In the Comments to John's post yesterday, I wrote:
Isn't there a section in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art where the author notes that, historically, contemporary works were less valued than traditional ones in the art market, but that recently that's been turned on its head, for the simple reason that there's not enough available supply of traditional art to make a real market? Essentially, he's saying that the money's been chased into contemporary painting because it has nowhere else to go, not because those are the most valued masterpieces. Wish I remembered the book better. I never actually finished it.
This morning I tried to check. I was doubtful that I could manage to find the passage in the book, but that turned out to be moot because I couldn't, um, find the book. My house is like that. I'm not married.
Maybe it's sexist to link the foregoing two sentences, but I would like all you happily married guys out there to consider doing something for your spouses today to let them know you appreciate them—given the likelihood that many of you, without them, would be me.
Cue my theme song.
But I digress. Badly. So anyway, it just occurred to me that maybe someday in the not-so-distant future, photographs will be considered more valuable than paintings. I'm not against contemporary art by any means, but most of it is by definition crap (by the 95%-of-Everything rule) and doesn't even typically hold its value well (that's according to Don Thompson's book too). What the art market needs to function is a controllable supply of product—controllable in several ways; the tastemakers need to be able to anoint the chosen few, and the chosen few need to observe the strict limits on production that the art market demands.
But still...production! How cool is that? I mean, there are six copies of "Rhein II." Shades of Warholia, who figured out how to mass-produce art-product. In a Veblen-good market, one is definitely a better number than "unlimited," but six is quite possibly a much better number than one. It would make it an order of magnitude easier for the regulators of the art market to ensure the delicate balance between rarity and supply.
After all, most traditional paintings have been chased into museums by now, removing them from the art market forever. A great deal of recent contemporary art is locked up now too. One by one, the limited supply of decent recent painters are raised to the pantheon, auctioned off, and locked away too (looks like it's Clyfford Still's turn now). The only things left to buy among traditional paintings are leftovers and the occasional very rare privately offered masterpiece. The same thing happened in rare books; all the great treasures have been institutionalized. You can't build a truly top-flight book collection any more, no matter how much money you have. Try building a collection of impressionist paintings like the Barnes, that has lately been the source of so much controversy in Philadelphia. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet could pool their money and they couldn't even come close. The supply of product just isn't there to be bought.
Think of the advantages photographs have over traditional media from the perspective of the art market. It takes a relative eon to train a contemporary artist; their talents can be fugitive, their accomplishments provisional, the bright arc of their fashionableness heartbreakingly brief. And they're notoriously unreliable. They create on their own schedules, often too much or not enough. They make for poor employees. They drink. They snort coke. A great part of the magic of a top dealer, like Phil Jackson balancing the enormous egos of NBA stars on a Zen needle, is "handling" the volatile or wayward personalities of the artists. By comparison, it takes relatively little effort to make a photograph, and the production can be left to minions. And the supply of photographers is infinite. When the shine on one begins to scuff, it's not that hard to find another who will do.
Furthermore, the strains of the market on art production are showing in other ways, too. Buyers are growing suspicious that the hottest artists-of-the-moment are merely celebrities, really all hype and not a lot else—that the art world is just another wing of celebrity culture. And then there's the probability that not a lot of art buyers actually like the artworks they're buying. That was the point of Don Thompson's title; who really wants a great white shark in a vast tank of poor-quality formaldehyde, especially when the shark is visibly deteriorating and the formaldehyde is growing cloudy? If someone gave that particular piece of art to you, with the provision that you had to keep it and couldn't sell it, would you take it? It might have been a nice way to spend $12 million when it was the latest thing, a good way to showcase your taste and your up-to-the-now hipness—not to mention assert your infinite superiority over poor slobs whose net worth is only $12 million—but sooner or later you'll probably wish you had a closet big enough to stick it away in, behind all those giant Julian Schnabel sculptures you bought in the '80s. Ordinary people (which is what rich people are, only with more money) loved the impressionists. The postmodernists, not so much.
By contrast, everyone loves photographs. All art buyers need is sufficient reassurance that it's okay to like them. And that part's easy.
What got me started thinking of all this was a link sent by a reader who signed him- or herself jamie t, back when we were discussing the record price paid for Andreas Gursky's photograph. The link was to a Sotheby's auction listing page for a Clyfford Still painting, "1949-A-No. 1" (top of post). that sold three days ago for $61,682,500. I assume Jamie's point was that the $4.3 million paid for "Rhein II" last week is still a lot less than paintings go for, and you have to put it in that perspective; which is to say, $4.3 million isn't really very expensive, relatively speaking.
That's true. But what impressed me were some of the other items in that Sotheby's sale. There was an unusually ugly Clyfford Still (above) (still a Still!) that went for a mere $1.26 million; a Calder mobile for a bargain $1.7 million; a very nice de Kooning for only a little more than $3 million; and a cool six-foot-wide Cy Twombly for less than $1.8 million—and he just died!
Gursky's not even dead. That's how crazy this is.
My question became, who would want one of six Gurskys more than a one-of-a-kind de Kooning or Twombly? Not me—and I'm a photography guy to the marrow. Heck, an Ellsworth Kelly sold for the same price the Gursky did, more or less. (I wouldn't want that. Still, an Ellsworth Kelly selling for the same price as a photograph? Never mind Middle Eastern dictators being dragged out of ratholes and roilings in the Euro Zone, we live in strange times.)
Maybe my mindset is stuck back in the 1900s. After all, a lot of the early activity in the photograph-collecting market came about because it was so much cheaper than the "real" art market. That meant you could be far less rich and still participate meaningfully. Ordinary well-off folk could play. Now there's this significant overlap. That wasn't so true even when Ansel's "Moonrise" made news around the world for selling for an awesome $50k.
I would humbly submit that back then, if anyone had suggested that one day you'd have to spend more for a contemporary photograph—any contemporary photograph—than for good paintings by top-level modern artists—for de Kooning, for heaven's sake—you would have been politely dismissed—and accurately assessed—as being out of your mind.
That doesn't prove the whole market is going to eventually do a flipperoo, of course. I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek here: the vision of the really rich vying for photographs while paintings go begging is not entirely sane even now. But it's not entirely out of the question. Stranger things have happened in markets, which are contrived human fabrications too, after all. And with so much capital sloshing around the world (in Niall Ferguson's memorable phrase) looking for a home, and contemporary photographs such a much more efficient product so much better suited for the machinations of the art establishment, who knows, we could see the day yet.
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 Jeff: "I was debating whether to respond yesterday to John's post regarding his pricing predictions. You saved me the effort by citing the relatively recent meteoric rise in photography prices. I couldn't have remotely predicted 7-figure photos this soon after I began collecting a couple of decades back (and since the relatively recent advent of photography itself compared to painting). And I certainly didn't envision these heights for contemporary work.
"This reminds me of the auto auction market where, a few years back, 'resto-rods' (custom cars) based, for example, on the '36-'37 Cord began selling for far more than pristine versions of the original car. The world flipped upside down. This reflects perhaps more on the buyers (the older ones dying off, and the younger ones too young to have owned the original) than it does on the car itself.
"Perhaps, however, I shouldn't have been too surprised at the gains in recent photographs compared to older ones. It took a strangely long time for 19th century photos (i.e., those created at the beginnings of the medium) to gain heights similar to many 20th century works. There were some astoundingly great 19th century buys not so many years ago. Then, once the market was established, it didn't take long to soar, with the corresponding reduction in supply."
Featured Comment by Ed Kirkpatrick: "Never mind the rest of the post.... Thank you, thank you! For the theme song link to Corinne Lucy. Just goes to show, you never know what you are going to find on TOP on any particular day.... Fabulous young lady with an angelic voice."
Featured Comment by Ruud van Ruitenbeek: "I am married and there lots of books we both cannot find!"