New Year 2018 Double Issue: Essay

Is Art Priceless?

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Bengaluru
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When beauty goes under the hammer

‘I LIKE MONEY ON the wall,’ the artist, Andy Warhol, confessed in a fit of genius in his cult classic, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975). ‘Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up, and hang it on the wall,’ he advised his readers in a chapter titled, ‘Economics’. ‘Then when someone visited you the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.’

In spite of his inveterate facetiousness, the King of Pop Art hit on a sordid but enduring truth in that remark soaked in irony. It’s a truth that is fundamentally tied to the market’s perception of art and the way it has conditioned, even indoctrinated, society to ‘consume’ it. Buying art, if you’re not doing it out of unconditional admiration for a work, has always meant buying into a set of aspirations: status, social capital, lofty taste and, more than ever before, an investment for the future.

But first, there’s the trouble of figuring out what’s art and what’s not. And the line between the two is now almost exclusively defined by one factor: money.

Consider the following: a seemingly random assortment of squiggles on a canvas by a modernist master is worth a few million dollars, but a similar composition by an inspired toddler, on a piece of paper with a set of crayons, is priceless only to its doting family. There are more people in this world than we expect who are willing to spend serious money to acquire a work that resembles a child’s doodle. If you set aside the question of aesthetic merit for the moment, that’s almost entirely because the work demands to be taken seriously by virtue of its salability—and, by extension, of its resale value.

When we look at a painting on a wall, a sculpture on a platform, or an installation before us, we want to engage with its inner mysteries, decode its hidden messages, like or dislike what we see, or maybe we are left unmoved. But most of us are also aware that beyond the sensual experience of immersing ourselves in what confronts us, we are staring at money—sometimes a great deal of it—that is embodied in the object of our scrutiny.

The price of art is the elixir that imbues it with an aura of preciousness, its singular appeal and potential value. A handful of individuals, especially those who collect art or trade in it, can see through the object before them with their piercing mercantile gaze. What appears before them may, indeed, look like Warhol’s not-so-metaphorical money ‘on the wall’, or maybe they see a mountain of green dollar bills heaped on the floor before them.

Warhol’s point seemed to have been driven home recently, albeit with a stinging irony, when a ‘forgotten masterpiece’ by none other than Leonardo da Vinci was dredged out of obscurity and sold at auction for a staggering $450.3 million, making it the most expensive sale in the history of art. It trumped Pablo Picasso’s Women of Algiers, which fetched $179.4 million in 2015, by a good few miles to attain the dubious distinction of being the priciest work of art to be sold at auction.

Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) dated approximately to 1500 CE, depicts Jesus Christ in one of the commonest traditions of Christian iconography—as the saviour of the world, holding an orb in one hand, the other raised in benediction. Probably repainted by some of Da Vinci’s disciples and substantially restored by contemporary experts, it’s not exactly what you’d expect of a typical work by the Old Master. Instead of his signature elegance, there are conspicuous signs of heavy handling of paint, evident even from looking at it on a screen. A puffiness about the cheeks, droopy eyes, twig-like fingers—the overall impression is of someone dressed for a costume party, and probably nursing a nasty hangover.

While the historians hemmed and hawed about the provenance of the work, splitting hair over the legitimacy of its attribution, the critics minced no words. Laura Cumming, in the Guardian, called it ‘the ugliest painting’. ‘Does anyone really want to look at this monstrous Jesus, a heavily restored hippy scarcely anybody believes in?’ she asked. An objection was raised about the work being sold—misleadingly—as part of the post-War and modernist collection. As the auctioneers went on to defend their decision spiritedly by calling Salvator Mundi a ‘contemporary classic’, there seemed perhaps a simpler explanation to their choice: it would have been a far worse untruth to pass off a severely damaged work, doctored by contemporary restorers, as a vintage ‘classic’.

The price of art is the elixir that imbues it with an aura of preciousness and potential value. Those who collect art can see through the object with their piercing mercantile gaze

But few, least of all the media, bothered themselves with either aesthetic or technical concerns. The PR machinery of the auction house had excelled itself by pitching the painting as ‘a male Mona Lisa’ (one can only imagine the iconic lady sniggering behind her frame at the Louvre in Paris), giving fodder to the hundreds of headline writers across the globe who spend their days in the pursuit of clicks. The combination of the astronomical final bid and the tenuous reference to one of the most memorable paintings in the history of humanity appeared to have done the trick.

Until the identity of the buyer was revealed to the public.

Fresh waves of disdain swept across the art world as it learnt that the painting had been acquired by a minor prince of the Saudi royal family with an egregiously long name. Bader bin Abdullah Mohammed bin Farhan al-Saud is said to be a close associate of Mohammad bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince, who has been in the line of fire for launching an anti-corruption campaign that allegedly targets officials in the government selectively. Prince Bader, as the records suggest, is into real-estate, which, we are urged to believe, is the primary source of his prodigious wealth. He isn’t also known in the art circuit as a serious collector. Is it any wonder that tongues are wagging?

As though these revelations weren’t explosive enough, the Prince courted heresy by purchasing a distinctly unIslamic portrait of Jesus Christ, who is regarded as a prophet in Islam, and therefore forbidden to be depicted by mortal hands. Tangled up in a web of controversies, Salvator Mundi, which was sold for a paltry $90 in 1958 and is of uncertain provenance, is finally set to enter the collection of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, courtesy Prince Bader.

THE JOURNEY OF Salvator Mundi through the ages provides an illustration of the shifting value of art. A competent, if unremarkable, painting treads the circuitous path of history, sprinkled with the fairy dust of myth, changes several hands down the years, and is, over time, transformed into a fetish, something rich and strange, through its power of association with a legend. It may well turn out, by a similar twist of fate, that the contemporary artists whose work we roll our eyes at now will find an eager and more appreciative audience centuries later— assuming their art would survive the ravages of time.

Something similar may have happened to Salvator Mundi from the time it crossed the threshold of the master’s studio. What may have begun life as a familiar, even run-of-the-mill, composition in a religious mould, commissioned by King Louis XII of France in 1500, gained layers of meaning and significance down the decades. By 1625, the painting was in the possession of King Charles I of England and Wales. Having survived the bombing during World War II, it was sold in Louisiana for less than $100 in the 1950s, before it re-emerged in 2005, fetching $10,000, a handsome price one would imagine, given its relative shabbiness. In 2011, defying all belief, it stacked up a stupendous $80 million, before a Russian vodka baron bought it for $127.5 million in 2013. It’s from his hand that the painting has now passed on to the Saudi princeling, and will eventually go into the custody of the Louvre.

If the sharp rise in the value of Salvator Mundi sounds unbelievable, one needs only recall that the precious China from the Ming dynasty, now revered in museums, were once articles of daily use. Just as the marvellous caves of Ajanta and Ellora, with their exquisite paintings, sculptures and rock carvings, were simply home to monks and novices. Generations of ordinary folks had once inhabited those spaces that now strike us, hundreds of years later, as sublime and enchanting. Da Vinci’s contemporaries, too, probably saw his work as an organic part of their lives. The familiar imagery of Salvator Mundi likely spoke to the living tradition of belief they embraced. The sight of the painting probably filled most of them with a genuine piety—rather than a vision of wads of cash hanging off a wall or a eureka moment to evade paying tax on their ill-gotten wealth.

Was it a preposterous marketing campaign then—one that ludicrously called the re-emergence of Salvator Mundi the ‘discovery of a new planet’—that culminated in the painting’s record- breaking sale? The real reason behind Prince Bader’s decision to part with a fortune may be anyone’s guess, but the hype around the sale was decidedly manufactured by a clever PR machinery, feeding on a public appetite for sensational transactions and exacerbated by its ignorance about most things art-related.

The pursuit of art for the sake of aesthetic pleasure touches far less lives now than it did perhaps even a decade ago. Ruled by a culture of vigilant gatekeeping, at least in India, any interest in the visual arts here is usually perceived as a sign of elitism—and not without reason. Most public galleries in the country, with their intimidating white cube architecture and English as the lingua franca, don’t encourage a majority to venture into their premises. The notion of art as a rarefied sphere of activity, belonging exclusively to the socially privileged, gains credence every time a work makes news for its price. Or for its sheer scale and spectacle, as though those were ends in themselves to generate ‘shock value’.

The result of such alienation is often bleakly amusing. A few years ago, I was transfixed by the sight of a couple of visitors trying to climb up a gigantic tree, made of stainless steel utensils, by Subodh Gupta at his retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. As the security guards chased the men away, the offenders chuckled out a parting shot. ‘Sirf bartan hi toh hain (it’s only some vessels, after all).’ I’ve often wondered since what those chaps would have done faced with Damien Hirst’s oversized skull made of diamonds.

Blinded by the commercial razzle-dazzle of seven-figure sales, the public fails to see, as it were, the work that went under the hammer. It tends to pay less attention to the majesty of art, or to the lack of it, as the case may be, than to the amount of money that bought it. The work’s value is settled by the price tag glued to it, not by the aura that’s supposed to emanate from it, or by its mystique. It’s the case with Salvator Mundi, as it was with the untitled painting by VS Gaitonde that was picked up for $3.7 million at Christie’s first auction in India four years ago.

The sudden resurgence of interest in the modernist abstract painter, most likely triggered by the record-breaking sale, led to positive development: a retrospective at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York soon after. However, amidst the hullabaloo over the show, dominated by a nationalist pride in seeing Indian art get its dues in distant shores, few cared to point out that the bulk of the paintings on loan at the show were either damaged or of far inferior quality than those held in private collections in India and abroad.

‘I have always believed that beauty is beauty, truth truth,’ the poet, Philip Larkin, once said, deliberately and brilliantly misquoting John Keats, ‘that is not all ye know on earth nor all ye need to know.’ It’s a useful thought to keep in mind considering art, especially the layers of cultural, social, aesthetic and commercial values that put a steep price to it.