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Jeff Koons, 20-30 millionRobert Rauschenberg, 12-18 millionAndy Warhol, 20-30 millionPablo Picasso, 25-30 millionMark Rothko, 18-22 millionWayne Thiebaud, 2.5-3.5 million

[Estimated sales prices for upcoming Sotheby’s auction, quote from NY Times.]

Often these trophy purchases are flaunted in the entrance of a McMansion or over a living-room fireplace or in an office-building lobby. Sometimes, however, prized art will disappear into private collections where their superrich owners show them off to only their superrich friends.  “In order to appeal to today’s global marketplace you have to have iconic art that translates in every culture,” said Tobias Meyer, who runs Sotheby’s contemporary art worldwide.

Or as Brett Gorvy, Mr. Meyer’s counterpart at Christie’s, explains, “It’s got to be something with high impact, a wham-bang painting with everything in front of you.”

As America slides deeper into oligarchy, in which 80 percent of the population treads water trying to survive, or slips deeper into debt, poverty and despair, and 18 or so percent live a comfortable upper-middle class professional life and 2% live in obscene wealth, the arts market acts as a kind of barometer of our descent into terminal corruption.  While Republican politicians – who essentially are at the service of the hyper-wealthy – call for shredding the minimal social safety net established since the Great Depression, leaving those in the lower 80 percentile of Americans in greater risk, those who are among the 2% flaunt their wealth by buying art trophies.   On one hand they do so cynically, as an investment (just as those who bought houses not so long ago did), something they imagine sure to increase in financial value.   On the other hand they do so to display, conspicuously, their wealth.   Inadvertently they also display their utter gullibility and lack of any real sensibility about art.  The Picasso above is really a bad Picasso, and a bad painting.  He did many really bad paintings.  This one qualifies as a slap-dash quickie, something appropriate as a lousy magazine illustration.  Ah, but it has his name, and so….

Jeff Koons is little more than a whore for the rich, cranking out kitsch and porn for big bucks.  The kind of thing a Donald Trump would like.  The Rauschenberg above is 3rd rate for him, and while he did some very interesting silk-screen work, he’s over-rated.   Warhol originally was a commercial artist, doing graphics for catalogs, and he smelled a winner and cranked out silk-screen multiples of “wham-bang” magazine graphics blown up big and called it art, as did his dealers.   Thiebaud is a very third tier painter who does “cute” and has a sizable California following.  Rothko, were he alive to see how his work has become a very valuable commercial commodity, would probably commit suicide again on seeing how far his intentions were warped by the sickness of the capitalist take-over of the arts world, or the whole damned world.

Donald Trump, a man whose soul is doubtless as real as his teeth and hair

We clearly live in a time of deep decadence and corruption, qualities which reach through our society from the highest reaches of power, down into each of us who live inside this cultural envelope.   It is normal that those inside any given system cannot really perceive its nature in so far as their vision is invariably warped by the realities which surround them.  In a culture in which corruption has become the norm, it is natural that one doesn’t notice it in one’s self, or in those who surround one.  We tend only to notice it in scales greater than our own – we see the obvious corruptions of a Berlusconi, or a Wall Street titan, or a superannuated sports star.   But in reality the corruption is pervasive and touches everything and everyone as it is the fluid in which one lives.  It is inescapable.  

Equally is the reality that everyone must pay the price of these corruptions, whether, as in America in these days it is in the accelerating decline of the standard of living for the majority, or in the opulent display of the peddlers of art who show the deeply decadent other end of the spectrum.   In the end, we all pay.   The payment can be in a predictable violence, a social denouement common in history, and it can be in the spiritual degradation of a life lived falsely – as those who passed through the Soviet era of Russia and its eastern European satellites can attest.  Or as our frenetic consumer society shows with its empty wares and fake promises, piling ever more “product” onto an ever more impoverished “culture.”

The men and women at Sotheby’s or Christie’s will be happy to sell you a slice if you have the money to pay for it.

Long ago, perhaps 12 or 15 years back, I wrote to the Herald Tribune a letter to the editor, commenting on how the arts pages column written by Souren Melikan no longer discussed the actual art, but dwelt in an almost fetishistic manner on how much a given piece of art had sold for.  I suggested he should be shifted to the financial pages since there was little about art in his columns aside from names – the rest was about money.  Naturally they did not print the letter, the column stayed on the “arts” page,  and naturally things are 100 times worse today.



  1. Very nice use of pink. Perfect.

  2. Very well put, Jon. I look around me and see the (sometimes) good intentions of bygone artists like Rothko cruelly warped into dollar signs for the Richie Riches of the world. By the way, I will catch up with you via a lengthy email from my end, promise.

    • Yeah, where are you. Back from Scotland? And headed to where. We are one more year in Seoul and then a year on the American road – shooting, showing, bidding farewell… Send me that email!

  3. Thanks for writing this. Spot on stuff. You deliver some of the most poetically accurate synopsis of the state of American political and spiritual culture today. I consider yours one of the best, if not *the* best, blog on the net today. (both this and your other one). It gives me a little solace to know I’m not alone in seeing what I unfortunately see in the decaying legitimacy of our culture today.

    • Thanks. Not exactly my choice to be harbinger of dubious news, but I seem to have a self-inflicted sense of duty to the truth. And wide travels seem to have opened vistas not evidently clear for others. Did you know one of my films (1985-7) is title Plain Talk and Common Sense (uncommon senses). It pretty much predicted in its oblique and poetic manner where we are today… Alas. No fun being Cassandra in unhappy times!

  4. Here’s latest right along these lines, only worse.. the Rothko jon posted actually went for 33.7 Million, not the estimated 22 million…

    • Ah yes, well I guess the corruption is bigger than the estimators thought. I like some Rothko’s but this is all absurd. Think what 33.7 million would do for — well there’s more problems in the world that could be solved for that than I can list. Thanks for the update/correction.

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