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This Is Why I Hate Jerry Saltz's Writing

Post #1552 • May 4, 2012, 11:42 PM • 3 Comments

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Jerry Saltz:

I hate art auctions.

Do tell.

Not just because they're freak-show legal casinos, spectacles where the Über-ultrarich can act out as profligately in public as possible, trying to buy immortality, become a part of art history, make headlines, and create profit.

The buyer of the Edward Munch pastel of The Scream, the sale of which for just shy of $120 million prompted this outpouring of bile, was an anonymous phone bidder. Not the stuff of immortality. It doesn't even qualify as public.

I don't only hate them because they may be the whitest sector in the entire world.

You mean, even whiter than the aggregate of visual art critics for periodicals that focus on New York?

I hate them for what they do to art, for the bad magic of making mysterious powerful things turn into numbers.

Today I learned that anything sold becomes nothing but the number it was sold for.

Last night, after being touted in the lamestream media as potentially the "most expensive painting ever"...

Sarah Palin called. She wants her catchphrases back. (P.S.: You work for the mainstream media.)

...Edward Munch's 1895 pastel The Scream came up on the auction block. The whole event amounted to about ten minutes of back-and-forth banter, during which the theatrical Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer tempted the fates by cooing, "I've got all the time in the world." (I had such a vision of Wotan sweeping him up and whisking him off to the underworld right there!)

The Norse deity who oversees the underworld is Hel.

With dapper white men and tall, thin white women making little finger signals while holding phones...

And Jerry Saltz whitening up the place with his lily-white whiteness.

...speaking to strangers in Dubai or Russia or Beijing...

Those white people in Dubai and Beijing.

...or Mitt Romney's garage...

Read: Pardon me while I brandish my liberal credentials.

...the painting was sold "to an unknown telephone bidder" for $119.5 million. Thus, a great work of art...

Or rather, a lesser version in pastel of a great work of art.

...that had been all but lost to us, hanging in a private Norwegian home for more than a century, made a brief public appearance and then was sold off to another private owner, probably to disappear for another 100 years. We will likely never see this work of art again in our lifetimes. The Scream is a part of art history and should hang in a public collection, probably in Norway...

Next to the other three versions of The Scream.

...and not just decorate a California den or a dacha in the Ukraine, waiting to be fodder for the next auction. (Needless to say, no museum was in a position to spend that kind of money.)

Read: Rich people have no souls. They also never lend their art to museums.

Many asked why The Scream would go for this much money. Who the hell knows how these things happen?

People who understand supply and demand.

I'd say the image is utterly iconic, as recognizable as the Mona Lisa or Whistler's mother (or Damien Hirst's shark).

Read: Pardon me while I brandish my contemporary art credentials. I just said that the Hirst shark is as iconic as the Mona Lisa! Aren't I edgy and with-it?

It looks and sounds and smells like the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It says, "I am a new psychology—your psychology." The Scream has attained fridge-magnet status, and anyone who looks at it can at least say, "This is art-historical art." I love The Scream...

Roxanne, you don't have to put on the red light.

...because it shows Munch being modern without being Cubist, inventing Expressionism, exploring new ideas about color, composition, culture, society, cities, nature, drawing, and touch. We see a figure between worlds, suspended between earth and the unknown, wide-eyed, unable to hear us because his hands block his ears, even as he opens his mouth in a scream he can't hear himself. This is being inside and outside at the same time. The sky lights up; alienation blazes. It's fabulous and prophetic. And, now, gone again.

With nothing to jog our memories of the profound experience except our fridge magnets.

Auction houses run a rigged game. They know exactly how many people will be bidding on a work and exactly who they are.

This is what rich people get in return for their souls: omniscience.

In a gallery, works of art need only one person who wants to pay for them. Auctions jigger the rules...

There are rules? This is one of them? one tiny way: They have two people who want something, and they know how high each is willing to go. The setup is simple and perfect. The auctioneer simply waits until he gets around the ceiling he knows these two clients are willing to go to; then he pits the two bidders against one another. Voilà! Money.

Bidding never, ever falls short of preliminary estimates.

Last night, Meyer knew that two people were ready to surpass $100 million. He got them there, said he had "all the time in the world," kept them going up, waited for one to blink, and banged his gavel. Doing this publicly instead of in private just means that more people see what happened and want to try playing the game (not knowing or not caring that it's rigged).

Or not pathetically mischaracterizing it as such.

It's advertising for the next auction: Whole new client markets open, and entirely new material now lures these players in. Now other Expressionist works at lesser prices will be put into play. And I'll end up on the Charlie Rose morning show again, this time grousing about how much a Max Beckman is going to go for.

And how someone in Mitt Romney's garage is interested in it.

The bad magic here is that people can no longer see this work as a painting. Now people look at The Scream or Van Gogh's Irises or a Picasso and see its new content: money.

Read: Last month, The Scream was an icon. Now, it's a price tag. People can't respond otherwise. This is Sotheby's fault.

Auction houses inherently equate capital with value. The price of a work of art has nothing to do with what the work of art is, can do, or is worth on an existential, alchemical level.

Read: The grocery store insists on charging me money for food. What does money have to do with nutrition?

The closest I come to wanting out of contemporary art is when I look at the auction trade. A pox on their houses.

The closest I come to wanting out of contemporary art is when I see what passes for intellectual and critical effort on its behalf.



Alesh Houdek

May 5, 2012, 2:26 PM

Well done. Jerry's writing invites this kind of takedown, and who better to do it than you. I want to agree with Saltz, but there is no other way to decide who should get an object when two or more people are ready to spend a large sum on it.

The saddest part of this is that art is such a good financial investment now (compared e.g. to stocks) that secondary auction markets probably are undervalued if anything.

We all want museums to have a chance at acquiring these works. But a million people could have given $100 each to a collection fund, and they'd still have been outbid.


Walter Darby Bannard

May 6, 2012, 8:20 PM

Well done, Franklin. And funny, too. I was away with no email or I would have commented immediately.

Anywhere else in our critical culture—music, fiction, poetry, theater, dance, or, for crying out loud, restaurant criticism—this sort of infantile mewling would be a laughing stock. No self-respecting editor would even finish reading it.

This is what we have come to.


Chris Rywalt

May 24, 2012, 6:15 PM

I know you're not fond of Jerry Saltz, but despite his often writing stupid, indefensible things—something I think he may be doing more since he moved to New York magazine, which is a rag of the lowest order and may be dragging him in the direction of his worst impulses—there are still things I like very much about Jerry, and the column he wrote on Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation.

Here he shows his understanding of people and how they can get things wrong and he positively overflows with enthusiasm for art. He also shows some sensitivity for the setting of the art, which is nice. Since we're dealing with established masterworks from settled artists we don't need to argue about—Van Gogh, Matisse, Renoir—we don't have to be brought up short by Jerry's total lack of taste, either.

This is really what I like about Jerry, when he's simply enjoying himself.



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