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Saturday, 12 November 2011


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The fine art market is the natural habitat of the modern con artist: "It's not stealing if they GIVE you the money."

This is perfectly fine. Some people desperately need to be relieved of their wealth. I suspect that nine-figure photographs will prove an excellent source of relief over time.

There is really no good reason that the art supply "problem" couldn't
be addressed by better valuing-and monetizing-the works of either little-known living artists OR photographers. Or both.

And the argument that photographers are inherently more stable than
artists seems absurd . Certainly for every HCB out there there's at least one Eugene Smith, a Larry Clark and a Diane Arbus.
For every Henri Matisse there's a Picasso, a Robert Rauschenberg, and a Jackson Pollock..... I think it's a wash.

A media centric view of Art seems as out of date as an earth centered view of the universe. Why would we expect people to collect that way today and in the future? Why price structure that way?

And if we're concerned about too much "supply" there's always the work from recently dead obscure artists and photogs. But that doesn't help them make a living ;-(

"A media centric view of Art seems as out of date as an earth centered view of the universe. Why would we expect people to collect that way today and in the future? Why price structure that way?"

So you're saying art collectors simply respond to their aesthetic impression of a piece without regard to whether it's a painting or a photograph? That has not been my impression of the collectors I know.


"My house is like that. I'm not married."

I'm very married but I could still lose an elephant in the clutter of our apartment. Both the missus and I are lifelong charter members of the Adult Attention Deficit Club.

On topic.
Considering John Camp's post yesterday and the flood of response I think we could add art to politics and religion as things best never to discuss. Can't you just get back to simple matters such as 'what's better; film or digital.'

"I'm not against contemporary art by any means, but most of it is by definition crap"
Very true, but remove the word 'contemporary' and its still true. The difference is that most of the crap from earlier centuries simply hasn't survived. Its human nature that some consider themselves as great artists (no matter what the medium) but have no talent or ability to produce good art-by any definition except their own. Today, we see the as yet extant crap. And sometimes there are people with money who will buy it.
A further factor is that the auction market didn't exist until the mid to late 1800s. Most art was produced under contract to a religious or government group, or a wealthy patron. This probably helped filter the surviving art, as other art mostly wasn't held to be worth saving.And don't forget the effect of changing social preferences and standards. We see many nudes in art today, but how many of the "plump" Reubens bodyform? In Reuben's time most people had just enough to eat-or less. Being plump was a social indicator of wealth and status. Today the emaciated model is the "norm". How will history treat this choice? I have no idea, but tell me in about 300 years....
For me the art market is more about society and its values and preferences than about the artistic merit of the art object. And you are right about "It's not stealing if they GIVE you the money." It just means you are good at playiing the social game.

I think there will always be the "rarity" issue, meaning that if something is not rare it won't be very valuable. That has always worked against traditional photography because it's so easy to just crank out another print.

That's where time comes in. For example, what's to keep Gurksy from printing and mounting a seventh Rhein II? Probably nothing, aside from his own sense of not wanting to dilute the demand. (Although it's unlikey *he* saw any of that $4,338,500, he likely benefits indirectly from those insane prices.)

But even if he did create a seventh print, it wouldn't be one of the original six, and because 12 years have passed since the original six were created, any new ones will automatically be segregated from those originals. Even if they were exactly the same in every way, they won't be seen as "original," and therefore won't have the same (sense of) value. At least not yet.

The same can be said of Cindy Sherman and every other living photographer whose prints are selling for high prices. It's not that it's a Cindy Sherman print; it's that it's a Cindy Sherman print from 1978!

I can't think of any living photographer who can crank out prints and sell them right away for astronomical prices (five, six, and seven digits). And that's largely because of the time/rarity factor. Prints that sell for astronomical prices are prints that are already considered collectors' items -- the *prints* not the images -- meaning they are not brand new, they have a traceable pedigree, and they are removed from the artist (it's the galleries and collectors who build and maintain that market, not the artists; artists only provide the fuel).

So if you want to sell your prints for astronomical fees you need to (a) have outstanding work either in terms of subject matter, production method, or both, (b) have already made a name in collectors' circles, (c) have a lot of patience because it will take at least 10 years before your print is deemed "rare" enough to be removed from any further iterations of the same print.

That said, I think your flipperoo theory might have legs because "rarity" is being redefined along these lines.

Meanwhile, while "we" pay millions upon millions for art, and then argue which art is worth more, and which is really art, there are so many who are so desperately trying to hang on to the four walls that cannot afford any of it.

Yes, I know it has always been thus- and I don't mention this to belittle or negate the relevance of said conversation. I just sometimes wonder what we could achieve if we could channel the passion and outrage expressed in such arguments into the prevention of the financial injustices that occur worldwide to people who, through no fault of their own, are thrust into situations where they become the subjects of the kind of artful documentation practiced by any medium.

My house was actually better organized before I got married. I always knew where things were. I think your mistake is not sexism so much as excessive generalization of your own circumstances to the rest of the world.

VERY nice bit of writing, Mike! Now.. is all this 'Sturm and Drang' over? Can we move on now? I want to know how I can become one of those photographers that's paid millions, instead of tens, for his photographs. Is there some way I can do it without schmoozing with gallery owners, and wearing black all day?

This reminds me of a 1905 painting exhibition in Paris, called "Les fauves". A critic called it as: "A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public" Even Matisse wasn't immune from the such critics and he nearly went into a depression.

Not all artists want to have a miserable life like Van Gogh who, god bless him, refused to see art as a merchandise.

'...there are six copies of "Rhein II." ...In a Veblen-good market, one is definitely a better number than "unlimited," but six is quite possibly a much better number than one.'

Mike, you've just solved the whole print-pricing, limited edition or not conundrum for me in one sentence. I like to print big, and I like people to be able to buy my prints, but I wouldn't be adverse to selling to the collector market either.

A4 print - £25 - no signature or date, Epson paper
A2 print - £100 - initial and date, Epson paper
A1 print - £1,000 - signed, dated, numbered, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag, limited edition of 6.

The mid-priced item always sells best if it looks good value compared to the highest.

Now all I have to do is find five other people who like my prints!

I'll bet if any of those recently auctioned paintings were 8x10", or even 16x20, none would have sold. Not enough show!

I like Clifford Still. I also like your opinions here, because I, too, like thinking upon the vanity of the art buyers making enormous "investments." Maybe you'll agree that there are two marketable/investment worthy things in painting's favor that will one day befall photography:

1) Not as many people bother with painting as artists/professionals/hobbyists/students anymore, so the body of good work available is contracting. Photography is going to be like that some day, too. The majority of people will move on to something else when the technology is there, and photographs will be an old art.

2) When a good painter dies, the catalogue is really closed. Photographers might be able to license prints from the grave via their estate, but it's still difficult to posthumously photograph... I hope. We would have been wrong about John Lennon ever singing with the Beatles again, but that bridge was crossed, wasn't it?

You have whetted my interest, so I checked it out at my local library. I'll let you know....

Going back to Gursky, I think a really interesting question to ask yourself or your readers is what photograph would you spend 4 million on?

I don't think its a question I could answer because I can't imagine having so much money that I could blow it on a photo.

I guess if I could afford to spend that amount of money on a photo I would spend it on whatever I liked. And that's what really matters isn't it?

never did understand the art market, even after carefully reading "the painted word" (http://www.amazon.com/Painted-Word-Tom-Wolfe/dp/0312427581/). understand it even less now that charlatans like damien hirst waded into that marketplace. i'm hoping it's merely something in the nature of a fool and his money and not some taste malfunction on my part ....

Not entirely sane now?

Stan O'Neil, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch who nearly destroyed the now 97 year old company, was not fired and sent home in utter disgrace, but received a $160 million goodbye kiss. This after years of making millions in salary and bonuses while nearly destroying the company.

Why should the art market be any saner than anything else?

I wonder if people like Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman sell their work for so much more than others because the tastemakers consider them to be more as artists whose medium happens to be photography versus those who are merely great photographers. For instance, William Eggleston isn't mentioned in the top ten list of most expensive photographs, yet he's been such a huge influence on other photographers, especially those who work in color like Gursky. Maybe he's just made too many prints available over the years for them to reach the stratosphere. Figuring out the art world sure isn't easy, especially when it comes to photography.



I've just written a very long comment, and deleted it. I couldn't explain my scepticism well enough, but during the writing process it became more powerful. I just do not believe there is any equivalence between a proper artist and a photographer, or art and photography. It's a modern conceit to think so, in my opinion.

I like photographs, photography is my main hobby, but I certainly don't think about creating art when I take photographs, nor have I ever seen any photograph in any context or by any famous photographer that I would remotely consider to be artistic. Photographs are merely an imprint of a moment from a particular viewpoint, with some technical stuff going on in the background.

I have two large framed photographs in my office, one of lilies by Mapplethorpe, the other from the Hubble Space telescope. Both are beautiful images which is why I have them on the wall. Mapplethorpe did some flower arranging, and a NASA scientist took an image of a part of our cosmos that interested a physicist who had sent in a request for a particular image with some coordinates and filtration requirements. Neither to my mind is art.

"And the argument that photographers are inherently more stable than artists seems absurd."

It's not that they're more stable, it's that there are more of them--they're less unique. If Andreas Gursky suddenly starts showing up wearing tinfoil helmets and claiming his new photographs are invisible, well, the market can just go canonize Elger Esser. Or someone else.

It's a standard principle of economics. Very few people can play quarterback in the NFL extremely well--sometimes the number seems to be less than the number of NFL teams!--but a great many able-bodied people can throw garbage into the back of a truck. Ergo, quarterbacks get paid more than garbagemen. I'm not saying the supply of talented, hardworking photographers with an identifiable vision are common; just that they're more common than great painters. That lessens the effect of the occasional renegade.


I have to confess that I'm just happy that the link to your theme song wasn't a rick-roll.

While that's doubtless true, I'm pretty sure that substantial talent in either paintin/drawing or fine-art photography is not as rare as the combination of talents-and superior genes-required to be a really first-rate quarterback.

The real difficulty is the size of the market re size of the talent pool.If there were another 100 franchises out there we'd be using a greater percentage of the potential quarterback pool. Whether that'd result in lower quality quarterbacks or just more effort spent finding them and training them I couldn't begin to guess.

But an art market that was the equivalent of those 100 extra franchises, i think could be filled if there was any efficient search going on for talented photogs and artists. And a lot fewer of them would be moonlighting as waiters or Starbucks'Baristas" :-)

while trying to follow the modern art market for some good entertainment, don't you get a bubbly feeling once in a while!?
A last bastion of hyped up expectations and market forces, horse trading plus a hushed general fear of that unwashed and uninitiated kid in the crowd yelling out:" ....but he doesn't have any clothes on..."

Sure like to know what we creatives will do once another professional and expert run system goes with a quiet pop and there could be a lot of people starring at their priceless ( literally ) Lichtenstein (nothing personal, it's just business) every morning in their living rooms!?...that could actually be comical in the end!?

Guess we all could start over with charcoal sticks in the caves and ruins left from similar experiences?? You know who is going to "pay" for all of this exuberance in the end, right?

This is just too much good fun - sadly.
keep it going!


"You can't build a truly top-flight book collection any more, no matter how much money you have."

(Disclaimer - former used and rare book dealer.)

If you define book collection as solely meaning expensive, rare, original stuff - sure. But I'm well on my way to building a top flight reference collection of 20th century cookery books, with an emphasis on BBQ cookery... and when all is said and done, I'll probably have less than $15k invested in it. Damn little of it other then original early Beards are scarce or heavily sought after. Last year, I picked up a copy of the pamphlet Julia Child started to revise, which project eventually spawned Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for ten bucks.

One of my biggest customers when I had my store was a gentleman building a world class library of submarine literature. In a decade, the most expensive item I sold him was under a hundred bucks.

Though it gets all the press, there's more to the collecting world than snobbish moneybags.

I have an idea. Lets all take a bet on what will be worth most in 100 years time. Early 21st century paintings or early 21st century photographs. Our offspring will inherit the outcome of the bet, interest included!

It strikes me as an interested observer that photography, far from being subservient to painting in many genres, has actually supplanted it to such an extent that painting has more or less disappeared from the public consciousness, kept alive only by dedicated curators and collectors but irrelevant to the ordinary citizen.

How many of the "great 20th century portraits" will be paintings? In 100 years, I would estimate, almost none. Landscapes also. Much as I admire the skill and genius of Canaletto, Turner, Rembrandt and Velasquez, if they were born today they would be toting Leica S2s and Phase 1 IQ180s. Why not? It's far more efficient from a commission point of view, and more lucrative as well.

Paintings exhibited in modern art galleries such as the Tate Modern tend to date from around the 1880s to the 1980s at which point they are heavily supplanted by installation art, photo-collage and video. Wonderful and exciting though impressionists, colourists, cubists, futurists and dadaists are, there is frankly b****r all new painting of note since Rothko and Richter and what there is is practically unknown outside the "inner circle" of curators and collectors.

Contemporary art is almost entirely a multi-media combination of collage, video, photography and sculpture. Painting hardly gets a look in. Instead it has retreated to an unchallenged niche of abstraction and self referential introspection or overtly commercial stylistic anachronism.

By contrast, the vast majority of modern images that ordinary people remember and respond to are photographic. Pickled sharks and unmade beds will be worth nothing in 20 years let alone 100, whereas I suspect that Rodchenko and Eggleston will be worth several millions because of their seminal contribution to the whole philosophical discourse of the role of the still image and the historical significance of the images themselves.

Fine art painting has gone the way of classical music. How many contemporary composers do you know (that don't write movie scores)? How much do you think will survive? Clever and intellectual and almost entirely irrelevant.

It's all about the money.
Those that have it and those that don't.

Personally have discovered the lack of value hands-on currency holds; rolled some of my money back into gold bullion and silver bars in the last few weeks.

Those paintings/images could will be nothing if exposed to open flame or worse; maybe
there isn't enough open flames in existence these days?

We is the enemy and he is us..." Walt Kelly

I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disparage book collecting or imply that there isn't a lot of fun to be had in it. I merely meant that it's not possible today to amass the equivalent of the Morgan Library with its trove of incunabula and three Gutenberg Bibles or the Huntington Library with its Chaucer manuscript or the Folger Library with all its First Folios. As you know those were all collections put together by wealthy individuals not so long ago, but as you also know it would not be possible to do the same today with any amount of money. That's all I was saying--I didn't mean to deride book collecting as a whole.

In fact someone asked what photograph I would buy if I had four million dollars. If I had four million dollars I would collect books. [g]


Bravo Mike.

So let's keep this at the fore as the new paradigm, and stop apologizing for photography always and forever playing second fiddle to painting and everything else.

If the art world wanted to sell photography, it could.

I have nothing intelligent to add, but excellent post.

" I couldn't, um, find the book. My house is like that. I'm not married."

Hmmm. I often can't find things because I am married. Left to my own, I’m not especially neat, but I know which pile has the item I want. My wife, on the other hand, likes to reorganize. Most egregious example: My wife was out-of-town. I had just taken a shower and went to my underwear drawer and the drawer was filled with socks (no jokes please).

Insane, yup. But it's a selective insanity. I mean, it would be equally insane for someone to spend a cool million or two on one of my photographs, but for some reason that hasn't happened, yet. So it's not exactly a simple random insanity, there are rules at work, but I don't know what those rules are.

All it would take is for someone to go nuts for about 5-10 minutes and buy one of my shots. Doesn't even have to be for a million, a quarter million would do just fine. My guess that lot's of people would be ok with that happening to them too, so as pointed out by others in the comments to a previous blog, we should encouraging this kind of insanity, not criticizing it. David H. had it right in an earlier comment, above.

Regarding domestic organization, there are two kinds of people: filers, and pilers. Both are legitimate. My spouse is a filer. I'm a piler. She hates my piles, and I can't figure out her files. For the sake of domestic harmony, I defer to her. Except in my home office, which is blissfuly replete with highly organized piles.

Great post once again but I rue the day the gallery owners or who ever it is that elevates art to the 6 digit level actually has control over 'the means of production'. Surely this would mean the end of art! Next thing they will take control over content also. Maybe I am ignorant - they are probably doing that already?

Dear Mike,

This topic has a faintly “off” feeling for me since it started, and I think I've figured out why.

For a start, high-end collecting is fundamentally not about merit. Whether we are talking painting, sculptures, photographs, cars, wine, coins, or stamps, the prices that are paid have little to do with intrinsic values, for any meaning of that word. They're about extrinsic values–– rarity, status, investment potential, tax and other financial benefits, even simple acquisitiveness. In various mixes for different categories, but always these dominate over intrinsic worth. (A good statistical and psychological argument can be created for John's thesis that price vaguely attaches to merit, but it's complicated and subtle and not definable beyond a broad relationship.)

I love Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Even if I were worth billions, though, I would not find $100 million worth of aesthetic pleasure in that painting. I can think of many, many other things that would be more meritworthy and give me more pleasure of almost any sort.

Even the piddling $4 million for a photograph exceeds that aesthetic love. What other kind of pleasures could I get in my life for $4 million? Well, Paula and I could eat out every night at the finest restaurants in San Francisco (and pay for cab fare each way) for the rest of our lives without burning through that. Or I could hire a chauffeur, so that I never had to drive anywhere again and could use the time in an automobile relaxingly and productively, and still have money left over. Or fly by private jet rather than commercial airliner on any of my travels for the rest of my life (and if you've ever traveled by private jet, you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't, my God, you have no idea what you're missing).

The price of collectibility simply has no match to intrinsic worth. In that sense, it corresponds to “stupid rich” expenditures. Except, that in the case of high-end collectibles of any sort, history has regularly proven they're not stupid. At worst they entail some modest risk. Regardless of the state of the economy or the state of the market, as long as you're not looking for a quick return on investment and you are super-rich to begin with, someone stupid-richer than you will come along eventually to buy what you bought. Barring a worldwide economic collapse that takes down even the super-rich. The only way you lose significant amounts of money at that game is if you're looking for a time-dependent return on investment. Assuming that is even your motivation. If it's about rarity, status, and “I have it and you don't, so there” that, as the TV commercial says, is priceless.

Consequently, I find all these discussions about whether a high-end purchase is really worth it to be disconnected from the reality of those purchases.

I also find the putdowns of said purchases to be missing the point. By the games those people are playing, it isn't stupid. Furthermore, I cannot see how it benefits any of us to criticize someone paying extraordinarily high prices for photographs. I can remember the time when even the best of photographic artists could not ever make a living selling their own photographs. It didn't really start to become possible until photographs started developing some real potential for worth. That is a rising tide floats all boats (and those are few and far between).

Even if it's the collectors and curators who are wheeling and dealing in most of the money and not the artists, it still benefits the artist. If someone ever got $1 million for one of my prints (not bloody likely), I can tell you that the very next day I'd be adding one or two zeros to all of my prices and I would have no shortage of buyers. I would be in fat city, because there are lots and lots of people in the world who will pay for the cachet by association.

While it may seem amusing and entertaining to go, “Nyah-nyah, look at how stupid the rich are,” I'm not convinced it's factually accurate and I certainly don't see how it benefits us to be doing so.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I think also there could be a distinction made between "art photography" and "fine art photography." It seems the art photographers are really working very conceptually, and their claims to being part of the art establishment are deeper because they share the same concerns as artists working in other media, and are therefore endorsed, if successful, by gallerists, curators, critics and collectors on a level of parity with painting, installation art, etc. Fine art photographers seem to be identified as craftspeople even when they're very good, perhaps because the intention seen in their work appears to be centered around the tradition of beautiful pictures, instead of a deeper conversation about art and meaning, in a way that is also very unfashionable in a contemporary photography environment that favors the deadpan aesthetic or the tableaux photograph, and in any case, where the conceptual framework is given preeminence.

I think fine-art photographers are generally viewed as belonging to the tradition of Ansel Adams, who is unfairly criticized as emphasizing or caring mostly about the surface qualities of a print and the superficial concern with light and texture, while the art world, after the New Topographics, moved to other directions entirely in landscape photography. Perhaps there is a sort of ambivalence about photographs lets say of rocks and silky waterfalls taken with a slow shutter as just so many pretty and derivative pictures. Not that there aren't a whole bunch of derivative pictures from art photographers. Anyway, I don't know if this is correct or if it may seem just like snobbism.

Please read the following 3 word phrases and tell me what they have in common: "Dutch tulip mania"; " The Mississippi Bubble"; "South Sea Bubble"; "Japanese Bubble Economy (footnote: Olympus!)"; "Dot-Com bubble"; "Real Estate bubble".... Think about their commonality(...ies)and consider the current art market---the inflation of which btw has mirrored the rise of the top 1% for the last 3 decades.

This has nothing at all to do with the artworks in question, just as the type of chips,---color, shape, printing, weights---have anything to do with the betting in casinos, except as place holders. Conflating the art and its market just misdirects the viewer from an understanding of either.

Ctein: "While it may seem amusing and entertaining to go, “Nyah-nyah, look at how stupid the rich are,” I'm not convinced it's factually accurate and I certainly don't see how it benefits us to be doing so."

Bullseye, Ctein.

High prices for paintings is symptomatic of what ails our economy as a whole. The super rich (the 1% if you will) have 42% of the economic wealth of the country, but unfortunately putting chunks of that wealth into existing art works does little to create jobs. Just part of the argument for a tax policy that forces some of that wealth into current consumption.

Just how thrilled we in Denver are to have Clifford Still museum ---- NOT. It's almost open and my prediction is that everyone will go once. Somewhere between Moonrise over Hernandez for $1.7M and Cindy and Andreas the highest paid photo has actually lost the art.

An interesting comment in the Times today, made by a recent winner of the UK's Turner Prize, Mark Wallinger, who started his artistic career as a painter.

To paraphrase he describes painting as being "in an endgame" and no longer what it was before the advent of camera and film. It no longer has the engagement with the real world that it once had.

He goes on to say that photography and film have become the predominant means of expressing the world two dimensionally.

This is not a case of opinion backed up by arguments of artistic merit, it's a case of fact backed up by reality.

So what makes a photograph art?

Answer: A photograph taken by an artist.

Oh for six foot of wallspace & I would have snapped up the Twombly! (Pesky $1.8 million issues aside...)

I completely agree with Ctein, but would add that "value" is simply always extrinsic, because it always is the result of "valuation", and that depends on someone doing the valuation, which brings in that person's (dis)likes, preferences, priorities, possibilities, etc.... So the value of anything always depends on what the person doing the valuation can use it for.

And let's also not forget that what we now call Classic High Art is for a large part the reflection of the tastes and likes of the wealthy upper class from the times when it was produced, who esteemed it was worth paying for and conserving for posterity. While other works were only valued long after the creator died (think Bach or Van Gogh whose works were conserved only because of the efforts of a few individuals who had their own motives for doing so). So value is also highly variable over time.

Nothing much intrinsic about all that.

Now money on the other hand does have intrinsic value, in the sense that it is by convention the very expression of value (but the words "by convention" indicate that even there the value really lies outside of the object). You can use 4 million $ to accomplish many many different kinds of things: you can build a number of hospitals in the third world and save thousands of lives, making many more thousands happy, or you can spend it on a Gursky photograph to show off to your friends and relatives. It all depends on one's priorities.

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