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Web www.birminghamfreepress.com

February, 2007

New Art

I've decided the easiest way an artist can make money is to paint portraits. So if you want a portrait painted drop me a line. We'll talk.

What's the Value of Art?

The art market is booming. Just the other week in London almost 600 million dollars worth of art changed hands in four days of naked excess. This makes the boom (and later bust) of the 90s look trivial. Francis Bacon's Portrait of Pope Innocent X sold for $40,000,000 and White Canoe by Peter Doig set a new record for a living European artist fetching over $11,000,000.

I've been writing art criticism for over 20 years, studied art all my life, but can't tell you why that Peter Doig painting is worth $11,000,000. I know that diamonds and antiquities have a vague sort of worth, but this is a different issue entirely. Anything is worth whatever you can get for it. That's why the Doig sold for that much money. Maybe it will be worth more a year from now. But that has nothing to do with any intrinsic value that the painting, itself, might have.

Unlike Doig, Francis Bacon's paintings are interesting. And the drunken old queen makes for a good biography. But you could hire a competent sign painter to reproduce a Francis Bacon painting for a lot less than $40,000,000. It's not even the celebrity factor. There was a sale of Hitler paintings last September and they only commanded a few thousand dollars each. Hitler's a pretty big celebrity; one might say rather a significant historical figure. And he's arguably a better painter than either Frances Bacon or Peter Doig.

I'm not sure what that enigmatic quality is that makes Peter Doig's work so valuable. $11,000,000 buys a lot of Sunday brunches . . . a few airplanes too. Doig's paintings are Modern in the most traditional sense. Their value is subjective, unlike the airplanes you can buy by selling them.

In the 1990s, when living artists were only selling their work for hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than millions, it became OK to paint in a “realistic” style again. Since this had been taboo during the Modern period, realistic painting was dubbed Post-Modern. The idea is that Modern art was so subjective and sublime that it could encompass virtually anything—and did. Anything except traditional painting and sculpture. And since traditional painting and sculpture were the only things that couldn't be called Modern art they were the only things that could be called Post-Modern.

Now all new art is considered Postmodern because it's being created after the Modern era. There are also the relativistic aspects of this philosophy and plenty of other schools of Postmodernism that have nothing to do with art at all.

But who cares about theory? The prankster artist Banksy sold $725,000 at these same auctions. $725,000 buys a lot of philosophy. Banksy goes so far as to publicly mock his patrons. Artists have been making these kinds of jokes since Dada. Of course the Dadaists spent their days in the blood and urine soaked trenches of WWI while Banksy spends his days in posh London restaurants. So, I guess you could make the claim that Banksy knows something the Dadaists didn't.

Stephen Smith