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?


It's fun to be alone with my new Kindle...

First I noticed yesterday that through some incomprehensible error on my part I nominated ... myself as my "friend" - I really didn't mean to! I don't even know how to get myself off the list! Well, no matter. I know that I'm not alone in the blogosphere, at least I've got myself as a friend plus another brave person out there! Thank you and welcome to my blog...

Just a note on what life is like with my new Kindle. I love it! Electronic paper (since that's what ereaders are based on) is just great for all the reasons everybody knows: 1. you can read it anywhere, in bed, in the bathroom, in the post office waiting in line etc; 2. it's light and small, you can put it away or take it with you whenever you feel like it; 3. you can read it in the sunshine or inside without any adjustments; 4. you can buy your books directly from the e-store provided you're in a dedicated wifi area (or whatever they call it), and you get not only books but newspapers and magazines.

But there's one thing no one tells you and I think that's positively the greatest: not only can you read your newspaper in bed in the morning (you don't need to go out and buy i) but you can read all the first page stories AT A SINGLE GO, right to the end, without having to turn those big, unwieldy newspaper pages in search of the grand finale of the story (which often isn't even printed on the page they say it's on!). No more messy, half-crumpled newspaper spread all over my bed...And best of all, no need to throw all that paper away...I bet that by year end I will have saved the life of at least one tree!


Islamic Minarets and Christian Crosses

We've been recently treated to two rather surprising bits of religious news: on 29 November 2009, in Switzerland, a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets was approved by 57.5% of voters in a referendum, immediately causing a wave of dismay and contempt in European public opinion; on 3 November, in Italy, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that displaying crucifixes in Italian classrooms violates parents' rights to secular education for their children, causing widespread protest and an outcry in all political parties in Italy, from ledft to right.

Putting the two news together leads to some surprising conclusions about the state of religious affairs in Europe:

1. The referendum result in Switzerland clearly means one thing: Islamic minarets are considered offensive by a majority of the Swiss people. Some commentators have said it could be considered a normal reaction to the fact that no Christian church may be built in Saudi Arabia, the country that hosts the Mecca. If the Moslems are intolerant towards the Christians, why shouldn't the Christians feel just as intolerant towards the Moslems? An eye for an eye etc. But weren't we supposed to belong to the 21st century? Isn't Switzerland, home to the United Nations in Geneva and a host of international organizations like the Red Cross, supposed to be a tolerant, liberal country?

2. The European Court decision was very badly received in Italy largely because the crucifix in classrooms is a traditional fixture with no implications in terms of the content of education. You have a cross on the wall but you study Darwin's version of evolution. In short, there's no threat whatever to secular education. It's like saying the Red Cross should get rid of the cross in its flag because it implies the Red Cross is out to convert war victims to Christianity. So why is the European Court suddenly so intolerant towards a religious symbol?

What has happened to the good old-fashioned concept of TOLERANCE? Whether you think of yourself as a liberal (i.e. you're a supporter of "human rights") or you're a conservative out to defend Europe against the islamic invasion (i.e. you believe with Oriana Fallaci that it's all about "Eurabia"), you're both out to destroy religious concepts and symbols, whether Christian or Islamic. This is really a sad beginning for the 21st century. Some 20th century French philosopher once said (I can't remember who): le 21ème siècle sera religieux ou il ne sera pas! Which can be roughly translated as: the 21st century will be a time for religion or it won't exist. That is sadly true insofar as one associates INtolerance with religiosity...


Damien Hirst vs. the Wallace Collection - Turner vs. the Great Masters

Just back from London. Saw two fantastic exhibitions: one was Damien Hirst at the Wallace Collection, the other was Turner at Tate Britain. Both reminded me that an artist's ego is as BIG as a house - nay, a palace, a mountain...

Damien Hirst is like you haven't seen him in recent years: back to oil painting. The stuff is neon blue on a black background, and the subject is familiar, skulls, geometric lines and the like. What courage! He's pitching himself against the whole of the Wallace Collection. As soon as you leave the two rooms dedicated to him, you are into the famous Great Gallery, overwhelmed by the Great Masters from the past. Did he think he was better than them? I kept wondering, and watching whether the crowds of tourists passing through would stop to look at his work. In principle, these are people keen to see the Wallace Collection treasures. Are they able to understand what Damien Hirst is up to? Those I saw gallopped through his rooms without looking...Did Damien Hirst really think he could step out of his contemporary artworld with impunity and show everyone how good he was? That he could convince someone who likes Caravaggio or Rubens?

Turner was equally surprising - and in the same way. In this very clever exhibition, you saw him like you've never seen him before. Gone is the Great Artist whose Art has broken all the rules, the Precursor of not only Impressionism but also Abstract Art, the Genius that heralds Modern 20th Century Art. Here he's shown fighting all the great artists from the past - Claude le Lorrain, Poussin, Rembrandt, Ruysdael, Watteau, Canaletto, Rubens - plus a handful of contemporary artists that he felt threatened by, like Bonington or Constable. So he pitches his work at them. He's out to not just emulate but PROVE he's better than them. And nothing stops him: he'll paint graceful young girls like Watteau or the Venice Grand Canal like Canaletto, or the raging sea like Ruysdael, or a lonely windmill like Rembrandt. He's out to show the whole world that he's better than everybody, whether past or present. God, what an ego trip!

But it doesn't work - not every time. His young girls have none of the Watteau grace, the seawater is nothing like Ruysdael's, his windmills do not fight the elements like Rembrandt's. But he's as good as Claude le Lorrain in his handling of exquisite golden sunlight - he's even better. And he's breaking new ground when he paints Venice. He achieves greatness when he stops worrying about being better than the others: when he is tearing at reality, deconstructing it, focussing on light, and doing it for the pleasure of doing it. His love of light comes through here and there, and those are his greatest moments, his real contribution to art history. In the whole exhibition, there are only two or three such paintings, but they are the proof of Turner's greatness.

The conclusion of all this? Ok, an artist's ego is a huge, monstrous thing. It often derails him, makes him do things he probably would not be proud of (if he were given the time to ponder over it). But is it bad per se? This fantastic ego prods him; it pushes him forward, it makes him try things he probably would never try if he were left on his own. So a big ego is an integral part of a great artist - and not so great artists too...Only time will tell how far Damien Hirst can go...


Wow, that's a lot of wondering!

In just a few days of blogging, I've done a lot of wondering about the blogger world out there...And I duly note that no one reacts, no one replies, no one notices...I feel like I'm walking naked in the street, and all the people pass me by without noticing anything amiss...

I guess that's what real privacy is about in this mass communication world: we are all so intent on communicating, i.e. throw out some piece of ourselves like meat to the wolves, that we aren't listening to anybody. Luckily there are no wolves out there to eat our meat! But, boy, does it feel lonely...

Internet with its 500 million plus users is a very silent world!

I'm told by Google, the helpful giant, that I should follow successful bloggers. Join the crowd, or rather a small crowd within the big crowd. In some ways, I find this a frightening thought. I feel I'm reduced to becoming somebody's fan if I want to survive...

How do you feel about it? Has this feeling of loneliness on Internet ever hit you?


I do wonder about you bloggers!

How's it like to be a blogger? I've just started two weeks ago and nothing happened. I guess I should add: fortunately. Because if I had had a reaction, then God help me! Those of you who've got a blog up and running are sure busy! I know because everytime I post a comment on someone else's blog, I can't believe the number of responses I get!

Surely, you bloggers out there have other things to do? How do you manage it? I'm really impressed!