Sunday, July 10, 2011

Christie's auction of Bacon's Study for a Portrait: When serious becomes laughable

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In a world where -as they say- anything is possible, one is rarely surprised. But I was shocked when I bumped into this article from the NYTimes by Soureen Melikian. Its title, "A Serious Moment for Contemporary Art," makes you think of an event -after all, a serious one- that marks a substantive difference from the past. This is how it opens:
Is the market for Contemporary art at a crossroads? For the first time in years, it seemed to be heading in a new direction this week as Christie’s opened the round of sales on Tuesday evening.
Melikian is a suave seller. In a snap he takes you from serious time to serious money. How serious though? Inside Christie's auction halls, art remains a commodity. And commodities rise and fall depending whether demand overshadows hope. So, are we to take Melikian's "serious" seriously?

This market-dependent view of art is so pervasive that the writer is betrayed by his own intentional use of language, which takes for granted that art has the ability to perform. In this case, Bacon's Study for a Portrait did -as he puts it- "brilliantly":
Francis Bacon’s 1953 “Study for a Portrait” topped the list. At £17.96 million it exceeded by half the unprinted estimate in the region of £11 million, plus the sale charge, quoted only “on request.” This brilliant performance comes as no surprise. Bacon has long been a blue chip in what I called a few years ago in this column “historic Contemporary,” meaning art that is actually not contemporary because the artists are no longer alive. Bacon died in 1992.
Is there something new here that's so unique to justify this auction from others in the recent past? Melikian suggest what he calls "faithfully figural art" as playing a part. This is interesting, because the previous paragraph suggests that "Bacon has long been a blue chip."

When it comes to circularity none of this matters. The writer trumpets the sale. The sale is a painting by Bacon. Bacon is a hot commodity. Yet, the narrative moves away from price into plain aesthetic territory: 
Interestingly, the study, which does not show the distortions of face and body, ranks among Bacon’s most strictly representational paintings — it may portray the art writer David Sylvester. This appreciation of faithfully figural art probably helped to rescue the “Mao” executed by Andy Warhol in 1973.
Study for a Portrait commands its price because of certain realist features in the painting. Melikian extrapolates that this (recent?) interest may have helped sell another piece in the auction: Warhol's Mao from 1973. The sale at Christie's needs to be explained in terms of art's intrinsic formal qualities. Let's forget about the externalities of why people spend tens of millions on these artifacts. But if art performs because its inherent qualities, how would the writer justify if it did otherwise? Suppose Study for a Portrait performed miserably. Could not one then attribute its failing to the same features Melikian argues for in the first place?

Study of a Portrait's "brilliant performance" begins to show its true face. Bacon and Warhol sold because they are good investments. They are good investments because they have cachet. They have cachet because they have been market-bred for years. Let's not ignore that the article above, authored by Soureen Melikian appears in the prestigious New York Times, which adds another ripple effect to the Bacons and Warhols of future auctions at Christie's and elsewhere.

I know all this is hopelessly circular. But who said the art market is logical?