The Artful Collector: Art Hierarchies #5: Art that Costs a Lot is Better than Art that Costs a Little

Examples of how art hierarchies are determined by what people will pay for an artwork.

Is this Triptich by Francis Bacon worth $1,420.? Would it look like art worth much more than that, if you knew someone paid 100,000 times that for it? Yes, and yes. $142.2 million, the most ever paid for an artwork at an auction (Christie’s, sale of Postwar and Contemporary Art, 2013)

You probably know this already, but I’ll repeat it, just in case: the “laws” of supply and demand do not seem to apply to some special classes of luxury, consumer goods. Indeed, and as everyone knows, expensive wine just always seems to taste better than cheap wine. Right?  Well, this perception, that things that cost more are better, is not a figment of your imagination. Believing makes it so.

Years of marketing research has helped us to understand one of the best known but frustratingly complex of topics — how price changes the way we experience things. Researchers in 2008 demonstrated that if a person is told he or she is tasting two different wines — one that costs $5 and one that costs $45.00 when they are, in fact, the same wine — the part of the brain that experiences pleasure will become more active when the drinker thinks they are imbibing the more expensive wine (“Marketing Actions Can Modulate Neural Representations of Experienced Pleasantness”) In other words, our perception of quality is linked to price. And if this is true for wine, then by extension we can include cars, clothes and watches, and . . . by golly . . . Art.

It’s part of the Prestige Factor: It’s why some people actually prefer to pay more than makes sense. The price paid is the reward, in itself . . . conferring status, ‘taste,’ bragging rights, and even inspiring awe. It’s why even I have been known to say “If it doesn’t sell, I’ll just raise the price until it does.”  And I have done it, successfully. Because when the price of art doesn’t match its quality “as perceived” by the audience, the result is often rejection. “What’s wrong with it?” or “Why is it so cheap?” I heard this latter question so often from art collectors outside the genre when I started in business that I adopted an automatic response: “Wait, did I say $2000? My mistake, I mis-read the zeros. That’s $20,000.”

“New” Money and Tastemakers Up the Ante

As the chart makes clear, it doesn’t have to be “old” Art (Dead Guy Art) to be considered “good.” Indeed, the fact that artists are still alive to “party” with is a big attraction to people who can afford to buy super-priced art; it’s more fun to hang with the artists.

It doesn’t HAVE to be old, just EXPENSIVE, to be “good”

Billionaires are growing at a fast clip, all over the world, especially in countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) where all it takes is money to buy into the wealthy Western mainstream — and money is no object. These newly fashioned “Artigarchs” are pricing the normally rich right out of the Western Art Market.

Let me be very clear: I am not saying that art that IS better, costs more. This is logical, reasonable and — all things being equal — the way capitalism is supposed to work. NO. What I am saying is that the way we know when art is better, when we see it….is because it carries a higher price tag than art that isn’t as good. Get it?

So, the way it works: a bunch of people get together — without knowing it — and taking their cues for what is “good” art from those who have (in their eyes) the status and power required to influence tastes (“the tastemakers”) decide that one piece of art is more “worthy” than another, and therefore pay more for it. Yes, this is a totally subjective exercise. Yes, sociologists have been studying the socioeconomic implications of influence and persuasion and decision-making for some time. Yes, for those who are disinterested in the artwork, the whole scene smells fishy, like some high-class shell game, a huge scam. Yes, to those who don’t live in this “alternate reality” — it’s an obscene/ insane amount of money that is changing hands for what to one group seems an “important piece” but which to you (disinterested, and on a budget) seems like dreck.

There are, of course, ways other than money to ascertain “worthiness.”  Money just happens to be the most handy yardstick.  But art hanging on a museum’s wall, art offered in a ritzy gallery, art donated by a wealthy person for whatever reason, to whatever cause, art touted as “worthy” by a noted art critic….any one of these measures can also suffice to elevate the worthiness of some work of art over others. Which naturally elevates the PRICE.

NOTE: I am NOT referring to VALUE here. These are two separate things. Value is, or at least can be, a very subjective thing.  What is “valuable” to you may or may not be considered valuable to others. WORTH on the other hand can be measured and quantified. What a painting may be “worth” on any given day depends on what you are willing to buy it for, and the seller is willing to accept. And if the consensus of the art world is that canned shit has value, i.e., is just as worthy of our attention as other human creations, haha, then ipso facto, it does.

Another way I can demonstrate that art that costs more is better, is by arguing for the reverse…. As in:

Art That Costs Very Little Is Bad Art

This is actually easier to prove than you might suspect. Indeed, the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA), “the world’s only Museum dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition and celebration of bad art in all its forms”) despite its policy of accepting only “art too bad to be ignored,” is testament to the veracity of that statement. They welcome donations of works that “would never hang in a museum or commercial gallery” according to the Museum’s website, frequently accepting works from artists themselves, and “have a firm policy of never paying more than $6.50 for a new acquisition, though noteworthy exceptions have been made for particularly squalid attempts” (“At the Roxy” by Gary Lehman). The website also advises that — due to their need to maintain their low standards — they typically reject 80% to 90% of all works submitted “because they’re not bad enough.  What an artist considers to be bad doesn’t always meet our low standards” (said co-founder Marie Jackson, quoted in Oregon Citizen newspaper article, Feb. 26, 2000).

The Museum of Bad Art is auctioning ''Studies in Digestion'' by Deborah Grumet to raise funds for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. (Museum of Bad Art)
The Museum of Bad Art is auctioning ”Studies in Digestion” by Deborah Grumet to raise funds for the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. (Museum of Bad Art)

To be included in the Museum’s collection, works must be original, and have serious intent, but also have significant flaws without being boring. Or, put another way, the primary attribute of an artwork to be acquired by MOBA is that it must have been seriously attempted by someone making an artistic statement . . . a prospective painting or sculpture for the collection ideally should result in a compelling image (Museum of Bad Art: Masterworks, Ten Speed Press 2008), or as MOBA’s Honorary Curator put it, after the successful auction of a work from their rejection collection, it must have that “Oh, My God” quality (“Doing a Good Deed with Bad Art” by Bella English).

I have highlighted these words because: Do these criteria not fit both Deborah Grumet’s “Studies in Digestion” AND Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)”?  Think about this as I relate how BOTH artworks were successfully sold at auction.

“Studies in Digestion” was a four-panel work showing four renditions of the human digestive tract in various media, and was offered by MOBA as a way to raise money for a good cause . . . at a “buy it now” price of $10,000. This opportunity was foreclosed when someone bid $24.95. It eventually sold for a paltry $153.53 — because apparently no one in a position to bid on the Koons “Balloon Dog (Orange)” a few years later was ready to part with bigger bucks that day. Think of the investment potential in a work that was considered even too good for the MOBA (!)  — it apparently wasn’t “bad” enough to pass muster and so could be safely “de-accessioned.”

Jeff Koons "Balloon Dog (Orange) sculpture.
Jeff Koons “Balloon Dog (Orange) sculpture.

In my opinion, it likely failed the “significant flaws without being boring” and “Oh, My God” tests, two hurdles which the “Dog” cleared with flying colors (orange). Balloon Dog was also original, had serious intent (to make money for Koons), surely makes an artistic statement, and is compelling.  My bet is that few who have seen it in person, just like those who reported on its sale at auction, did not exclaim “Oh, My God.” So it fully qualifies as “bad art.”  😉

In the end, dollars are easier to measure than beauty.

Just keep repeating “Things are worth what they sell for” and everything, trust me, will be alright.  🙂

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