High Prices and Contemporary Art: The Allure of Being Expensive


My last post discussed conceptual art as being a sort of applied philosophical argument. I want to continue talking art because the high price of some art presents an interesting phenomenon. I’m talking about the multi-million dollar price tag of some contemporary art. What is so important that it’s worth the life time earnings of twenty average Joes? There is no doubt that contemporary art is a product of capitalism. So what would possess a tycoon to invest three million dollars in a rampage of paint splatters?

Well, it could be that they respect artists as great geniuses, mad men with passion and vision, whose passions are a sort of Midas touch—true enough—I’ll  get back to this towards the end. But anybody successful in the art world, other than artist and patrons, knows there is quite a bit of business behind the success. I read a book sometime ago that described the business practices of some renown galleries—it discussed treating patrons as VIPs, calling lists of patrons frequently, offering insider buys etc. Interesting is the practice of galleries offering deeply discounted prices to special patrons. The top galleries cultivate a privileged circle, providing VIP treatment and an aura of exclusivity.

Everything about contemporary art screams exclusivity. Weird abstractions that some people claim their child could have painted or absurd and obscene photographs are the most valuable; the things that bring top dollar. I admit this is a gross generalization BUT the average Joe usually doesn’t make sense of it, at least the part about its worth. What he calls art they call kitsch, a derogatory word for those chainsaw, Elvis on velvet, and Thomas Kincaid paintings. He thinks contemporary art is bullshit but knows there must be a trick to getting people to pay for it. Perhaps it manifests qualities that he simply couldn’t understand. There is something foreign about it, he cannot make sense of it but he knows from movies, museums (that he has never been to), and the strange stories in the news about absurd prices that there is something to it, something elite.

Yes, there are surely unique complexities to every artwork that shouldn’t be understated. There is also the fact of Veblen economics—It goes something like this, if a de Kooning painting is worth a hundred dollars today then it’s not very important and I’m probably not going to be interested in it but if it is worth a hundred thousand then I’ll probably take notice, and because I can’t help but take notice, somebody is going to buy it. Somebody is going to buy it because it is an object of value that commands attention. All this signifies social status whether or not we appreciate the painting because we know it costs a hell of a lot of money.  BTW, you would probably be very lucky to find a descent de Konning painting for a hundred thousand; if you have the opportunity, you should buy it as an investment.

As weird as it may sound, contemporary art can be more lucrative than stocks and bonds. Charles Saatchi gave up a lucrative career as the head of a top advertising agency for an even more lucrative career dealing in embalmed sharks (I mean contemporary art). There is probably nothing that drives the art market more than auction potential. I’ve read stories about dealers staging betting wars and padding prices in a manner that would surely bring SEC investigations if we were talking more traditional securities. But trust that the art market is indeed something like the stock market.

Another reason for paying the price is to immortalize oneself. If an artist is going to make it famous, going to make the history books, then it is an opportunity for the buyer to be part of a great legacy. There is nothing more reflective of our culture than our art. Buying art is a way to contribute to that culture. Wealthy patrons buy expensive art because they believe in greatness. Greatness is being better, being of higher worth and great people like to surround themselves with great things; it’s a demonstration of worth, of taste, etc. High culture is very different from low culture; it has to be!