The Mona Lisa Curse: Do High Prices Ruin the Art World?

This is a 12-part film on YouTube called The Mona Lisa Curse by art critic Robert Hughes. The film is fascinating for its overview of the art scene in New York since the 1960s. Hughes, the art critic for Time Magazine, goes on an extended diatribe against the fast-paced and overpriced world of art collectors and auctions that he says have debased recent art. He hates Damien Hirst because, according to him, the work does not merit the inflated prices. He hates Andy Warhol and thinks he was stupid and stole ideas from Robert Rauschenberg.  He thinks wealthy collectors have become simple investors without a thought in their heads about why the art is important.

But I think Mr. Hughes is a giant bore.  He walks around with a comical scowl on his block-like face.  He lumbers into a collector’s home to question him about why he would want to own 800 Andy Warhol pieces.  The collector gives him decent and somewhat thoughtful answers that are soundly rejected by the ogre in the room because he thinks Warhol was ‘one of the stupidest people he ever met in his life.’  Why?  ‘Because he had nothing to say.’

Nothing to say.  First of all, if you are waiting for someone to say something, you are going to waste half of your life doing so.  Warhol never said a damn thing that I can recall reading anywhere except that when asked why another artist was so good he said that it was because he made good lunches.  But Mr. Hughes is looking for something else.  Warhol had nothing to say.  In fact, I met him at a bookstore in Manhattan once and he just said, ‘Hi.’  It fit the occasion quite nicely in fact.  There’s your answer, Mr. Hughes.  The quietest voice in the museum must be Andy Warhol’s.

But if Hughes insists on asking some uninspired collector about what made Warhol so good, he is only going to get an answer culled from some brochure.  He needs a real answer.  Here’s mine.  Andy Warhol was great because he tried to destroy meaning.

Hughes’ most scathing remarks are saved for the wheeler dealer art auctioneers and representatives in New York.  They run around selecting high-priced art for their clients and hold bidding wars at places like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.  This pushes art prices up into the stratosphere, making every artist want to earn the big bucks.

So what?  Who cares?

The money people are having much more fun than tiresome old Mr. Hughes.  This guy should live under a bridge.  Who cares if a painter does something that costs $400 one day and $40,000,000 the next?  Where’s the problem?  It’s fun to trade money for art.  The more expensive it is the more well cared for it will be.  If you don’t want to spend large sums on art you don’t have to.  There are plenty of fine artists selling for a few hundred dollars.

I like Mr. Hughes’ film, but I don’t accept his views.

For instance, he despises this huge sculpture by Damien Hirst:

Why?  It’s an astounding statue.  Reminds me of ancient Egypt.  Look at the feet.  And those cut off fingers!  Look at what that face is doing.  It’s a face!  I would jam this thing into my backyard if I could unseat it from its pedestal.

But watch the film all the way through.  It’s very unusual and I have to love Mr. Hughes for making it and for being so willing to be so cranky.  Cranks are always fun.  I say stupid things just to make them mad.

Go here for part 2 and you’ll find the other 10 parts as well.