Last night was another glorious success for the art auction house Sotheby’s, taking in $230 million from 60 lots sold. Best selling was Cezanne’s still life, Les Pommes, pictured above, which went for $41.6 million including the buyers premium, $10 million higher than the estimated price. French impressionist art is trending again, after a few years where the market has been dominated by post-war and contemporary works.
In 2004, the late Robert Hughes wrote,
When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological. As Picasso’s biographer John Richardson said to a reporter on that night of embarrassment at Sotheby’s, no painting is worth a hundred million dollars.
The price of these most expensive paintings is a matching up of the buyer’s subjective appreciation and the size of his wallet. Since the spiritual moral and aesthetic value of art is strictly speaking incalculable, and since a unique and beautiful work of art only ever exists once, the mistake is to treat them in these auctions as effectively infinite in value. That is where the pathology comes in—the object is treated as capable of absorbing infinite desire, the consumer is consumed by the object he desires, and that consumption is marketed as a model of artistic appreciation.
Still, individual buyers may be free from such pathology, though it inflames the art market. And Picasso is the world’s favorite status commodity for more than superficial reasons; his paintings represent the world’s vision of its ideal self: egotistical, erotic, enacting messianic compassion, and wrestling like Jacob with the limits of space and time.