If you'll briefly go back to this week's "Book o' the Week" post, take a quick look at the cover of Photographers A-Z...then answer this question, "which of the pictures on the cover is the world's most valuable photograph?"
Give up? You wouldn't be alone.
It's the one in the upper right. Correct. A print of Cindy Sherman's 1981 picture Untitled sold a week ago last Wednesday at Christie's for $3,890,500 (all that money, and you don't even get a title), making it the most valuable photograph ever. That is, ever in the history of humankind's tenure on planet Earth.
Absurd? Of course. Cindy Sherman, if you don't know the name, earned her bones in the '80s for a series of theatrical, posed self-portraits showing herself in various guises, which supposedly played on the interstitching and the disjointure of appearance with identity. Sort of a heady apotheosis of what any demure high school sophomore girl in Photo 101 class does when she makes a self-portrait of herself in heels, makeup, and teased hair with a little bare shoulder showing.
If you were harboring any vestige of the notion that monetary value in the art market and inherent worth of any kind have any congruence at all, this should put the coffin-lid on that. It's a good picture, and it's a significant picture. It's certainly not a million-dollar picture, in any but a fatally distorted marketplace. Like the one we have.
So what happened here? No idea; I can only surmise that two guys who are much richer than social justice needs anyone to be got into a pissing match with each other and bid well past the point of sober good sense, each egging the other on. (The buyer was presumably bidding with someone else's money. Do I need an "allegedly" with that? Am I going to get in trouble?)
As to the picture...if I were to make a list of the world's 100 most significant photographs—no, 200—this wouldn't be on it. I don't know if any Cindy Sherman would be on it, but then, that's not really the question, because this isn't even the best Cindy Sherman. Amend the foregoing: not 200; 500.
This is a significant sale in one sense: it proves once and for all, if proof were needed, that auction prices for photographs are completely decoupled from any sane notion of artistic worth or significance. Color-coupler prints, a.k.a. Type C, i.e. the same thing you get from your roll of color film at any Walgreen's—aren't even stable.
I can tell you one thing. If I were Cindy, I'd get back into the darkroom and knock out a few more copies of that one poste haste. WTF, indeed.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Driver8: "If someone paid almost $4 million for a Cindy Sherman print, who cares? Should we have a Czar of Arts who determines what art has value and what doesn't? In the Soviet Union, the Committee on Arts Affairs determined what art was fit for public consumption and what wasn't. Is that the alternative we want? Forget it. I love the free art market. It's quirky, unpredictable, and makes no sense to us rational beings. Most artists toil all their lives, make no headway, and cannot fathom why their work is underappreciated. A small handful get 'lucky,' hit the jackpot, and are famous eternally. That's art—that's life. And personally, I kind of like Cindy Sherman."
Mike replies: Just because I wouldn't have it any other way doesn't mean I have to give up my right to ridicule.
Featured Comment by Michael Bearman: "Mike, I'm not sure you're right. Haven't you ever paid more than something was worth just because you liked it and you could? The price is simply relative to the wealth of the purchaser; social justice ain't the American way is it? I just hope they really, really, really, like the print and actually look at it rather than put it into a temperature and humidity controlled bank vault for eternity; but I think that might be in vain."
Featured Comment by Jack: "The buyer is an art 'advisor' to wealthy collectors? Surely it makes financial sense to bump the value of any Sherman photos that they already have in their collection. This sort of thing goes on in financial markets and even ebay all the time. Why should the art world be immune from manipulation? Same game, different toys."
Featured Comment by Hugh Crawford: "Not as wacky as this price.
"My friend Jamie Livingston of '6,697 Polaroids, dated in sequence' fame used to live in the same loft building as Cindy Sherman, and I kept thinking 'that woman I keep seeing in the hall looks really familiar but I can't place her at all.'"