Tiffany Jenkins: Art is worth what someone will pay

Picasso's Women Of Algiers sold for 115m but we must not confuse its financial value with its real worth. Picture: SWNS
Picasso's Women Of Algiers sold for 115m but we must not confuse its financial value with its real worth. Picture: SWNS
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But that’s just the financial value, its artistic merit cannot be decided by what it goes for in the auction room, writes Tiffany Jenkins

AFTER 11 minutes of telephone bidding, Picasso’s Women Of Algiers went to an anonymous buyer for £115 million at Christie’s auction house in New York this week, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.

It’s a vibrant painting, if a little busy for my taste: three or four nude, female figures – courtesans – are splashed over the canvas, in bold colours, in the cubist style. On the left-hand side, one – a large naked woman – stands before us, her hair wrapped in a tall, elaborate headdress. It is part of a 15-work series Picasso created in 1954-55, a tribute to his friend and colleague Henri Matisse, who had recently died, and his paintings of Turkish women in harems.

Picasso was a genius. But no matter how vibrant the artwork, £115m is, obviously, a crazy amount of money to spend on anything, a figure so huge that it is impossible to get your head around it, let alone wonder where you would sink it if you had the chance – though you could pay the estimated costs of £66m for the refurbishment and redisplay of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow and have a fat £49m left over to play with. Even if it were the best picture Picasso had ever painted, even if it were the best painting in the history of art, it’s still an astronomical sum.

The high prices of the art market keep rising, much to everyone’s amazement. The global art market sales last year reached £44 billion.

Melanie Gerlis, of the Art 
Newspaper, has said that rising prices cannot last forever: “At some point, people won’t keep paying more. But I’ve been saying that for a long time.”

Also at Christie’s, on Monday, Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture Painting Man fetched £90.7m. Edinburgh-born artist Peter Doig’s Swamped, a 1990 painting of a canoe in a moonlit lagoon, was sold for almost £16.6m.

Previous to the Women of Algiers, the most expensive work to sell at action was Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which went under the hammer in November 2013 for £89m. And before that it was the £74m paid for Munch’s Scream in 2012.

These high sums have led to a lot of handwringing and worrying – the art market has few defenders and many detractors right now.

Many art commentators feel uneasy that art, which is supposed to be something good and meaningful, or at least questioning and provocative, has become too entangled with the immoral values of money; that art is tarnished by these ludicrous sums paid out by the super-rich; that there is something wrong with spending so much money on one object when so many people in the world are poor and hungry – it is a sign of decadence, critics of the art market say. They complain that those buying these paintings and sculptures are a new class of super-rich – oligarchs and billionaires – who only want the work as an investment or a status symbol, which diminishes the other kind of value the artwork holds – the more intangible aesthetic and cultural value.

This newspaper argued in relation to the sale of the Picasso: “There is something that just does not sit right with works of art obtaining such astronomical sums. It emphasises the vast differences between the rich and the poor on this planet.”

But there is an element of historical amnesia at play here.

Art has always been tied to power and money. There would have been no Renaissance without a wealthy merchant class, the Medici family or the Holy See. Art has always been used as a status symbol, to show others that newly wealthy people have arrived and that they have good taste. As for emphasising the differences between rich and poor, I don’t deny that there are vast disparities between the haves and have-nots, and that this is a major social problem, one that we need to tackle, but the art market just reveals this inequality, it doesn’t cause it – and it’s better that it is exposed, that it’s out in the open.

The nature of the art market is that a painting is worth what anyone will pay for it.

There is only one Women Of Algiers and the painter is dead. The key question is why is art a financial investment now? Why are all these extremely rich people putting their cash into paintings?

The answer lies in the unproductive nature of western economies. These sluggish, underinvesting economies are rich in profits and all that liquidity has to go somewhere. If the wealthy don’t splash their cash on luxury yachts and designer hotels, it goes on art. The solution is to tackle the problems of low productivity, not whine about the super-rich getting their grubby hands on fine paintings. They have to put their oodles of cash somewhere and £115m is probably a good investment for this late-career work from a great artist. Though the financial value of art can fluctuate dramatically, Picasso is a pretty safe bet.

Is this painting really worth £115m?

In financial terms, it’s worth what someone will pay for it. What is crucial is that we don’t confuse the financial value with the critical or cultural value of the work – that is something far more important, which cannot be decided by price.

The real problem we face when it comes to art, is that our culture finds it difficult to articulate its value beyond and besides its financial value. Rarely in our relativistic climate – if ever – do we hear a defence of art for arts sake or a discussion about the intrinsic value art holds, a proper debate about whether an artwork is good or not.

Significantly, this silence emanates from the cultural sector, which tends to champion culture as something that is good for the economy or for social instrumentalism. We cannot blame the art market and the super-rich for this broader and profound failing.