Art Bastards

On May 29, 2016 the New York Times reported on how some of the world’s great art is being squirreled away in secretive warehouses and away from art lover’s prying eyes for one reason and one reason only—they are commodities to be traded not things of value to be appreciated:

With their controlled climates, confidential record keeping and enormous potential for tax savings, free ports have become the parking lot of choice for high-net-worth buyers looking to round out investment portfolios with art.

“For some collectors, art is being treated as a capital asset in their portfolio,” said Evan Beard, who advises clients on art and finance at U.S. Trust. “They are becoming more financially savvy, and free ports have become a pillar of all of this.”

And just a few weeks earlier it also reported on the connection between this sordid, money-grubbing art business and the Panama Papers:

The papers reveal that a collection of modernist masterpieces assembled by Victor and Sally Ganz, a Manhattan couple, and auctioned for $206.5 million at a landmark sale at Christie’s in New York in 1997, was not actually sold by their family, but by a British financier who had secretly bought it months earlier.

According to Mossack Fonseca documents, the British billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis — or rather, one of his shell companies — was the seller at the auction, apparently in some kind of partnership with Christie’s. It was all a massive “flip,” a quick resale that was early, if undisclosed, evidence of just how much art was being treated like a commodity.

The three documentaries considered chronologically in this review deal with various aspects of the commodification of art. Opening on October 19that the Quad Cinema in New York, “The Price of Everything”, an HBO documentary directed by Nathaniel Kahn, explains why paintings by the old masters are now auctioned off routinely for fifty million dollars and up. Now available on Youtube for $2.99 and worth every penny is “Art Bastard”, a tribute to artist Robert Cenedella who turned his back on the auction houses and posh galleries that are held up to scrutiny in the first film. Finally, there is the 2009 “Art of the Steal”, directed by Don Argott and now available on YouTube for free, chronicles the liquidation of the Barnes Foundation collection by the unscrupulous museum potentates, foundations and politicians in Philadelphia that its founder Albert C. Barnes loathed. That the documentary can be seen for free probably reflects the eagerness for its makers to get the broadest exposure.

I strongly advise seeing the three films in tandem since put together they will give you a keen sense of the cultural decay of late capitalism that puts a price tag on everything. Essentially, the commodification of art is just as injurious to the body politic as fracking, a profit-seeking assault on the environment that was fostered by Governor Ed Rendell, who also led the assault on the Barnes Foundation when he was mayor of Philadelphia. All the people you hear from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the first film and the smooth operators who paved the way for the destruction of Barnes’s legacy are exactly those you would hear bemoaning Donald Trump on MSNBC. At least Donald Trump doesn’t have their fake patrician pretensions.

After hearing from the museum, auction house and gallery elite in these powerful films, you will be left with the feeling that the system is rotten to the core and incapable of being reformed. If art has a future, it will be as a result of the kind of great experiment that took place in the USSR in the 1920s when it was wedded to the larger project of ending commodification universally. This passé world is the one that Robert Cenedella believes in, as presumably my readers do as well. That such documentaries are now being made reflects the yearning by its creators and interviewees to convince others that a different world is necessary. Whether it is possible might be open to question.

Unlike the heavy-handedness of the typical Michael Moore documentary, “The Price of Everything” allows auction house executives to hang themselves on their own petard. I strongly suspect that director Nathaniel Kahn, who is a Yale graduate and the 55-year old son of famous architect Louis Kahn, knows this world inside out and as such was able to put someone like Amy Cappellazzo, the Chairman of Global Fine Arts at Sotheby, at ease. When asked by Kahn why art is so expensive, she smiles and answers that it reflects supply and demand. In other words, it is defined by its commodity price more than by its use value—to draw from the Marxist vocabulary. No greater proof of that is that many paintings being sold at the Sotheby’s/Christie’s circuit never end up on a buyer’s wall. They are hoarded in crates in the expectation that the commodity price will rise as if they were Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982. Even though Cappellazzo espouses warped values, she is a compelling interviewee who obviously knows how to judge art.

To get a feel for the kind of world she travels in, she was interviewed by Citizens of Humanity. So what is Citizens of Humanity, you might ask? Something like Oxfam? Not exactly. It is a blue jeans manufacturer whose products sell for $278 at Bloomingdales. When asked “What about the notion of encouraging love of art as well as seeing it as an asset or commodity?”, she answered: “For centuries, art has been collected because it’s been desired and loved. People should always retain that feeling about art. It also has turned into a proper asset class, so you can take a calculating view of it and forget the personal passion, but why do that?”

If you see “The Price of Everything”, and you should, I am sure you will connect with the last paragraph of the Director’s Statement in the press notes:

If there’s one thing I’d like audiences to take from this film, it’s to open their eyes to seeing art again on their own terms. The people in the film taught me to do that, each in their own way, and I am very grateful to them for it. They also taught me, whether they intended to or not, that in spite of what the market may say, there actually is very little intrinsic connection between value and price. The idealist and hopeless romantic in me believes, now more than ever, that there really is something in art that transcends money, that twists free of commerce and that, at its best, points the way towards some kind of enlightenment. Most artists pay a high personal price for what they do, but they are bringing things into being that we human beings cannot do without.

Ironically, much of the most recent art that can be interpreted as a critique of commodification can cost millions of dollars. In 1961, Claes Oldenburg opened a storefront on the Lower East Side that featured replicas of the sort of mundane stuff that might be sold on nearby streets. It was his way of saying that if art is a commodity, you might as well stop pretending that it belongs in exalted settings. All the objects were available from $7.99 and up. Now, one of them titled “The Pantry Case” goes for $15 million.

The same thing with Andy Warhol. His “Brillo Boxes” was a pop art inspiration that was making the same point as Oldenburg. It now goes for $3 million apiece. Apiece? You got that. Warhol made as many as the market would demand. It didn’t matter if it looked just like a real Brillo box. Collectors were far more interested in his name being slapped on it.

Conceptual art, of course, is an explicit assault on commodification, leaving the pop artists in the dust. Instead of using a paintbrush or any other conventional tool, they might sell you a dead shark sitting in a tank of formaldehyde, the handiwork of Damien Hirst.

Sitting on his throne atop all the other conceptual artists is the one and only Jeff Koons who Kahn interviews in his studio supervising a group of some of his 100 assistants. When asked by Kahn if he is really making art when his hands never touch a work, he blandly replies that since he is giving them exact instructions, it is as if he is the creator. This, of course, can be described as Fordism applied to the art world. In the press notes, we learn that “Koons regularly collaborates with commercial brands including Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Kiehl’s, Louis Vuitton and SnapChat.” Indeed, Koons is an unabashed capitalist. Before he began making art, Koons was doing spectacularly well on Wall Street as a commodities broker. So, instead of pork belly futures, it is now works like Balloon Dog Orange that goes for $58 million.

On the other side of the ethical/aesthetic ledger is Larry Poons, an impish 81-year old artist who gained success in the 1970s making abstract paintings based on the polka dot. Growing tired of making the same painting over and over, he chose a different style that was not so nearly as marketable. While that did not leave him penniless, it did force him to make do with a ramshackle house in upstate N.Y. that looks like a strong wind will knock it over. Eternally young and optimistic, he still drives vintage racing motorcycles from a collection he has put together over the years. Unlike me, his eyes are perfect. Unfortunately, he is quite deaf—a disability that might make the noise of a motorcycle less objectionable. His observations about the market-driven imperatives of the contemporary art world cut to the bone. Not giving an inch to the conceptual excesses that made Jeff Koons worth $200 million, Poons gets his place in the sun when his latest works are exhibited in a Chelsea gallery in 2014 that a N.Y. Times review concluded with “Perhaps, past midway in life’s journey, history sets you free. These are remarkably liberated, liberating paintings.”

Unlike Larry Poons, Robert Cenedella never had aspirations of cracking into the lucrative abstract, pop or conceptual art market. His art was openly political and incorporated the satirical edge of the Weimar left.

It turns out that he had a direct link to the anti-fascist art world of that period. He began studying at the Art Students League in New York where he fortuitously ended up with George Grosz as an instructor. His innate sense of satire and social awareness were reinforced by Grosz whose acidic paintings of the Weimar bourgeoisie and the fascist movement marked him as one of the 20th century’s most important artists of the left.

From early on, Cenedella focused on the street life of New York with an affectionate look at ordinary people who walked its streets and who rode the subways.

By 1965, two things began to weigh heavily on Cenedella’s mind. The first was the war in Vietnam. While he does not describe himself as a political artist, he states that he is always thinking about politics as this drawing of LBJ would indicate.

The other preoccupation was the art world itself that he saw as dominated by trends that were calculated to make the artist rich even if it sacrificed his or her deeper spiritual or ethical beliefs. Fed up with pop art and all the other junk that gets featured at the Whitney Biennials, he mounted a “Yes Art” exhibition at the posh and trendy Fitzgerald Gallery on Madison Avenue that thumbed its nose at the commodified art world. Victor Navasky, the publisher emeritus of the Nation Magazine who is interviewed in “Art Bastard”, wrote about the show in his “The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power”:

So it is appropriate that during pop art’s heyday, when the art world was celebrating Andy Warhol’s rendering of the Campbell’s Soup can, Cenedella, who by now was Grosz’s protégé in the best Dada tradition, mounted a show called Yes Art! Everything about Yes Art! was upbeat, including the S & H Green Stamps—a supermarket promotion—which were given away with the paintings. Whereas Warhol had offered his renditions of Brillo boxes, Cenedella offered the Brillo boxes themselves. (Why get an expensive imitation when you can get the real thing?) Cenedella explained, “If a Yes artist folds your Brillo box it will cost $6.75. If you fold it yourself it costs $5.75.” The Yes Art! show, held at a chichi Upper East Side gallery, also featured a live statue named Sophia Blickman.

Just by coincidence, I got word about “The Art of the Steal” from my good friend Karl Smith not long after I was invited to a press screening for “The Price of Everything”. Although I have a dim memory about the Barnes Foundation controversy a decade ago, the film will ensure that its story will remain etched in my memory for as long as I live since it is about some of the fundamental political cleavages that define American society.

Born in 1872, Albert C. Barnes was the son of a working-class father, a butcher who lost an arm fighting in the Civil War. Although the film does not mention it, his mother was a devout Methodist who took him to African American camp meetings and revivals according to Wikipedia. This very well might have had a bearing on an important decision he made later in life.

To pay his way through the U. of Pennsylvania medical school, Barnes made money tutoring, boxing, and playing semi-professional baseball. Not long after getting his degree, he changed careers and began using chemistry to figure out how to treat patients on a general basis rather than one by one. Among his products was Argyrol, a silver nitrate antiseptic that prevented newborn infants from becoming blind because of a parent’s gonorrhea infection. Showing his mother’s influence, his factory was integrated and Blacks were promoted to management positions.

The wealth he gained by becoming a pharmaceutical entrepreneur allowed him to begin buying art, particularly post-impressionist art that had not yet become widely recognized as groundbreaking. This meant buying Van Gogh, Matisse, Cézanne and Picasso in large quantities.

Largely because of his working-class roots, he distrusted—if not loathed—the Philadelphia upper crust, especially the board members of the city’s Museum of Art that like New York’s museum boards are clubhouses of the haute bourgeoisie. His other object of hatred was the Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper owned by Walter Annenberg who was a close friend to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the British Royal Family.

At one point, Barnes decided to house his collection in a museum-like structure in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. It was not, however, primarily created as a museum. Instead, it was an art school that allowed visits two days a week. Barnes worked closely with his friend John Dewey to establish a curriculum for the school that would benefit from the presence of great art. Unlike museums, Barnes did not segregate his works by locale, date or style. Instead, the placement reflected his own aesthetic judgement and might, for example, have African sculptures on a shelf next to a Picasso painting. Based on the price of his collection, which would reach $25 billion, he certainly was just as capable as Sotheby’s Amy Cappellazzo.

To make sure that the school and the works would remain in Merion in perpetuity, he created a foundation that would remain true to his values. Dying in an auto crash and childless in 1951, he had hopes that naming Lincoln University as the foundation’s trustee would keep it honest. Lincoln, an African-American college in Philadelphia, was picked as a way of solidarity with the civil rights movement and insurance that the school and his works would not be exploited by the rich whites who were in Walter Annenberg’s milieu.

Unfortunately, Barnes could not anticipate the trajectory that would be followed by Lincoln’s administration. A board was created that included one Richard Glanton, who might be described as a hustler in the same mold as any of a number of Black Democrats such as Cory Booker or Kamala Harris. From the minute he joined the board, he powered his way into the role of chairman and began steering the foundation in Walter Annenberg’s direction. He wanted the school to be a tourist attraction and in pursuit of that goal, he began running buses from downtown Philadelphia to Merion as if it were a theme park. His actions were so egregiously against the spirit of Barnes’s intentions that he was removed from his post.

Ultimately, the Barnes Foundation board at Lincoln was bought off by a contribution of $40 million that was intended to make it subservient to Walter Annenberg who hated Albert C. Barnes with a passion and whose agenda centered on transferring the works to Philadelphia, where they would be just another stop on a tour bus day trip around the city.

The film benefits greatly by former students and teachers in Merion who shared Barnes’s hatred of the power elite in Philadelphia. They repeatedly refer to Annenberg, et al as “vandals”. I would only say that compared to America’s bourgeoisie and its servants like Ed Rendell, they come off rather well. Recent historians tend to regard them during the transitional period from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages as preservers, not destroyers, of Roman culture. One imagines that if the Vandal King Hilderic had been running the Barnes Foundation rather than the profit-seeking barbarians depicted in the film, it would have remained in Merion to this day.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.