We have lost the ability to assess art for ourselves and on its own merits, writes Bendor Grosvenor
Among the many records set at Christie’s astonishing $852.9m contemporary art sale in New York last week, one has gone strangely unreported: the highest price ever paid for a urinal.
Robert Gober’s 1988 installation Three Urinals sold for $3.52m, which works out at just over $1m per urinal. They do not actually work – that is, they only take the proverbial in a figurative sense. But this is a good thing, for according to Christie’s their “smooth contours invite the viewer’s touch”, and hand sanitiser was not included in the price.
That a urinal by an artist you have probably never heard of is worth more than a masterpiece by one you have (a Gober urinal will buy you a fine Rubens) is down to the unique way in which the contemporary art world functions. There, the merit of works such as Gober’s is not judged in any traditional and objective artistic sense, but by value.
Expensive, say the experts, equals good. After all, Three Urinals is indistinguishable from three actual urinals except by virtue of its price, and several paragraphs of impenetrable art-speak in a catalogue.
And if Gober’s urinals are worth $3.5m, then one of his sinks (he does a whole range of toilet ware) must also be worth millions.
In other words, we have collectively lost the ability to assess art for ourselves and on its own merits. Instead, we follow such indicators as fashion, price, and, in this case, hype.
You may say it was ever thus. But the result today, when allied with an ever wealthier elite for whom buying contemporary art has become a form of conspicuous consumption, is an unprecedented art boom. Can it last?
Normally, speculative bubbles end when an underlying financial reality hits home. The subprime boom ended when homeowners stopped making repayments. But in the art world there are few such constraints. The only requirement is that works keep edging up in value.
And if they do not? Well do not worry, for the market has developed ways to help make sure the numbers go up – or at least appear to.
Two examples. First, if you are a dealer representing one of the relatively small number of artists who matter, you can bid (anonymously) on their works yourself, to register new “values”.
You may have to buy some works back, but in a world where the only thing that matters is the most recent price, paying an auctioneer’s commission is merely marketing.
The second is the guarantor purchase. A guarantor is someone who agrees a certain (undisclosed) price for a work before a sale, and makes a profit if it sells for more. To liven things up, they are allowed to bid the work up during the sale too.
But if they happen to buy it, their presale negotiation (again, undisclosed) means they will not pay anything like the “price” reported by the auction house, and nor will the new “value” of the work be representative. Almost half of the lots in Christie’s sale last week were guaranteed.
Try this in another kind of market, and there would likely be calls for a regulator to intervene. But in the art market anything goes, which is one reason we are unlikely to see anything that resembles a bubble bursting in the near future.
It is possible to massage the numbers just enough to persuade the next mug that another Gober is “worth” $Xm; “look what the last one made”.
As fashion changes and hype fades, however, works such as Three Urinals will begin to be assessed more objectively. In 100 years’ time people will not care that they made $3.5m in 2014, only that they were a rip-off of Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain.
In fact, history suggests that the artist who will one day be celebrated as the greatest of this era will be someone we have not yet heard of. Never forget that Van Gogh sold just one painting in his entire life.