Christie’s Touts $412 Million Art Auction but Art Was Not the Winner

It may have been a record-setting auction for post-war art, but Blake Gopnik finds little to cheer about.

Wednesday night, at Christie’s posh auction house in Rockefeller Center, the .1 percent got busy spending their not-so-hard-earned money. (A chunk of which, Obama would say, should have gone to the nation anyway.)

One telephone bidder paid $43.7 million for Andy Warhol’s 1962 "Statue of Liberty." (Do you wear a tuxedo when you’re calling-in that kind of money? Your bathrobe? How many pedicurists are tending your feet as you bid?) A splashy–literally–black-and-white abstraction by Franz Kline, from 1957, was another bestseller, quadrupling his auction record to $40.4 million. Another big buy was the $33.6 million that an unnamed plutocrat paid for Jeff Koons’s enormous bouquet of stainless-steel tulips, which was on view as a water feature in front of Christie’s–where it looked strangely of a piece with the Christmas displays going up nearby in Rockefeller plaza. Despite their size, those flowers didn’t seem Koons at his most substantial.

This morning, Christie’s was trumpeting its $412 million auction as adding up to the most ever bid at one go for post-war art. Eleven works passed the $10 million mark, 16 exceeded $5 million, and 56 went for over $1 million. Eight works set new auction records for the artists who made them. (A caveat about all auction-house records: They don’t account for inflation, which means they are basically meaningless as real facts of economic history. It’s said that in the Renaissance a great Flemish tapestry could fetch the same price as a battleship, making mincemeat of any of Christie’s figures.)

Last night, there was applause in the hall when big numbers were reached, and this morning’s reporting had a boosterish tone, but I’m not sure why we all act as though more art selling for more money is something to celebrate. After all, the very top-selling artists are mostly dead, so those sales don’t help them, and dealers often say that auctions can screw up the market for their living peers (who, in New York at least, don’t make a penny from auction sales of their works). Also, the more art costs, the fewer of us can afford it, and the less it circulates. In the 60s, lowly assistant professors and new-minted doctors could buy significant art, whereas they could never enter the market now. Even well-heeled museums have a hard time staying in–and are works as likely to pass into public collections as donations, when they represent such a huge chunk of a collector’s estate? The more money art fetches, the more likely it is to stay hidden from the public’s eyes–which risks pulling it right out of our society’s shared culture. In an ideal world, wouldn’t we want more art, by more artists, to sell to more people, for less?

As I’ve noted before, when we applaud any purchase at auction, we’re praising the buyer for paying more than anyone else on the planet believes that purchase is worth. By definition, we’re applauding overpaying. Maybe that’s precisely the point: We clap at giant prices mostly because we love the sight and sound and smell of money, even when none of it is coming our way. Warhol seems to have figured this out before almost anyone else, when he declared business to be one of America’s highest art forms.

Appropriately, then, one of the few really smart buys of the night was that Warhol “Statue of Liberty.” (If spending the cost of a mansion on a scrap of canvas can ever count as smart.) The piece is from the very start of Warhol’s art career, and it’s a deeply weird, basically ugly work by an artist whose weirdness is what makes him a giant, up there with Titian and Picasso. A dumber move, on the Warhol front, came when one of his intense car-crash paintings went for “only” $8 million. No matter how important the picture, it still won’t sell well if a buyer can’t eat dinner below it; Warhol’s poisoned-tuna pictures would no doubt have fetched even less. Anyway, the car-crash was orange, which my artist-wife tells me is never a color collectors want.

Another weird fact about this auction, like all others, is that the art in it is really sold by size. That $40 million Kline clearly set its record partly because, at 8,769 square inches, it was a monster of a picture; another Kline that I think was actually a tighter, better, more dynamic work fetched only $11 million–but then there were only 2,000 square inches of it. (Actually, the more expensive canvas was also a better deal, at almost $1,000 less per square inch–sort of the equivalent of buying in bulk. I wonder if its buyer had figured that out.)

Actual pleasure in significant works seems to play a pretty small role in auction-room calculations: I couldn’t help noticing that, when the big Kline came up for sale, all eyes stayed glued to the auctioneer and to a huge monitor displaying the work. The “masterpiece” itself, filling most of one wall of the room, seemed utterly forlorn and neglected.

But then, I have to admit that I wasn’t much in the mood to appreciate art either, last night. At the very least, there seemed something tasteless about the timing of the deluxe Christie’s soiree. I couldn’t forget that the city just beyond the sale room has barely recovered from its worst-ever natural disaster, and that whole neighborhoods in it are still in parlous shape, as talk now turns to where money will be found to set them in order again. The country as a whole is also in dire straits, with obscene income inequality being possibly the most notable sign of how badly things have gone wrong. So, much as I adore art, I couldn’t quite take pleasure in watching it become the plaything of the robber barons of our new Gilded Age. Rather than opening the public’s eyes to art’s greatness, such auctions make it seem more out of reach and elitist than ever.