On May 11, 2015, Al Jazeera reported that Picasso’s 1955 painting “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” had sold at Christie’s auction house in Manhattan for a record breaking $179.4 million. The title previously belonged to Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” which sold at Christie’s in 2013 for $142.4 million.
Al Jazeera posted an article on November 17, 2013 titled “Art sales records shattered with global rise of billionaires.” This piece explains how there are a little over 2,000 billionaires worldwide, many of them emerging from new markets in the East, and that they are scrambling to find somewhere to put their violently exorbitant amounts of excess capital. As we might wander around on our days off with our wallets out and attempt to invest in a pleasant day of leisure, our new billionaires, along with the old American and European mainstays, are deciding to invest their money in the work of the predominantly dead, white, male twentieth century ‘masters.’
If you are eager to spend an art-hopping afternoon in Manhattan or London, it would be wise to forgo a museum or two and spend an afternoon at the auction house. Here, the speculative nature of art’s idealogical and material value is not experienced, discussed, or debated; it is defined. These pieces will be viewed in their newly naturalized context of aggressive business transaction, high luxury, and global investment, rather than in the hallowed haven of the museum, which attempts to keep the piece quietly in the context of art history, bathed in soft light, untouchable, static, yet available to be absorbed by whoever can afford admission. Which is more artificial?
Monday’s anonymous buyer was not in the auction room and literally had someone else doing their bidding for them. I wonder if they have even seen “Les Femmes” in person. Our anonymous buyer’s relationship to this piece of work is based on the pleasure of winning the game. Some people play the game for the trophy, some people don’t, but most of us enjoy holding the trophy against our chests, drinking champagne from its deep cup, tending to its dusty edges and thinking, Look what I have done, look what I have been able to do.
Naturally, we ask, Is this painting worth $179.4 million? Naturally, we answer, No. But, any artwork, anything, is paradoxically worth nothing and what someone is willing to pay. Most artworks of cultural value, with the exception of patronized or commissioned works, are made with no concern for their monetary value and are fiscally worthless. As “Les Femmes” became considered an important painting by the powers that be, its monetary value increased and it slowly morphed into a luxury object. Some of Picasso’s earliest collectors, Viktor and Sally Ganz, were unable to afford Picassos by the end of their lifetime. If the painting’s importance kept escalating at the rate of its price, we would be living in a very different kind of world.
When museums and other art institutions buy artworks for their permanent collections, they extract these works from endless circulation in the market economy by elevating them to the realm of the ‘priceless’ objects. They essentially become worthless again and their speculative price no longer factors into the discussion of the work. Buying a piece of art for a few hundred or a few thousand or a few million dollars is one thing. When a piece sells for $179.4 million, what discussion is there apart from this sale? Its fiscal worth decreases its ideological worth to zero because our anonymous buyer’s exercise of power over “Les Femmes” totally defines it. (It is unlikely that this works in reverse, that the painting exercises so much power over our anonymous buyer to totally define them.) Whatever this work once meant to art critics, historians, lovers, and the public, that has ceased to be. “Les Femmes” now means $179.4 million and anything else apart from discussions of the sale, the ever-hostile relationship between business and art, the growing economy of super rich, is arbitrary.
If money was out of the question, who would “Les Femmes” belong to? How would this work circulate and why? Take the billionaires and museums out of the equation, and the painting is not a trophy, it is just a painting. Where or what is its place?