In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper, New York Magazine senior art critic and art world darling Jerry Saltz lambasts the outrageous display that took place during the recent $700 million dollar Christie’s auction. Specifically, Saltz decries the sale Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”), which alone went for $179 million dollars from one private collector to another, ensuring this important work of art never see the public’s eye.
The objective behind such an audacious purchase is not hard to see. For a billionaire, who almost certainly made their fortune outside the art world, and quite possibly knows and or cares little about art, a purchase such as a Picasso serves as a status symbol on a number of levels.
A “trophy painting” such as this needs no further explanation as to its monetary value than the name Picasso. A Picasso implies literal and cultural capital. Literal capital, in that it displays one has enough material means to afford such a widely known masterpiece. Cultural capital in that one is culturally sophisticated enough to understand the historical/artistic importance of an artwork that justifies dropping that kind of money on an art item, which has no utilitarian value. The entire exchange comes down to conspicuous consumption, an acquisition of cultural capital– a peacock show.
As Saltz remarks, the most unfortunate consequence of this type of exchange is the exclusionary nature of it, which ultimately excludes the vast majority of the population who will never be invited into said billionaires private collection for a viewing. Works like these disappear for years, decades, hung in the private collections of homes owned by people too busy to ever use them.
Museums and public galleries could never feasibly compete in an auction such as this “…a million dollars may be their budget for an entire year of acquisitions for a museum”. Therefore, the public is denied access to some of the world’s most important artworks. This becomes problematic as it reinforces the already exclusionary nature of the contemporary art community and further re-enforces the ever hard to combat notion that art is only for the rich.
As Saltz phrases it “The market is fine, art is good. Money and art have slept with each other since they first met but museums, anybody watching this, you’re probably the odd person out”. If we are to maintain art’s relevance in the contemporary age, it is important to make sure we are not making the public the odd person out. Lest we return to the ages in which fine art only exist inside the estates of the monarchy.