The Most Expensive Painting Ever Sold Reveals A Great Divide In the Art World

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Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” (1969)
Image: Christie’s

When Francis Bacon’s 1969 painting “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” was purchased for an astounding $142.4 million at Christie’s last week, it became the single most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. In the aftermath of this historic art sale, a complicated, philosophical paradox emerges: on the one hand, it is remarkable that fine art carries such an immense value, on the other, the multi-million dollar sale of a single painting catapults the art world’s fiscal elite into even more unattainable territory. The latter concern would suggest that the rest of us – the art admirers, enthusiasts, the eager artists, the humble writers, teachers, and thoughtful critics – are deeply alienated from this facet of contemporary art culture.

Other coveted paintings purchased at the recent Christie’s auction include Rothko’s “No. 11 (Untitled), sold by the estate of Bruce J. Wasserstein, former CEO of Lazard, as well as works by Christopher Wool, Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd, and Willem de Kooning. Andy Warhol’s iconic “Coca Cola [3]” was sold for $57.2 million, and Jeff Koons’s “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold for $58.4 million. Only six of the sixty-nine works failed to sell, and reportedly, the overall sale totaled a massive $691.5 million.

Not all art critics, even those who intensely identify with and appreciate Bacon’s work, were pleased with the unprecedented sales at Christie’s auction. Art critic and contemporary art lecturer Roberta Smith was particularly disheartened by the auction, and put it into monetary perspective in an article for The New York Times. She explains, “As our troubled age becomes ever more gilded, art auction prices soar with bone-numbing regularity,” of the astounding price the Bacon painting sold for.

Smith goes on to explain, “Auctions have become the leading indicator of ultra-conspicuous consumption, pieces of public, male-dominated theater in which collectors, art dealers, and auction houses flex their monetary clout, mostly for one another,” of the elitist tendencies paraded at fine arts auctions. She elaborates, “The spectacle of watching these privileged few tossing around huge amounts of money has become a rarefied spectator sport. These events are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.” Smith discusses the forces that cause deep alienation for lovers of art that don’t have millions to spend on it.

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Image: Henry Lawford via Flickr CC

To truly put the sale of “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” into perspective, $142.4 million is more money than the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) received for their annual budget for the 2013 fiscal year. President Obama requested $154 million for the endowment, but it actually only received $138 million after considerable cuts. This is critical funding designed to support national arts projects and organizations, and to make the arts more accessible to all Americans. In short, Bacon’s sole painting was purchased for more money than the United States government allotted to support national art programs, funding that impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Many grassroots organizations such as One Percent for Culture may very well be frustrated by these recent events in the art world. One Percent for Culture is a coalition that’s mission is to increase funding for the arts in New York City. Despite NYC being a massive cultural hub, less than one percent of its annual budget goes towards nonprofit cultural groups, and One Percent for Culture seeks to change this. This organization is just one of hundreds throughout the country that fervently fight to make diverse art programs more accessible to all people.

While many people in the art world fight to maintain the relevance and cultural value of fine arts, doing so begs the question, at what literal cost? Does the increased monetary value of fine arts as indicated by the sale of the Bacon painting mean that the arts will become even more inaccessible for the general public?

How do you weigh in?



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