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12.26.2009

Never read a book about an irritating subject before going to bed...

If you do, you won't sleep!

That's what happened to me last night. I opened up a book about Contemporary Art I had received for Christmas and settled comfortably in bed to read it. Now, Contemporary Art is a subject close to my heart. Since I've retired, all I do is paint (and write, of course) and go to museums and (sometimes) galleries and art fairs.

Well, let me tell you, this is a REAL GOOD book, written by a remarkable, highly respected economist, DON THOMPSON who's taught at the London School of Economics, the Harvard Business School etc and who's published nine books. The essay is aptly entitled "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark". The title refers to the price a New York banker paid for Damien Hirst's decaying, stuffed carcass of a shark. More generally, the book surveys the desolate contemporary art scene, diplomatically calling it "the curious economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses".

Curious indeed! As Professor Thompson brilliantly explains it, it's all a matter of "branding", i.e. marketing. In Contemporary Art, you're nobody until someone's branded you. And those who do the branding are very few: a couple of auction houses (Sotheby's and Christie's), ten superstar dealers in New York and another ten in London (Paris, Zurich, Rome, Berlin are all peripheral art cities), a handful of museums ( the Tate in London, MOMA and Guggenheim in New York and a few more but most don't count). Art critics? Art consultants? They don't appear in prominent roles but I haven't finished the book. So, if needed, I'll get back to you with more details in a later blog.

What I wanted to say was how upset I got. And it only got worse the more I thought about it through the night. Because the implications of Thompson's message are clear: in our century, Art is no longer Art. It's not a matter of esthetics, of emotions, of beauty. It's not a matter of draughtmanship, talent for composition, sense of colour, poetic sensibility. Forget all that.

Art is marketing pure and simple.

It's a matter of investment. The new rich don't have the time to educate themselves: they treat art the way they treat any other investment, leaving it to the specialists, i.e. the art dealers. Why do they need specialists? Because the specialists make them feel secure, as Professor Thompson says. That is a very acute observation. Nobody wants to risk money on an emerging artist that has perhaps one chance in a million to grow some day into a "branded artist"...

That's sad for all of us who love art for art's sake, who go to a museum and enjoy looking at a Caravaggio or a Monet...

OK, but wait, hasn't it always been this way? Now, the art game is just more visible because the billionaire class is so much larger as a result of globalization. Now you have Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Brazilian billionaires. It used to be that art collectors were mostly American - that was back at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. America was the place where the money was being made, and Americans bought whatever contemporary art they could find on the market. In those days, that meant buying the Impressionists - which, by the way, made the staid Victorian-style European bourgeoisie laugh derisively, but not for long when the prices of Impressionist paintings started to soar.

Should we therefore be careful not to laugh derisively at Contemporary Art? We don't want to replicate the errors of the said staid European bourgeoisie, do we?

But is the situation really the same? Isn't Contemporary Art - and here I refer to "conceptual art" which is the art selling at the highests prices - something different, so different from art forms that were fashionable in the past that some have defined it as "anti-art"?

Consider this. By their own saying, conceptual artists claim they have broken with every art tradition. Their works are often made industrially, not by themselves but by their assistants, and they are made on an industrial scale, with several or more replicas and too large to fit in any human habitat, or too unpleasant to be decorative.

Marcel Duchamp is the founding father, and his bidet the flagship of contemporary art: there are five of his bidets around the world (you can find one in every major art museum), and none of them the original which actually got lost when the American collector who had bought it moved it from New York to California back in 1919, I think, or thereabouts. That happened 90 years ago. By the way, would you like to have a bidet in your living room?

Moreover the title of a piece of art is as important or more important than the piece itself. In short, it is art because the artist says so. And it sells on the market as long as the artist saying this is a branded artist. So if you or I say it, it won't cut ice with anybody.

As Professor Thompson put it, the key is in the branding. It's a guarantee of safety for your art investment. But for how long can the game of branding go on when what is branded is not art but anti-art? Obviously a very long time because the modern marketing machinery is real powerful. And as I was saying above, it all started quite a long time ago, some 90 years, if you accept that Marcel Duchamp was the pioneer conceptual artist. But History teaches that even the most elite brands can disappear or come under pressure from new fashions and give way to new brands...A few years ago, we saw Mercedes cars being slowly displaced first by BMWs and more recently by Audis. In this case, it has taken some 90 years for Mercedes to lose its preeminence...

What will displace Contemporary Art?

12.25.2009

No hastle Turkey for Xmas

This is a variation on the classic turkey stuffed with apples...with a twist!

First of all, why stuff a turkey with apples? There are three basic reasons:
- one,the fruit stuffed inside ensures the turkey meat will be moist and tender without the hastle of basting;
- two, provided the turkey is big enough, there will be enough juicy, flavourful fruit to go with the meat so that you don't need to cook vegetables or add anything else beyond simple french fries (you can use the frozen variety to make it even easier;
- three, the fruit juices make for an extra light gravy with a minimum of fats because you don't need to smother your turkey in butter, oil or margarine: the fruit ensures it cooks without burning (and that means it's a low cholesterol recipe by definition)

But chunks of peeled apples are so run-of-the-mill, they're...boring: almost a cop out!

So how can you make it INTERESTING?

Simple, just leave your chunks of apple in a (tasty) mixture of chicken broth and brandy to soak up flavours for a couple of hours before stuffing the bird with it.

More precisely:

For TWO cups of PEELED APPLE CHUNKS:
Prepare ONE cup of hot flavourful CHICKEN BROTH to which you add:
- ONE SMALL GLASS of BRANDY (and if you feel like it, why not add also a couple of spoonfuls of whatever fruit liquor you happen to have handy: it makes for additional flavour...)
- the juice of a HALF LEMON (so the apples keep their color)
- one big spoonful of SUGAR
- a dash of PEPPER (optional)
Mix the apples in this mixture and let it sit for at least a couple of hours at room temperature.
Then fill your bird, packing it in tight and cook it as usual in a regular oven at 180° or whatever temperature you normally use to roast a chicken.

COOKING TIME : For every pound you must count 20 minutes of cooking, plus 10 percent of total time to ensure your turkey is fully cooked (example: a 6 pound Turkey requires 20mn x 6 : 120 mn + 10% = 132 mn: a little over 2 hours)

Enjoy and have a nice relaxed Christmas dinner that won't cause you indigestion!

12.18.2009

Murder is a click away for 100,000 people...

What a thought! Murder is just one click away for 100,000 people. That's how many signed up on Facebook to sustain Tartaglia's attempt at killing the Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi four days ago...Since then, the site has been closed by Facebook which, understandably, doesn't admit violence among its users.

But the amazing fact remains: one hundred thousand persons supported Tartaglia's mad, criminal gesture.

That's exactly how many supported Hitler when he first founded his party: 100,000.

Sure, Berlusconi is a divisive political figure in Italy and he's been in trouble recently, what with losing immunity from prosecution and his wife asking for divorce...

Really it does make you wonder about human nature

12.17.2009

The geography of Heaven

Have you ever thought about what the world looks like on the other side of Death? Of course, if you don't believe in an after life, skip this blog! But if you do, I'd like your help to think this one through...

First question: are you going to meet everyone you knew in your life, and I mean EVERYONE? That old, mustachoed aunt who got on your nerves but she was such a sweet soul...That gooey guy in the office who never stopped following you around but he was so full of good intentions...Your clever sister who got you in trouble without meaning to (or perhaps she did mean to)...I could go on and on. Sure, there are more people you'd want to see again than people you don't want to ever lay your eyes on. Still...

Second question: will everyone be thrown in together or will there be divisions? I suspect that each religion will be given its own piece of Heaven. The Christians over here, the Moslems over there, the Bhudists, the Hinduists etc etc and each with their own system and rules of procedure. As Christians we all know that the good ones go to Heaven and the bad ones to Hell, and then there's an intermediate station, the Purgatory, to allow for the dust to settle down before any final decision is taken. But what about the non-Christians? We all know the Muslims have a beatific vision of a garden in Paradise filled with beautiful women. What I would like to know is what kind of Heaven are Moslem women headed for? A garden filled with beautiful men? Do you have any idea? And what about the Bhudists? Are they all in Nirvana, and what's that like? Do you have to be a Bhudist monk to get there? And what about Bhudist nuns ? Are there any around? And what about all the other religions?

Come to think of it, I know NOTHING about the geography of Heaven and I'd be happy to have your views...

12.13.2009

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?

12.05.2009

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!

12.01.2009

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...

11.29.2009

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...
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