Art And Culture

Art Prices ‘Sickening Aspects’ of Modern Culture

Art Prices ‘Sickening Aspects’ of Modern CultureArt Prices ‘Sickening Aspects’ of Modern Culture

Art prices are among the most awful, repulsive, and sickening aspects of modern culture. There is no equivalent in any other field for the ostentatious extravagance of art collectors in a world that unapologetically confuses luxury and aesthetic appreciation.

Literature, theatre and grand opera are ascetic practices compared with the art world, where the current record for the most expensive painting ever sold stands at $250,000,000. It’s a world where money is increasingly hard to separate from “serious” values, as commercial events such as the Frieze art fair are treated like public institutions, and where David Hickey, a leading critical champion of what he once called “the big, beautiful art market,” retired in disgust after finding that rampant greed is not so beautiful after all, says an article in

No wonder Marlene Dumas, one of today’s most imaginative and authentic artists, feels ambivalent about benefiting from this moneyed madness. At least, that’s what she told an interviewer from Vogue. Dumas claims to be uneasy about the high prices her paintings fetch because “if you know the history of art, the people whose work fetched the highest prices have often been terrible artists”.

It does sound a little bit like false modesty. Artists say all kinds of nonsense – no offence to Dumas – it is just a way of heading off daft questions: Pablo Picasso talked rubbish about his art all the time, often lying or contradicting himself. But this expression of discomfort with the big, ugly art market is not the first such confession of financial nausea by Dumas, since her work started attracting seven-figure prices.

“Sometimes I think … blessed are they who have been spared the frenzy of the auction houses,” she said in a prize acceptance speech in Amsterdam before donating the cash award to the college where she teaches.

It must be genuinely troubling. Your art sells for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. This is reported by the world’s media as a marker of achievement – for we can’t seem to stop seeing the price of art as an index of its true, inner, aesthetic and intellectual value. But what does any of it really mean? If you are nearly as expensive as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, does that mean you are nearly as good as they are? Is the feeding frenzy of a world of plutocratic collectors and hedge fund Maecenases really worth a damn, or does it mean you are as vacuous as the Dalis and Vettrianos who also attract stupid sums?

By and large, the market’s discrimination between the good, the bad and the ugly is surprisingly reliable. And this has been true throughout “art history.”