Anniversary Post: Overpriced van Gogh

Self-Portrait Without Beard - Vincent van GoghOn this day in 1998, Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait Without Beard sold for $71.5 million. At the time, it was the third most expensive painting ever sold. Now (adjusted for inflation), it is 26th. As regular readers know, I’m not a big van Gogh fan. But he is unique. Still, prices like this for a work of art say nothing of the work and everything about the narcissism of the art collector.

And if you look at the most expensive art there is a remarkable sameness about it. It is overwhelmingly Impressionist (more accurately, post-Impressionist) and representational modernist work. And there is a smattering of Abstract Expressionism — Rothko and Pollock. But the main thing is that you know the people buying these works would have hated the works when they were being produced. For all I know, they hate them now. It’s just something to impress the swells with.

I do all my writing sitting right next to what I know was once a beautiful painting by Bernard Frouchtben. But like far too much art that no one has been told is good, it was badly abused. In its case, it was left out in a carport for years. But even if it had been treated with the care and respect it deserves, it probably wouldn’t even be worth as much as $10,000. As it is, it is worth nothing in terms of money. But I dearly love it, even though it also saddens me to look at it.

I love art. But art as commodity offends me. For the price of that one van Gogh, a hundred Bernard Frouchtbens could have been supported in perpetuity. Imagine what kind of works would have result from that kind of investment. But instead, these people buy art the way decorators do when they are furnishing a new Days Inn. And the truth is that if you told these art collectors that paintings of bullfighters on black velvet was the thing, they’d be spending millions on every Edgar Leeteg that went on the market. And I’m not saying that Leeteg is bad. But his paintings don’t sell for millions for the same reason that van Gogh’s do — at it has nothing to do with what the buyers like or don’t like.

18 replies on “Anniversary Post: Overpriced van Gogh”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I used to wonder why anyone liked some art since I would wander around the various museums and go “well um, that is nice. I guess.” Then I saw Luncheon of the Boating Party as the center piece at the Phoenix Art Museum’s showing of The Phillips Collection and I finally got it.

    That said, I still prefer nature photos to paintings because I accept my lack of taste.

    • Frank Moraes says:

      It brings back a very distinct period of my life. What I like about art is that every now and then I have transcendent experiences with it. One such experience I discussed in, The Twilight of Painting. Another was at the De Young where I first discovered pre-perspective religious art. You never know when it will happen, but it opens up the world. It happens in other forms of art too, but never quite so starkly because everything else (including motion pictures) is more intellectual (at least for me). I suspect you had the same experience with the Renoir. But it wasn’t “it”; it was “that”; and you can have “that” many more times.

      • Elizabeth says:

        I think it is mainly I rarely seem to get a transcendent experience when I am wandering around and looking at things. I was in London poking at the chunk of the Londinium Wall next to the Tower and I intellectually knew this was an extremely old physical piece of history that had seen so much happen. Yet it was like poking a rock when walking around South Mountain Park. While coming upon Stonehenge in the fog was almost religious in nature.

        So it was for the painting-the Phillips Collection that was presented had some supposedly amazing works yet I was meh at them. So I was frustrated with myself for not understanding what the fuss was about, again.

        • Frank Moraes says:

          It doesn’t happen a lot. And then it doesn’t happen again. Although when I more recently went to the Getty, I spent a couple of hours looking at the stained glass and had an appreciation for it that I never would have had before the de Young experience. But it is far better to be honest than to affect a love that you don’t have. I used to have season tickets to the Portland symphony, and that’s what I felt about most of the people there. The problem is especially bad in classical music. On the other hand, they do fund the work, so there’s that.

          • Elizabeth says:

            I do have a distressing habit of being completely honest at people and with myself. Terrible habit in a politician or so I am told.

            The symphony, opera and ballet exist to give rich people an excuse to show off their money. The side benefit of you enjoying the performance is the positive part of the rich showing off. So that means the rich have at least one thing going for them. But it is not nearly enough to keep them around.

            • Frank Moraes says:

              In the film Dangerous Liaisons, the Marquise de Merteuil finds it amusing that Raphael (the young music teacher) comes to the theater to listen to the music. Things never change. It’s been funny to see the way that Broadway has changed. People go to show their culture, but it just becomes more and more vulgar. At the same time, small theaters are probably doing more great work than ever in history. So I don’t mean to complain. And like I’ve noted, the Marquise de Merteuil types do a great service for the bourgeois types like myself.

              • Elizabeth says:

                True, I saw an amazing play a few years ago in Chicago with a friend who did play reviews. Since I rarely go to plays or any high brow events like that, I cannot speak much to it. Except I don’t like opera. I have no idea why.

                • Frank Moraes says:

                  Opera takes a while to get into. Long after I was into Classical music, I didn’t get opera. But I had an awakening. Oh, for the record: there are a lot of great music critics — especially in the classical world. It seems that everyone thinks they can write about film, so they do.

                  • Elizabeth says:

                    Interesting-I have found, much like with films, I don’t agree with reviewers all that much. I like what I like and that is about it.

                    • Frank Moraes says:

                      I think that’s true of most people. At this point, I mostly use reviewers to complain about them. It would be nice to have a reviewer who shared my taste, but I’ve never found one. Interestingly though: Netflix had me nailed after a couple of years. I was constantly amazed how close their “best guesses” for me were.

                    • Elizabeth says:

                      Electronic algorithms are pretty scary. At least with humans you can get people going “no way, they would never like that!”

    • James Fillmore says:

      I had a similar experience seeing some Rodin prototypes collected at a weird museum in Eastern Washington. I was never much into sculpture, but the drama of those forms hit me hard.

      It’s not a matter of “lack of taste.” I think anything you enjoy, you enjoy it more if you spend more time learning about it. And nobody can learn about everything (the only reason human lives are too short is that we run out of time to learn more, IMO. Immortality would be boring, but 70 years is nowhere near enough.)

      Notice Frank rarely mentions architecture, except from an engineering standpoint. I’m guessing that’s because he knows more than most of us about music history, painting history, literary history, science history, political history (the man’s a loon!) but not architecture so much. Some people with “good taste” consider a vast knowledge of architecture essential to any kind of cultivated person.

      It’s pretty silly how we’ve divided these fields of interest into “good taste” and “bad taste.” It’s completely arbitrary. For one thing, everyone needs hobbies, even people in the most awful stressed-out difficult situations. (People in Ice Ages made paintings and musical instruments, and their lives were tougher than ours!) For another, we have this ridiculous distinction between “hobbies” (not productive) and “skills” (totally awesome areas of expertise) which is batshit in itself.

      The most important thing, to me, isn’t the nature of your area of interest — it’s whether or not it excites you to share it with others. And not by converting them (there’s nothing duller than a person who tries to tell you why you’re inferior because you don’t like their interests as much as they do.)

      But if you see something in your interest which makes some philosophical sense to you, and by sharing why it makes that sense to you, you can convey meaning even if the other person finds the obsession’s supposed objective boring.

      To wit:

      Today I talked with a house painter. He’d painted a room one shade, as painters usually do. Had he done a good job? He wasn’t sure. He needed to take a few days away from it, as he’d been looking at that one shade for many hours and couldn’t see anymore if there were spots where the layers of paint were uneven. He would come back in a few days and re-assess.

      That’s quite profound. When we’re in the middle of something, we sometimes can’t see it with the objectivity our experience and practice and skill would give us if we looked at someone else’s work. We need time to back up and view it with our critical eye.

      And this doesn’t just involve painting. In how many situations do any of us find ourselves reacting from frustration, because others criticize the emotions and effort we’ve put into things? Sometimes in those frustrations we realize how others dismiss our hard work and realize we need to be away from a situation where our contributions aren’t appreciated. Sometimes with the passage of time we realize that, yeah, I missed that spot here, I screwed up that corner there. In the middle of something you care about, it’s easy to lose that vital objectivity.

      To me it’s not about the area of interest. If you can talk about stamps and how stamps show the brilliant work of 19th-century etching artists and the difficulties they had pursing their craft, then you’ve made stamp collecting cool. You, for instance, make political organizing cool (even though I’d rather gnaw off my femurs than do any political organizing.) People who are into painting for the right reasons can make painting cool.

      No passion is stupid in and of itself, and none signifies “good taste.” If it excites you to share your insights with others, even only a few others you feel comfortable with, it’s Very, Very Good Taste!

      • Frank Moraes says:

        So now I have to write about architecture? The truth is that I’m always out of my comfort zone writing about visual art. I love it, but it is much less intellectual for me than other stuff. I do actually have a profound love of architecture, but I don’t have a lot to say. I was hugely influenced by From Bauhaus to Our House. It first got me to see architecture as an art form. It also provided me with a bad attitude toward modern architecture. But eventually I turned against that, and saw that the problem wasn’t the architecture, but Wolfe’s ideology that limited him from seeing a lot of great work for what it was. He does the same thing in The Painted Word. He seems to think that at one time artists weren’t intellectual about their work. That just isn’t true. Look at the change from Mannerism to Baroque. To most viewers, it’s identical. But it represents very different intellectual frameworks. Just the same, I am with Wolfe to some extent that much abstract expressionism isn’t very interesting.

        • James Fillmore says:

          Well, this is really “stump the band.” There must be something you don’t know. I’ve got it! Cliff-diving to spear-fish octopi. (This is an actual thing.)

      • Elizabeth says:

        I suppose it is but there are some things that the vast majority of people agree is “good taste.” So when you go against the tide, and I do the majority of the time or so it seems, it can get pretty lonely and you second guess yourself a lot. For instance, all of my friends seem to be super duper Star Wars fans and I don’t like that movie series all that much. Same with Doctor Who or any number of geek shows. Which is slightly okay since I am not a geek but a nerd however it does make things awkward. *shrugs*

        As for the stepping away to look at things that you have done wrong-I do that to the point I have literally collapsed at work because I push myself too hard. Nothing like being your own worst enemy in your attempt to be perfect.

        • James Fillmore says:

          Ah — I found the “transcendent experience thread”! Should have read more closely.

          The geek/nerd thing bothers me a tidge. For me, “nerd” meant being abused badly in youth because I wasn’t socially adequate. I hate to see people who like sci-fi or whatever getting all giddy because now many people like what they like. Or, rather, I don’t hate them for being excited they can share their interests with others — that’s great! — but I hate how cool the terms “geek/nerd” have become. In my day, those terms were pure slurs and you got the hell beat of you for being labeled as such, you were horribly abused in ways I won’t share, and the nastiest teachers encouraged/tolerated this. It was like “fag.”

          To me, “Who” is up and down, like “Twilight Zone.” I’m more of a “Trek” guy. Even when “Trek” is terrible, I like what it’s aiming at. As for “Star Wars” . . . OK. “Empire Strikes Back” has a lovely musical score and some character development which surprised the hell out of kids like me who thought a sequel would just be more lightsaber fights. “Jedi” was mostly just lightsaber fights. I think it’s a pretty terrible movie, and I think the “Trek” reboot movies are awful. I’m surprised “Star Wars” fans are giddy with drooling over new films since the “Trek” ones by J.J. Abrams were so unimaginative.

          But, hey. My favorite characters in “Empire” were Vader and Yoda, both of whom were screwed up royally by the prequel trilogy, and now Abrams can’t screw them up because they’re both dead. But I’m more excited to see “Spotlight” when it comes to my local second-run theater. If you haven’t seen other movies by Thomas McCarthy, you are missing out. “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” are pretty dang near classic. Not to mention “Up!”

          • Elizabeth says:

            Oh yes, the getting bullied as a kid thing. I had my experiences with it and most of it I have made sure to forget. I got it from the kids at school and at home. Which is probably one of the reasons why I used to escape into books as much as I did and do. The weird thing is that I was ordered to get good grades yet was made fun of by my own parents for doing so. And then they wonder why I don’t call.

            Star Wars just seems like a guy thing to me. It is all battles and cool dudes and stuff I never was interested in. Star Trek is about making life better for everyone so it focuses on something other than how cool Riker is.

            I am only excited to see Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny as viewed with Rifftrax.

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