Having been subjected to an EL-AL-worthy screening at Sotheby's this week, I was taken past lines of docile-looking policemen to the 10th floor where Munch's 'Scream' was on display along with other stealthfully framed art-nuggets. Nuggets, because some of them seemed quite literally to glow in the simulated daylight. I have to admit that I was not just a little disappointed. I have been to Oslo, seen the Thielska in Stockholm many times, and this crayon version, despite the hype and the staging and the 'poem' underneath--- well, it didn't knock me out. In fact, I couldn't really 'hear' it.
Okay. I wandered around, admired the glossy Picasso and the Gauguin, both of which looked freshly painted or maybe repackaged. The clever frames, and the combination lighting--- a little seductive, but you definitely know you are not in any museum. It is more like an upscale 'store'-- Prada or Armani-- or Harry Winston. The whole scene-- with the well-dressed employees, their precocious formality and sly solicitous condescension, resembled not merely a 'set' but a bit of a 'set-up'?
In fact, watching the actual sale, there was a distinct scent of staginess. The auctioneer's comments seemed scripted, the waving hands like a scene from Wall Street 4. In a debt-fueled catastrophic world economy, zeros seem almost arbitrary and fictional. I mean, who are these people--- and why are they here, abusing and distorting the art market, and who really cares? I'm sick of seeing super-sized engagement rings and Vera Wang weddings. How many hedge-fund-financed apartments have I visited lately with the required Richard Prince Nurse, the Damian Hirst, the Jeff Koons hideosity, the stock Warhol, Twombly, Richter... ad nauseam? Even the Double-Elvis which used to excite me--- it all seemed like wall-treatment, not art. It's oversized, and overdone, and --well, it feels downright cheap to me. What happened to small pictures that draw you in-- paintings done in squalid damp studios in absinthy nights of unrequited passion, of wet lamplight and shadowy women behind doorways? Something intimate and personal? Something only you could own? A painting on the wall that seduces-- every night-- like a kind of visual Sheherezade?
Honestly, it is not sour grapes. I will venture that even the Basquiat Boxer didn't inspire me. It all looked rather flat and frankly I don't want to own these things. Okay, I am jaded and have seen 35 years of auctions now--- London, Paris, especially New York. I coveted these things when they were new and affordable. I even invested, in those days, when Apple stock was a shot in the dark at $22.00. But today the Scream felt like some Michelin Man version of what I used to admire. A cartoon. I do not want Mickey Mouse on my wall, diamond dust or not. I have maybe outgrown these over-used pop-icons. I'm sick of seeing Elvis and the Beatles and too-many Marilyns. In a gallery in dark cold Norway where the 19th century seems a bit closer, the Scream has some authority, some meaning. But here at Sotheby's among the well-dressed-- and the captions and the overweighted catalogue descriptions- it just looked a little Casper-esque. Maybe the Warhol version would work for me-- and at 1/20th of the price and an extra layer of irony, it would seem a bargain.
Besides, it is Scream 1(?) of 4. Did Hitchcock do Psycho 2? He did not. The shepherd who screamed 'Wolf' too many times? Remember the anecdote about the British philatelist who bought two of the rarest and priciest airmail stamps in UK history? He immediately destroyed one.
How many of these artists at auction would make it today? Would anyone pay attention to a Bonnard or a Delvaux or a Twombly unless he got raves in the Wall Street Journal and a one-man show at Gagosian's Basel booth? Would Gagosian recognize a badly-dressed true artist on the street with his artwork? Would anyone do a studio visit to someone who lives in a basement flat and has a vision? Unlikely. A certain amount of creativity in our culture has to do with reinforcement--- with reward and recognition and then the courage or motivation to go on. Not to mention money. All of which taints the artist in a way--- too hard not to want to please, or to displease for attention, or to shock the audience or-- better yet, jolt oneself into some kind of artistic epiphany because the average collector maybe spends more time on Madison Ave at Saint Ambroeus having a morning latte or savoring the pretty amazing hot chocolate. Imagine these people unable to distinguish between a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck and a fine Chateau Lafite except by pricetag, especially if you switch up the bottles. Well, there you have the art market, for some.
My own mirror dates me with no mercy. But I, unlike these 9-figured paintings, never expected to be timeless. One of my photographer friends made a comment today--- he picked up a book on The Lost Vanguard of Russian art and remarked 'I never get tired of looking at these'. A thumbs up for him. And yes-- a few of these things in our lives: the NYC post-storm sunset-- the moon over the East River--- my wall of books-- the face of someone we truly love-- some of my pictures, like small deep windows, the soul of the artist mixed with my own now from so many hours of intimate 'seeing'.
Still, personally, I like my music loud and my art quiet.