The CBS Sunday newsmagazine program, 60 Minutes, had an interesting feature last Sunday about contemporary art.
It was a follow up, in a way, of a program it ran 20 years ago on the same topic. In the earlier program, news journalist Morley Safer questioned the value of much of contemporary art.
The abstract paint splashes, renditions of giant soup cans, chrome toilets, sculptures and paintings that were indecipherable, incomprehensible, and inexplicable left Morley questioning the high monetary value placed on the works by dealers, collectors, and galleries. He sought an explanation and, of course, there was none.
For the recent follow-up, he visited one of the largest annual sales events of the contemporary art scene. There he discovered a giant hat, a large tangle of extension cords and hundreds of abstract paint splashes, sculptures and murals that were indecipherable, incomprehensible, and inexplicable.
In the interviews he held, art dealers and collectors commented on the volatility of the art market, the huge number of dollars spent on the works and the willingness of millionaires and billionaires to invest fortunes in contemporary art.
As in the first program there was no rationale provided for the valuation of the pieces, at least not intentionally. However, an art dealer whom he had interviewed in the first piece sought him out and with some delight revealed that a specific work Morley had questioned 20 years ago, when it was valued at tens of thousands of dollars, was now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Perhaps his gleeful statement holds the key. That rationale is enough for the millionaires and billionaires who purchase the works. There is no mention of aesthetic value, artist’s talent or skill, historical context or intent. Indeed, these aficionados scorn those terms and are contemptuous of anyone who dares to use the word “meaning.” These works do not “mean” anything they say.
Instead the dealers and collectors use terms like audacious, delightful, astonishing, bold, courageous, pugnacious, mesmerizing; no terms are used that places value on the works or places them in a specific context of human experience.
Listening to a dealer trying to sell a million dollar abstract mural to the daughter of a Russian billionaire was a hoot.
His slick babblegaff made loquacious wine connoisseurs look like tongue-tied hillbillies. Contemporary art, it turns out, is the perfect vehicle for the elite rich. Expensive cars, jewellery, mansions and yachts no longer sufficiently separate the merely affluent from the mega rich.
In contemporary art, they have the ultimate basis for the favourite expression of the grossly wealthy: “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”
It is a commodity that only they have the resources to acquire and so they trade it back and forth between themselves, tacitly agreeing to increase its value as time passes.
Since they have decided that it is worth millions and, since it has no intrinsic value, and there are no external, independent measures of its worth, they can ignore the inquisitive naysayers like Morley Safer and the rest of us.
After all, the super rich only care what the other super rich think of them and, like contemporary art, it only takes money to have attached to your name words like “bold,” “audacious,” and “delightful.”
As for “meaning,” well, if you are only interested in things that have meaning, you are obviously neither super rich, nor astonishing, nor mesmerizing.
– Jim Holtz is WEEKENDER columnist and a former reporter for the Grand Forks Gazette.