It's an age-old questions. It's right up there with "What is Life?" Or, more appropriately, "What is ART?" The question is, what makes a painting valuable? As we read in the news about a Cezanne still-life selling at auction for $60.5 million we have to ponder, WHY? Sotheby's, who sold the painting, received just over six million dollars from the sale. Their commission alone is more than 99% of all artists will earn in an entire lifetime. It's ten times more than CEZANNE earned in an entire lifetime! And the sixty-million dollars is more than the value of all the real-estate of some of our smaller CITIES--just for a SINGLE painting. It's almost enough to run the federal government for a half-hour. It's about equal to the budget for an average motion picture, yet being a still-life, the thing doesn't even MOVE. It just...hangs there.
Well, first there's Cezanne--the (almost) undisputed "father of modern art." He's an "artist's artist." He's also long-dead, which means there's an acute shortage of his work--always important in pricing paintings. And, there's no way to overstate the influence this eccentric bear of a man had upon most of the great art and artists of this century. Yet many of his paintings are singularly unattractive when compared to, say Monet, or most of the other Impressionists. But Monet's 1891 "Haystack" sold for at the same auction for a mere $12 million. And a haystack, even one by Monet, is not exactly a subject to "knock your socks off." Moreover, despite his broad influence, hung side-by-side with a Monet, Cezanne's work come across as clunky, drab, and heavy-handed. So, why the attraction for well-heeled buyers? The answer transcends the work itself and art history as well. At those kind of prices, even name-recognition and shrewd marketing fail to account for the phenomena. The real answer lies in something called "snob appeal."
Unlike Van Gogh, for instance, Cezanne is not a household word--great for snob appeal. And while they may be reasonably pleasant or interesting, few people would "fall in love" with a Cezanne image--more snob appeal. So the answer has to lie in the fact that there is social prestige to be gained from casually mentioning in passing that you're redecorating the den to match the Cezanne you happened to pick up the other day at Sotheby's for a mere sixty-million--snob appeal. So, while we, as artists, agonize over how much to price our work for sale, the value of art at THIS level has almost NO relationship to the work itself, but instead to the "pride of ownership." If it's an attractive, even BEAUTIFUL painting, so much the better, but it's the NAME that counts, and the fact that the name is respected, not TOO well know, yet important enough to be instantly recognized by those who count. And, of course, since you buy such works at auction, there has to be one or two other filthy rich individuals ALSO set on having it as a good excuse to "redecorate the den."