The price of art in the modern world

BY Walter Ellis | Waltroon   /  26 January 2018

Andrew Marr is regularly in the news for the political interviews he broadcasts each Sunday morning on his eponymous television show. And quite right, too.

On Monday morning, however, on Radio 4’s Start the Week, it was the global art market to which he drew our attention. Marr is an accomplished amateur painter. After he, quite literally, went back to the drawing board in the aftermath of his stroke in 2013, he told the Daily Mail that he could feel the healing process start to quicken:

“Drawing does for me what others find in meditation, prayer or gardening. It is my way of connecting to the world; it is not just making images but drinking in and praising what’s around me.”

But, wily old trouper that he is, Marr is not satisfied with wielding his pen or brush, he wants to understand the place of art in the world, its role in history and – coming bang up to date – its tense and asymmetric relationship with money and marketing.

The experts he brought on certainly knew their stuff:  the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon, whose latest documentary series, on the royal art collection, features the story of Charles I not as monarch, but as art buff; Don Thompson, a leading Canadian academic in the field of marketing and strategy; and the artist and teacher Kelly Chorpening, whose exhibition, The History of Drawing, is now on at Camberwell College of Art.

These three, with regular and informed input from Marr, painted an unlovely picture of art and artists in the 21st century. We learned that Damien Hirst’s signature spot paintings are signature works chiefly in the sense that he appends his name to each completed product.

In fact, the paintings were turned out on an industrial scale by a team of 100 technical assistants and then marketed across the world, never for less than a hefty sum. We learned that collectors will often bid up a work at auction not because they want it but to preserve the value of existing canvases by the same artist already in their possession. Most disturbing was the revelation (to me) that there are a dozen or more duty-free art hubs – vast warehouses – filled to the gunwales with art that no one will ever see, or not until their value on the open market reaches a level that causes the owner to put them up for sale at Sotheby’s or Christie’s.

That it should come to this.

There has, of course, always been a connection between money and art. A few years back, I wrote a novel, with the sad title The Caravaggio Conspiracy (intended to be The Fleeing Man), that, among other things, told the story of the Baroque master’s ongoing struggle with his patrons, who regarded him as a low-born oaf and often failed to pay him, even, on occasion, flogging their commissions on for a handsome profit before throwing the artist his pittance.

Yet, as Graham-Dixon, pointed out, each new Caravaggio, or Van Dyck, was an event – the equivalent, perhaps, of the emergence in our own time of an epic film – Schindler’s List, say, or The Godfather. Onlookers held their breath. The critics reached for superlatives. It was accepted, not only by Church and State, but by the public at large, that those whose art was most acclaimed were doing what they had been placed on Earth to do.

Today’s artists are very different animals. According to Thompson, there are around 40,000 artists in London (and a similar number in New York), only 500 or so of whom can hope to live off art alone. This raises the question, how important is art to most of us? I mean, honestly. How much, if anything, would we be willing to pay for a painting or piece of sculpture that caught our eye at our local high street gallery? Who would give up a new 64-inch television, or iPhone 10 (if there is such a thing), or Alexa Echo, for a painting or drawing to hang in the dining room? At the same time, who didn’t feel there was something seriously wrong when Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at auction in New York for $58.4 million, or when Salvator Mundi, a Leonardo that might not even be a Leonardo, went for $450 million as the intended centrepiece of the museum of art in oil-rich Abu Dhabi?

Marais in the rain, Louisa McCabe
Pyramid, Louisa McCabe

My wife, Louisa McCabe, is an artist. In New York she taught graphic design. Previously, in London, she worked in magazines. Today, in rural France, while continuing to teach online, she is preparing a selection of her drawings and paintings, prints included, that she hopes to sell over the summer months. She works hard. She spent months in Paris traipsing through the city in the rain in search of inspiration. Every time we visit a bar or café, she takes out her little notebook to capture a face, or a cloudburst, or a shift in the light that will form the basis of a subsequent painting or drawing. She does not expect to give Damien Hirst a run for his money, still less Leonardo, but it would be nice if she could earn a few thousand to help see us through the following winter while at the same time feeling that her undoubted skill is not entirely taken for granted.

I will let you know how she does. The drawings above are hers: Pyramid and Marais in the rain. In the meantime, spare a moment’s thought for the thousands of artists, of all ages, who have slogged through their college years and worked to repay their student debt, only to end up selling coffee at Starbucks.