The bed on which English artist Tracey Emin slept while getting over a difficult breakup with the aid of alcohol, cigarettes and casual sex, and titled, appropriately, “My Bed,” was sold at auction last week at Christie’s in London, for $3.8 million. Truth to tell, that is a fairly small sum compared with what the world’s wealthy are prepared to pay for art these days. What is that compared to the $45 million paid last week for a small-format Francis Bacon triptych? Or the $120 million paid in 2012 for one of four versions of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”?
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There’s nothing new about art fetching astronomical prices, but the issue still has the power to spark critical debate about the relationship between culture and money. What French television director Marianne Lamour saw when she went to a number of art fairs that brought together key figures from the worlds of art and finance led her to make a movie. “La ruee vers l’art” (“The Art Rush”) will be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Friday. In an interview with Haaretz by telephone from France, Lamour describes the entirely accidental way the project began.
“My sister [Catherine Lamour], who is a journalist, and the journalist Daniele Granet began working together on a book about the secrets of the art world. I didn’t have all that much work at the time, so I decided to join them with my little camera. That’s when it grabbed me, all of a sudden, and I said: What exactly is this thing? What’s going on here? What a closed world it is, incredibly secret, that deals with money all the time, a world with its own highly specific codes.”
Throughout the course of the film the Lamour sisters and Granet, all in their late 60s, travel from one art fair to another, each in its time — Basel in the spring, the Venice Biennale in May, the International Contemporary Art Fair in Paris in October and Miami Art Week in December, as well as art fairs in Dubai and Singapore. They meet the same prominent collectors everywhere they go — gallery owners and heads of auction houses.
Despite the great discretion that typifies the art world, the trio elicited unexpected remarks from key figures such as the British collector David Nahmad, who explains that people buy outrageously expensive works of art precisely because they are so outrageously expensive. Lamour says that because of the ages and the appearance of her and her two companions, no one suspected that they had come to criticize the well-oiled machine of high-end art sales.
“We are three fairly mature women. We did not dress up, and we went around with funny-looking backpacks. Some people thought we were the cleaners. We looked so odd and out of place that nobody paid us any attention. Some scenes weren’t filmed well because I used an nonprofessional camera. But sometimes, when we asked questions and I took out my little camera, we could get answers in an unusual way. Such meetings are no longer possible. The events have become even more closed, with closed areas for collectors only.”
She says that what amazed the three of them so much and piqued their interest in making the film was the insight that the art world had completely become a field for speculators that operated just like any other commercial market.
“You don’t hear anyone talking about art, about the path or the creative style of a particular artist. It’s all about the price. You don’t say of Jeff Koons that he began to work in such-and-such a way. Instead, you say: He is worth such-and-such today. That’s what amazed me the most. It doesn’t mean there’s no more art, but the art world has become totally speculative. As shown in the film, there are people who buy an artwork and keep it in the basement and wait for the price to rise, like gold or jewelry.”
The speculative aspect becomes particularly clear when the film addresses the involvement of collectors and investors from Asia, primarily China, Japan and the Gulf states. In the film, the head of Christie’s in Asia, Francois Curiel, says these figures are new to the scene, once the province of wealthy Westerners. Today, 48 of the world’s 100 best-selling artists are Chinese, as are two of the 10 artists whose works command the highest prices. One of them, Zhang Huan, has a workshop in a Shanghai suburb, where 200 people are employed to make his enormous canvases, in which the ash of incense from Buddhist temples is the painting medium.
In the film you see art being manufactured in factories, like any other merchandise.
“Absolutely. It’s made to order. There mustn’t be too many, but there must be enough. The artists work for the collectors. But as for Zhang Huan, it’s important to say that he is truly a great artist, who was oppressed by the Chinese government and worked outside China for many years. When we went to his workshop, we were very impressed by his character, which reflects his art — great art, in my opinion. But he definitely came to understood the dirty dealing, and now he uses the system to his own advantage.”
Questions about the cultural and artistic value of the works that go for such exorbitant prices are conspicuous by their absence. Lamour says she didn’t feel she was equipped to render artistic judgments.
“Artists such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, there’s no doubt they invented something new. The ones who followed them, who were influenced by them, are more controversial. For example, Philippe Pasqua is very influenced by Damien Hirst and follows in his footsteps. People who can’t afford a Damien Hirst buy him.
“But it’s quite bad, I must admit. But there’s a fashion, too, now we’re ‘arty’ the way we were ‘rock ‘n roll’ after World War II. As Philippe de Montebello, the former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, says: If you have a Claude Lorrain painting no one will look at it, but if you have a Warhol everyone will be impressed and say, you were the one who paid 20 million or whatever it was for it. The question is: Who has the money to buy something that others don’t have and never will?”
That’s pretty depressing.
“It’s very depressing, certainly. But I don’t think it will destroy art. There have always been artists, and there always will be. But what could happen is that there will be excellent artists the world will never hear about.”
Lamour is proud of her film’s main journalistic achievement: the rather close relationship that developed with American art collectors Mera and Donald Rubbel. “They saw us everywhere, looking like three grandmothers, which surprised them. They went to Hong Kong, and we were in Hong Kong. They went to Singapore, and we were in Singapore. They went to Basel, and we were in Basel. They finally said to themselves: Who are these strange women? And then they broke, and simply realized they had to cooperate with us. They are old-school collectors. They still discover artists on their own, look for the next thing, go to see works by unknown artists. They collect a lot of African and South American art, and they have good intuition.”
None of the people you spoke with found the “art rush” phenomenon too frightening, or daunting?
“Very few. A man like the industrialist François Pinault is a man of money, and that’s what brings him into intellectual society. Also, he bought Christie’s, and they set the prices because they’re the auction house. So now, when he buys an artist’s work, Christie’s sets the price of that artist. He went on to found an art center in Venice. Now he sees himself as the Doge of Venice — he’s buying up palaces there. It’s like the mouse wearing the skin of its hunter.”