and the break-up of that century’s great painting collections, particularly in those courts. The deep achievement of royal and aristocratic accumulation was that paintings ‘became increasingly important as markers of cultural enlightenment’– more important than castles, expensive mistresses, thoroughbred horses, extravagant entertainments and jewels ‘fit for a king’. At the same time the philosophical status of painting was transformed in such a way that, in Hegel’s stupendous vision of the early 19th century, art, religion and philosophy were bracketed together as what he called three ‘moments’ of absolute spirit. And the puzzle is that it was not thanks to the association of painting with kings that this took place, for nothing like that happened with castles, jewellery etc: it was the association of kings with paintings that gave the former their cachet of cultural enlightenment. ‘At its heart is the conceptual transformation of painting from a manual craft to a liberal art.’

Painting became a liberal art, one might say, because it became associated with a form of liberal critical discourse. Paintings were understood not merely as objects of aesthetic beauty, but as bearers of meanings which it required a measure of cultivation to be able to discern, so that alongside and in distinction to the connoisseur’s knowledge was the discourse of the theorist and the art critic: ‘A fabulous gemstone might be admired for its size, rarity, brilliance and cut, but it provided no information or insight into human history and conduct or the mysteries and the meaning of faith.’ One needed not just a good eye, able to tell the difference between original and copy, as between a master and an imitator, but an educated intelligence as well: paintings were equated with poetry, paradigmatically a liberal art; and ‘it behoved princes who regarded themselves as promoters of cultural progress to own and understand them.’ So, ‘in the end a powerful symbiosis was achieved between the cultural prestige of painting and the social prestige of princes, although painting was the greater beneficiary of the process.’

This is not an altogether unfamiliar account, but there remains an important distinction between owning art and building an art collection. The great 17th-century collections were immense and often acquired with an astonishing rapidity, and in a way they have an affinity with the immense stacks of slain tigers next to which maharajas and fierce imperial hunters are photographed in a later stage of history. ‘Strange as it may seem today,’ Brown writes, ‘many of the most important purchases were made sight unseen by the eventual owners, particularly if they were rulers or important courtiers.’ Rubens spoke of Charles I as ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’, and given the usual bases for ascribing prestige to kings – their conquests, their victories, their power – it certainly marked a transformation in the criteria of status to praise a king for his love of painting.

Building a collection may parallel building a library, which requires more by way of explanation than simply loving literature and being able to talk about it intelligently. And, to come down to the present day, collecting as an activity, however driven the collector may be by love of art, is not necessarily as closely indexed to having lots of money as it was in the era Brown has chosen to describe so delightfully. Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a New York couple, put together a famous collection of contemporary art on Herb’s salary as a postal worker: it was a cultural event of some moment when they donated it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And Jean Brown, the author’s mother, to whose memory his book is dedicated, amassed a magnificent collection of Fluxus objects of an often astonishing ephemerality. She must have spent money, but not the kinds of sum that take the breath away. A good theory of collecting would have to regard money as a means rather than a symbol.

Marc Shell undertakes a somewhat more metaphysical account of what, in his terms, binds together and drives apart the realms of art and money’. His book ‘looks into how money becomes (or is) artwork and how artwork comes to assume the characteristic of money’. The ‘is’ is the is of identity and hence, so far as the author can be followed in what is less an argument than a dense recitation of facts, or what on CNN have come to be called ‘factoids’, he is not interested in price as something conferred on art, nor, accordingly, in art as a commodity. When he writes that ‘prices and exhibitions have made the study of art and money urgent,’ he adds: ‘at least for investors and cultural critics,’ excluding himself from their company. So before exchanging money for the book, readers should be warned that his subject is ‘not the political economy of art as pursued by art historians and critics’; and hence not ‘the place of art as commodity in a national economy, the general disappearance from the public sphere of costly artworks, the ... role of patrons and dealers, the motives for private collecting, the politics of mass distribution, the commercial effect of museums, the influence of advertisements’. In particular, he is not concerned with the depiction of money in paintings, though a lot of the illustrations in his fascinatingly illustrated book are of just that. No: ‘money is not just one theme, visible content, or “root metaphor” in some paintings: it participates actively in all.’ Art, in brief, is money, in just the way in which money is money. And one must, I suppose, set aside entirely the question of why art costs what it costs in much the way one would set aside the question of why money costs whatever it costs. Given this ontological agenda, the book explores two sets of analogies, – between coins and artworks and between paper money and artworks. If proof were needed that this will explain very little about the ‘skyrocketing’ of art prices, think of what it would mean in terms of pocket change!

The coin recommends itself as a paradigm because it typically consists of a design stamped on a piece of metal which, in Shell’s way of thinking, instantly sets up associations with ‘mind and matter’ and, more directly, with ‘Jesus as god-man – a manifestation of an ideal and a real thing’ – and, of course, with paintings which, like Jesus, are embodied ideas: ideas made paint the way Jesus was the Word made flesh. Or, one might say with equal justice, the way a written sentence is thought made ink. If one were men to write, for whatever reason, a book in the Derridian mode called ‘Money & Writing’ and draw out the parallels between coins and sentences, it would, if one had a lot of learning, resemble Shell’s book (which also contains a discussion of gold ink). Whatever the case, the analogies lead to differences and similarities in attitudes to money of Christianity and Judaism – complicated, in the former case, by (Shell tells us) the compromising analogies between Jesus and coins. From here we are taken on a guided tour through the topics of iconoclasm, the Holy Grail, the Eucharist (of course, shaped like a coin and, of course, exhibiting a complex relationship between spirit and flesh), gold as semen (as when Zeus transformed himself into a shower of gold in order to have his will with Danae, giving Christologists a handy paradigm for the impregnation of Mary and, in consequence, underwriting the numismatic character of Jesus), the Holy Foreskin, rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God – and, as the advertisements for epic movies promise, ‘much much more’. Art, I am afraid, comes into the picture more by way of illustration than of exemplification (for instance, pictures of coins slipping between the thighs of Danae in paintings by Titian and Klimt). The art does not reveal its own numismatic character. Only when Shell turns to paper money does he find a curious sub-genre of conceptual art, as in certain works-on-paper by Les Levine and Robert Morris which in effect are, as well as are of, financial instruments Further examples: a joke cheque by Duchamp with which he paid a dentist’s bill, or a ten D-mark bill on which Joseph Beuys writes ‘Kunst = KAPITAL,’ and signs it, giving it a value considerably in excess of ten D-marks. But these recherché cases go no great distance towards establishing the general identification of art and money, and the explanation of how they got to be money-art calls tot an analysis of conceptual art rather than a conceptual analysis of coins, the Eucharist etc.

It is a kind of crazy book, and the author concedes as much:

Art & Money, as it gathers together impressions and representations of artworks and artefacts generally kept separate, may appear to many readers like an outlandish catalogue – a museum-like repository of trivial anecdotes and acts or a Ripley’s ‘Believe it or Not’. I might go so far toward razzing this aspect of Art & Money as to compare it with ... Guillaume van Haecht’s 17th-century L’Atelier d’Apelle, a painting which exhibits myriad paintings for potential sale or exchange [or] David Tenier’s painting Gallery of Leopold of Brussels with its scattered collection of artworks.

As it happens, both the paintings Shell cites are illustrated in Brown’s book. Haecht’s, according to Brown, shows the triumph of painting ‘to the virtual exclusion of other media’ and, in particular, to the exclusion of the curiosa which, in an earlier period, mingled with paintings to form the Wunderkammer of princes. Leopold William is one of the great collectors Brown discusses, and Tenier’s painting of his collection is historically remarkable because it shows only pictures as displayed objects. The artist’s intention is ‘to show the world that Leopold William has joined the world of the great princely collections’. Shell’s ‘museum’ is less like the cabinets these paintings celebrate than a Wunderkammer filled with oddities you may believe or not.

It is a kind of breathless entertainment, but, like the Wunderkammer, sometimes displays its curiosities under false labels, showing, for example, as unicorn horns the horns of narwhals. When discussing coins, Shell speaks of that sub-class in which the actual value of the metal corresponds to the inscription on the coin’s face, so the coin is in itself worth what it says. He then offers this correspondence as exemplifying the relationship summarised in Thomas Aquinas’s characterisation of truth: ‘adequatio res et intellectus – the unifying of the thing with the intellectual conception of it’. That does not make truth ‘numismatic’, as he wants to claim. A coin may satisfy its own truth conditions in certain cases, but the distinction between intellectus and res does not typically require self-instantiation in this way, or the only true sentences would be those which do self-instantiate – like ‘This sentence is in English.’ Shell tells us that Heidegger ‘seems to suggest’ that truth is ‘in this sense numismatic’ and that ‘in Being and Time an anti-semitic Heidegger notes wrongly that this definition of truth was essentially Jewish.’ Heidegger ‘notes’ no such thing. He situates Aquinas’s formulation, one of the classical formulations of the so-called Correspondence Theory of Truth, in a tradition which goes back through Avicenna and Isaac Israeli to Aristotle. That Israeli was a Jew hardly makes the theory Jewish. Nor is the theory itself something that Heidegger repudiates: he simply (!) wants to see in what such a formulation is grounded, going on to show that truth refers to a certain mode of ‘being-in-the world’, after which one can speak of correspondence. In any case, this has nothing to do with art and money, any more than res and intellectus is best illustrated by those coins which are also ingots. The res, consisting of those two marvellous cabinet paintings to which he compares his book, in no way correspond to the intellectus of Shell’s self-indulgent work. What he has done is to pile up facts and factoids, collected over the years, which fail to spark the thesis he hoped was there.