Yesterday's On Point with Tom Ashbrooktook up a subject that's been on my mind since last week, the $179,400,000 sale at Christie's New York of Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O). In the week since the big event, the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art, the press has struggled to deconstruct what this astronomical number says about the status of fine art in our culture and the art market's ability to weigh perceptions of beauty against truckloads of cash.
Most attempts to explain why someone would be willing to pay so much for a painting treat the subject like a diamond--some kind of mysterious natural wonder coughed up by the earth to be marveled at, fought over, and squirreled away--in short, a commodity. Forbesdescribes this conversion of such art into a "hard" asset. But, of course, the Picasso didn't spontaneously burst into existence, and Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) has a specific history. The painting is one of a series, derivative of an earlier work by another artist, and motivated by a specific political event. As Erin Blakemore writes in JSTOR Daily, "Picasso depicted 'The Women of Algiers' fifteen times between 1954 and 1955. He based his painting on [Eugene] Delacroix's 1834 oil painting Femmes d'Alger Dans Leur Appartment, which depicted a group of Algerian women smoking a hookah in a sensual harem setting....Though Picasso had already studied Delacroix, Algeria's 1954 uprising against colonial rule seems to have spurred the painting."
Whether the anonymous buyer values this history is likely known only to the new owner and his or her keeper of the personal exchequer. The point here is that value, even at this level, can never be fully divorced from context. This phenomenon is true even in the dusty, poorly-lit, unswept corner of the art market reserved for unheralded 19th and early 20th-century American paintings.
This is what you get for $179,400,000, or roughly the current price of two base-model F-35 fighter jets:
Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d'Algers (Version O) (1954-55).
And this is what you could get for the mid-five figures, or roughly .02% of the price:
Harvey Otis Young is a respectable second or third-tier American artist, best known for his later Colorado scenes. His Autumn Near New Haven is a fascinating painting, showcasing a landscape that, thanks to the urban renewal projects of the twentieth century and the vivisection of the city by the concrete scalpels of Interstate 95 and Interstate 91, simply no longer exists. Accordingly, not only is the painting a charming and affordable (relatively) American scene, it is also an historical text, one that reflects our agragrian tradition back to us, and reminds us of a time when our industries took us outdoors, into fields now paved over, surrounded by healthy elms before the blight.
The peaceful nostalgia affected by such a work brings me much greater joy than the broken glass of Les Femmes d'Algers, so much so that, viewing the works side-by-side, I struggle to comprehend how the latter is the price of one reasonable German sedan, in which I might transport my family in comfort and safety, while the former is nearly 120 Bugatti Veyrons locked in a garage somewhere in Dubai or Beijing or Vladivostock, for all we know.
But say you want something a little more recent, a little looser than postbellum realism--if that's the case, consider this early 20th-century American Impressionist painting by the Old Lyme artist, Wilson Henry Irvine:
Irvine's Party on the Lawn is priced in the same neighborhood as Autumn Near New Haven--just five-figures and a buyable window into our nation's bucolic past. Irvine was one of the bold American Impressionists who, with Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf, helped establish what became known as the Old Lyme Art Colony in southeastern Connecticut. His bright, cheery palette, applied in lively brushstrokes, creates a springtime mood of conviviality and celebration. His setting, the Byrd mansion circa 1865, also known as Westover, was--and still is--one of the most celebrated residences in America. Built about 1730, in the years before the Revolution, Westover housed a library unsurpassed by any in the colonies. And its owner, WIlliam Byrd the Second, was one of the great libertines of the colonial era, a man whose appetites would have put even Benjamin Franklin to shame.
Westover was also the inspiration for another legendary American country manor, designed by the early 20th-century artist and famed architect, Charles Adams Platt. This house, built around 1908 and known as Eastover, was located in New London, Connecticut, and would certainly have been familiar to Irvine at the time he painted Party on the Lawn. Irvine wasn't just creating a near-genre scene of one party on one specific day, but rather, he was illustrating an enduring ideal of American leisure against an architectural backdrop recognized as the high point of a classic American style.
The terrific Lindsay Pollock, art critic and editor-in-chief of Art in America, pulled duty yesterday as one of Tom Ashbrook's guests. When asked whether she felt the $179 million paid for Les Femmes d'Algers would affect prices in other areas of the art market (prints, for example), Pollock took the opportunity to illuminate the great range of wonderful art available at prices more within the realm of comprehension. "I really dislike how looking at these big prices makes the whole art market seem like everything is so outrageously priced and inaccessible," Pollock said, continuing, "if you were interested in ceramics, or glass, or jewelry, or another category, there's so much more afforable art, I always get wary that this sort of auction scares people away."
She's right. The Young and the Irvine are just two examples among thousands of outstanding American paintings that are obtainable by would-be collectors of modest means who are willing to value our visual history. And that's not even including all the wonderful living artists like Tom Yost, Peter Poskas, or Joseph McGurl.
There are sophisticates in the world who might scoff at the idea of putting Young and Irvine in the same conversation as Picasso. The argument is not that their work is equal in terms of its impact on our collective art culture--as museums around the world would attest, clearly it's not. But when you examine the gross disparity of price, paintings like Autumn in New Haven and Party on the Lawn appear to us domestic 99-percenters to be a much better value.
You don't need an armored truck to bring great art home. You don't even need a secret garage in Vladivostock. All it takes is a little perspective and some wall space in the living room.