Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What does a 142 million dollar painting look like?

I love art. Beautiful paintings, sculptures, great books, and fine music add immeasurably to life. Sometimes, just being in the presence of something artistic makes the world seem less dangerous somehow. Art has the power to transform us, to reorient our perspective. So, I love art. Yet, sometimes, I don’t get art.

 Yesterday a painting by Francis Bacon sold at auction for $142,000,000. No, this was not a sketch found in an attic belonging to the great English philosopher. This was a three part painting by a dead Irish artist known primarily for being openly and proudly gay at a time when most gay people were neither. The painting was in three frames and depicted a man sitting in what looks like some sort of wired cubicle at various angles. The man’s features are blurred and abstract. It turns out that the subject of the painting was Lucian Freud, a famous and influential painter in his own right, with whom Mr. Bacon had an ongoing relationship. These details are irrelevant. What boggles my mind is the price tag that this particular painting brought. One hundred and forty two million dollars is a lot of money. You could buy 300 Lamborghinis with that kind of money. You could sponsor 350,000 starving South American kids for a year with that kind of money. But some anonymous person thought to spend 142 million on this instead:

Now, don’t misunderstand me here. My beef isn’t with the price itself. The proper price for anything is simply what someone is willing to pay, so in this case, since someone was willing to fork it over, this painting was, in fact, worth 142 million. My problem is with the painting itself. This is the part of art that I don’t get. I mean, look at it, just stare at the thing for a few minutes. My eyes see a blurry, disjointed sketch set against a backdrop of nothing. The subject’s face looks like paint that got smeared by a raindrop. But there are a thousand art critics who will extol its brilliance from the rooftops. It’s a bit like the concert I attended this past weekend. The music was divinely performed and beautiful beyond description, except for the headline piece, a brooding discordant thing which featured intentionally sharp, grating chords tied together in a somber funeral dirge pace. My son rolled his eyes at me when I shared this opinion, embarrassed by my Philistine sensitivities. Guilty as charged, I suppose. Life is already full enough of discord and disharmony, why rip it out of music too?

I’m told that Mr. Bacon’s painting fetched the highest price for a painting in history. That’s great news for the art business, but I’m not sure what it says about art. But, what do I know?