The Old Masters vs. Contemporary Art: a losing battle

Yes, it's a losing battle. If you think the Old Masters are up there sitting on their eternal throne, the subject of adulation by the screaming masses, think again! True, museums showing their works have multiplied their audience by a factor of ten since the 1990s, perhaps more. I remember when I was a kid going to the Louvre forty years ago, it was perfectly empty. You could just walk in anytime of day and go up to the Monna Lisa and...nobody around! How wonderful! Today, you have to queue up and be ready to stand in line for hours, and once you get to the Monna Lisa, you have to wait again.If that isn't a roaring success for Leonardo da Vinci et al. , I don't know what is!

WRONG! The Old Masters are a success with the ignorant populace but NOT with the cognoscenti. These are the people with money - or access to money, i.e. the art merchants - who invest in Art. Only the very rich can do so, and now, crisis or no crisis, we have an ever growing new class of billionaires (yes BILLIONS, not millions), not just in America as was the case throughout the 20th century, but now in China, India, Saudi Arabia, Brazil...These are people who invest in...the Old Masters? No, they do not. Definitely not.

They invest in Contemporary Art.

Why? Do they really like Manzoni's shit in a shoebox, Burri's sackcloth, Cattelan's crushed Pope, Nikki de St Phalle's lurid dolls, Jeff Koons' plastic heart, Botero's fat Christ, Damien Hirst's pills, Christo's wrappings, Gabriel Orozco's oranges etc etc?

Yes, THEY DO. If you think they see beauty or meaning in these "works of art" (often modestly called "installations"), you're wrong again. What they see are dollar signs. Money, money, money. And THEY LOVE IT. And they're right. These are serious guys who've made serious money, lots of it, and they know what's a good deal when they see it. When you think of Art, you think of Beauty, Pleasure, Emotions...That's for the likes of you guys who've never made a dollar in your whole working life. Not them. They know better.

Art is for INVESTMENT. Let the ignorant populace flock to museums to gorge on the Old Masters - they never go to museums. No time for it. But they have time to invest in Contemporary Art - yes, definitely. And they can rely on high-level experts to help them in their investments: art merchants, art critics, art historians and the directors of contemporary art museums. They are all at their beck and call, all chanting the same chant: contemporary art is for the cognoscenti. If you're a contemporary art collector, you're not a dunce or a dude. No, you're someone in the know. You're above the screaming masses. You're special...And the returns on your investments are magnificent.

Today, as the latest auctions in New York made clear, the level of Andy Warhol's oeuvre has gone over the $40 million line - works that twenty years ago sold for $20,000 or less. And not just Warhol and the Pop Artists but all the other "blue chip" Contemporary Artists too, like Damien Hirst or Buren. They're all up there, over the $10 million line.

If you don't sell your art over ten million, you're a NOBODY. That's what the market says, and the market is never wrong. By that criterion, the Old Masters are NOBODIES. Three years ago, a Botticelli came on the market - a very, very rare event - and it sold for...$ 6 millions. Yes, that's not a typo: SIX million.

Now who's the greatest painter that ever was? Rembrandt? More or less. He's got to be up there in that rarified circle with Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, El Greco, Goya, Rubens and a few others (not very many, surely). Last week a self portrait sold for...$30.1 million at Christie's in New York.

That's less than Andy Warhol. And that's the point, isn't it? That's what the market says: Rembrandt is worth less than Andy Warhol.

Of course, one has to consider the specifics of this particular work of art.This Rembrandt was an Old Master with a problem. It sold at the lower estimate, because people were afraid it would be hard to restore (the varnish looked bad). But with Contemporary Art, there are no such fears - not ever. Some of the art falls to pieces - in fact, it is conceived as such from the very start: it uses dirt, or textiles or fresh fruits as a material; it is meant to fall to pieces - yet that doesn't stop anyone from paying top prices. The difficulties of restoration or maintenance are NEVER a consideration, and certainly not a problem.

You tell me what is the explanation for this astounding string of aberrations?
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