When John Currin’s 1991 painting Bea Arthur Naked sold at auction last month for almost $2 million, the internet had a lot to say.
The Daily Beast asked, “How big of a Golden Girls fan are you?”
The LA Times asked, in the form of an online poll, “Would you pay nearly $2 million for a topless portrait of Bea Arthur?”
The Huffington Post suggested, “If you are a fan of John Currin, The Golden Girls or unlikely nude portraits, you may want to whip out your pocket book and have a go bidding for…this.”
And the co-hosts of the online video show The Young Turks — after explaining that they had cropped out the nipples in the painting to avoid being flagged by YouTube — had this exchange:
I love Bea Arthur, so I wish I could put in a bid, but unfortunately the bids are going around 1.8 to 2.5 million.
Well, Ana, I have breaking news, because you know I know my Bea Arthur; it was purchased: 1.8 million.
1.8 million for that picture. Now, you do get the nipples if you get the original…So that was done in 1991; she didn’t look that young at that point, so that’s more of like a “Maude” Bea Arthur than a “Golden Girls” Bea Arthur. But someone just paid $1.8 million for that picture…I was going to start a Kickstarter to get it, but…
News consumers who like art or care about art or want to learn more about art have vast and diverse resources. Many newspapers, magazines, blogs, podcasts, etc. deliver reviews, analysis and penetrating news coverage of the goings on in the art world.
What the sale of the Currin painting highlights is another kind of arts “journalism.” Unlike the smart reviews or the insightful analysis, silly reports of stratospheric art prices get tons of attention and reach an audience that isn’t necessarily already interested in art. Reports like this make these people less interested in art.
To reduce this genre of story to the basic template: Get a load of this wacky thing, which I only know exists because some asshole just bought it for a bazillion dollars! Can you believe someone paid a bazillion dollars for that? Would you, Common Man/Woman who thinks art is kind of stupid anyway, would you pay those bazillion dollars to own this wacky thing? Start looking for change under your sofa cushions! Har har.
Often, the wackiness comes from some general interest hook that makes the story worth writing in the first place. Bea Arthur’s bosoms, for instance, or the Picasso painting, La rêve (The Dream), depicting a woman with a penis forming part of her face, which, according to many, many news stories, hedge fund manager Steven Cohen bought from casino magnate Steve Wynn for $155 million this past March.
The point I want to make is that analysis on the order of Bea Arthur! Tits! is fundamentally better news coverage — provides more meaningful edification — than that the painting sold for however much money. Giggling about the Picasso penis head does more to make art important to people’s lives than knowing which billionaire sold the painting to which other billionaire for how many gazillion dollars.
Like all gays, I love Bea Arthur (link is NSFW, but delightful). However, the name that matters in this story is John Currin, not Maude. The art market, certainly the secondary art market, traffics in the proper names of big-time artists, not in quirky subject matter. Plenty of other artists out there make quirky artwork — some of it even also based on beloved TV stars of the last century — that’s just as entertaining and provocative as Currin’s canvas, but those artists’ work will never achieve newsworthy auction prices. So, these stories about high-flying auctions don’t even get it right when they ask “How big of a Golden Girls fan are you?” Golden Girls fandom is why the journalists pick up the story, but the focus on auction prices makes that angle irrelevant.
I get that super large numbers are impressive and make for dramatic headlines, but why does it matter to anyone other than dealers, collectors or auction houses how much any individual work of fine art costs on the secondary market? For everyone else, stories about flashy art sales are the Nancy Grace of arts reporting: salacious, while detrimental to the very idea of intellectual curiosity.
The universe of seeing or thinking about art and the universe of owning art are usually pretty separate (except, of course, for dealers, collectors, auctioneers and, I guess, artists). Anyone can have a humanistically satisfying day at MoMA or the Louvre or even the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art in Las Vegas in total ignorance of the art market. Acquisitiveness is not the appropriate reflexive response to hearing that there’s an artwork out there that someone might find interesting. However, that is the tone of the Currin coverage.
Please understand: I’m not arguing for one second that art — even in museums — is somehow pure of the market, or that art isn’t, in many vital ways, a commodity, or even that a lot of art that sells for crazy high prices isn’t, also in many vital ways, about money. But acknowledging this, or affirming this, remains a different thing than caring about any specific dollar amount paid at auction.
After all this, the real, serious problem with reports like those of the Bea Arthur Naked or La rêve sales is the subtext. When framed like this, the unmistakable message here is that art is worth your attention exclusively as a luxury commodity; there’s nothing here for someone like you, other than, perhaps, to gawk at the oligarchs’ baubles. Art bought and sold at this level is actually an investment scheme — and congratulations to those with that much cash that needs investing — but these news reports barely allude to that, if at all. Not that focusing on art as an investment — as arts reporting, not business reporting — is especially interesting, either, but at least that would situate the sales in some kind of context.
Remember, this isn’t just any arts reporting, it’s the kind of arts story that shows up on Buzzfeed, among the kittens and the lists of surprising things you can do with your appliances (I’m not making that up…). It reaches out to grab people who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about art, shakes them by the shoulders and alienates them from potentially wanting to know more.
This has all been about misguided news coverage of multi-million dollar art sales. There’s nothing wrong with buying art, though, especially at the less than multi-million dollar level. If you have friends who are artists, support them and go to their shows; learn about their and their colleagues’ interests and processes. Buy their work if you like it; tell them you like it if you don’t. And don’t go showing off to reporters about how much you paid for the wacky new painting you bought.