The Art of Artflation

I don’t understand why last week at Christie’s, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1964 painting Ohhhh…Alright….—of a dejected woman on a telephone (talking, perhaps, to a cheatin’ lover) and taken virtually verbatim from the D.C. Comics June 1963 issue of “Sacred Hearts”—sold for $38 million ($42.65 with Christie’s fees). Or, as Dr. Evil might have said: “thirty-eight miiiilllllion daallars.” Which was a pretty good return on just a few dollars worth of paint and canvas.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Philistine when it comes to art. After all, I hang reproductions of Leroy Nieman on my wall. But the idea that ’60s Pop Art, much of which borrowed from ’60s Commercial Art, fetches such lucre, not to mention such high esteem in art history, is a curious paradox. Until recently, commercial artists (aka graphic designers) weren’t even allowed at the art world table.

If you missed the report by Carol Vogel in The New York Times, the painting was even valued much higher:

‘The Lichtenstein’s seller, the Las Vegas casino owner Stephen A. Wynn, had been trying to part with the painting for a while now, and just a few months ago dealers like New York’s William Acquavella were asking about $50 million. But even the international reach of an auction giant like Christie’s could not make that number realistic.”

Coming in second in the bidding was Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can With Can Opener (Vegetable), a 1962 painting with a can opener cutting into the signature can. The estimate was $30 to $50 million, but it ended up bringing a mere $23.8 million. It was being sold by Barney Ebsworth, a Seattle collector, to raise money to finance a church designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

The inflated (artflation) price for such art is commensurate with the surfeit of larder hoarded by the wealthy few. It can only be viewed as playing a game of Art Monopoly. And yet the millions paid—of a borrowed or pilfered image, no less, and which incidentally does not find its way into the artists’ pockets—could go elsewhere. Not just a Tadao Ando church: How about funding art appreciation programs at the MBA level? Or how about real art education programs in American primary schools?

Read this weekend’s Daily Heller on Eva Zeisel’s 104 birthday here, and Kevin O’Callahagn’s forthcoming spectacular here.

11 thoughts on “The Art of Artflation

  1. Michael Dooley

    So, Monsieur Heller, we meet again in the imPrint fencing arena. En garde!
     
    Actually, no Dooley duel this time, you blackguard. My experience when introducing Roy L into my design history lectures is that there aren’t any web comments-sized shortcuts to resolving the complexities of this particular art/comics debate. And I’d rather not resort to facile put-downs here (see: “… just a few dollars worth of paint and canvas”). Alright?
     
    Anyway, anyone interested in a bit more info about Ohhh…Alright… can find Christie’s Lot Notes here:
     
    http://www.whatonemillionbuys.com/ohhh-alright-by-roy-lichtenstein
     
    And to the above respondents who tried to make their points by comparing pre-20th Century fine art to Pop, I can only say, “old apples and new oranges.”
     
    And to Rachel I say, “Yeah, what you said.”
     
    ~ m 

  2. Michael Dooley

    So, Monsieur Heller, we meet again in the imPrint fencing arena. En garde!Actually, no fight… this time. My experience when introducing Roy L into my design history lectures is that there aren’t any web comments-sized shortcuts to resolving the complexities of this particular art/comics debate. And I’d rather not resort to facile put-downs here (see: “… just a few dollars worth of paint and canvas”). Alright?
    Anyway, anyone interested in a bit more info about Ohhh…Alright… can find Christie’s Lot Notes here:http://www.whatonemillionbuys.com/ohhh-alright-by-roy-lichtensteinAnd to the above respondents who tried to make their points by comparing pre-20th Century fine art to Pop, I can only say, “old apples and new oranges.”And to Rachel I say, “Yeah, what you said.”~ m

  3. Karen

    Michael, yes, illustrators and others who create commissioned work can control the terms of their arrangements but “Fine” artists who sell through galleries can’t usually negotiate a share in any future sales beyond the first. About all I know that you can do is keep the copyright/reproduction rights to your image. But, hey, I’m still new at the gallery scene and I’d love to be wrong about any of this. 

  4. Damien Saatdjian

    Instead of wondering why Pop Art is so expensive, you should be asking why art, in general, has become so expensive.  The technique or source material related to Pop Art does not make it any less noble or important than any other movement.  I don’t understand why you think it’s ironic that Pop Art is so highly revered.  It negated neither popular (lowbrow) culture or notions of high art.  And as Roy stated, trying to debase something as “commercial” makes no sense unless you think that almost every single Western work of art before the 19th century is unworthy of praise, as they were typically commissioned by either the Church or rich patrons.
    The real question is what kind of system allows people to have $50 million dollars to spend on art.  The whole system is based on the assumption that art will continue to accrue in value. The value of art is determined by a group of people whose very job is to maintain these prices.  And of course these prices are only validated by another group of rich people who have either been tricked or need to continue purchasing “high brow” art in order to ensure the value of their collection.  It’s the biggest unregulated industry in the world, after the drug trade!
    I love art, but we all know the art market’s a big sham.  Of course once-radical artists like Duchamp became inducted into the system, only to become the bourgeois types they hated at the beginning of their careers.

  5. Rachel

    Roy Lichtenstein and the other Pop artists made possible much of what you practice today as a designer. You need to see this work from a historical perspective. Yes, if someone did this today no-one may think much of it, but at the time it was pretty revolutionary. The Pop artists took everyday things/icons/images and made it art. The Dada art period paved the way for Pop, and Pop paved the way for our design work today; especially people like Sheppard Fairey. It was the fact that he stole the images and made it art that made it what it is; it was seen as an outrage just like all the major periods of art that came before were scandalous to the people at the time it was made. I think art is worth at least as much as just one of our sports stars are earning per year, probably more. Art is a record of the culture of the time it was made. Lichtenstein was commenting on the culture of the day in his early work especially. Remember that was the start of the information age, and there were no computers where people were exposed to millions of images per day. The Pop artists were right on in seeing what was to become of our culture.

  6. Roy

     Duchamp, etc freed the artist from the constraints of craft and retina. That’s the big story of art in the 20th century.  Duchamp knew the pitfalls of the readymade approach and limited his output. Maybe that’s integrity? Regardless, Its history now, maybe you don’t like it but that’s what the books say so it must be true.
    Art remains a commodity; bought and sold, regardless of how brilliant or mundane you find a soup can to be. Lichtenstein was a great artist, how verbatim this image is misses the point. Commercial artists at the table? Every painting by Da Vinci was a commission. All Michelangelo’s work.  Next we can debate if a photograph is art.  Wishing some of this money went to schools is like wishing we hadn’t invaded Iraq but instead put that much effort into ending hunger. I wish that too. I thought moon landings were a big waste of time too.

  7. Michael Appuhn

    I’m actually rather fascinated by the Pop Art movement—at least for their honesty when compared to other fine artists. Warhol himself said that “good business is the best art.”
    It reminds me of an argument made by Jean Baudriallard in his book The System of Objects: While many see art as a “pure” form of creativity outside of the realm of the commodification, he argues that it is actually the perfect commodity. A work of art is an object completely devoid of use-value, with (as Steven’s article proves especially) a relatively high exchange-value. I personally don’t understand why so many insist on the “authenticity” of fine art in the first place. It’s a craft like any other.
     
    Also, Karen — correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard that maintaining selling rights for an original work is a common practice among illustrators, but I’d guess that it’s mostly because they’re more easily able to remove the work from its original context.

  8. Meredith

    I love art and I am delighted that artwork is so highly valued. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see high end collectors teaching the general public why it is important to support local and emerging artists? Local and emerging artists are dealing with terrible times, not very much is selling and what is selling is low priced. I hope this purchase is a sign of better times to come for the rest of us!

  9. Nicole

    On top of everything Steven Heller has said about the appropriation by fine artists of the work of commercial artists, it’s even more shocking that there’s a contemporary pop art movement appropriating the work of the original pop artists. And selling very well.

  10. Bolen High

    Pop Arte might also be called “digestable art” because it’s easy to understand and it looks “great” hanging in your living room.  After all, it’s what people see every day and … what you see is what you get!
    The problem equating “art” and the ability to buy it has nothing to do with creativity but with marketability. And how appropriate that “art” that rose from marketing commodities is itself a marketable commodity.
    And how appropriately American that the benefactor of this is not the creator but the seller.

  11. Karen

    Unlike the recording or entertainment industry, a visual artist does not benefit from the resale of his or her artwork. As famous as Lichtenstein was, he would generally not enjoy monetary rewards from the huge auction price of that painting, except for the possible increased valuation of any work he has yet to sell. This is a legal tradition that puts visual artists at the bottom of the economic heap. Visual fine artists should enjoy the same rights as performing artists.
    As to why a graphic designer can’t turn their commercial art into a comment on art: A designer couldn’t be said to be “appropriating” or “commenting” on her own industry, because they have been seen as already co-opted by that industry. That’s why a fine artist like Lichtenstein could appropriate an image and use it as “art” since they were ostensibly outside the commercial art circle. Not that I agree, but that would explain the rationale as to why Lichtenstein’s expression is accepted as valid “art” and the original cartoonist as not “art”.
    But in this Post-Modern era, we are all much more aware of irony, even art buyers. I think today, a graphic designer could point out the foibles of their own industry and be accepted in the fine art/gallery scene. But here’s another catch, if a graphic designer uses their fine art to imply a criticism of their clients or their industry’s ways of doing business, their relationship to their client base could suffer. It’s a fine line to walk to be an insider and an outsider at the same time.

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