Contemporary And Modern Art Society’s New Golden Calf

In March 1987 Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers  was sold for £24.75m and this sale seems in hindsight to mark a turning point. For one thing it was the first time that a “Modern” painting had achieved a price higher than an Old Master. For another, it more than tripled the price of the previous £8.1m record for Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi. And one more, it was bought by a Japanese Insurance company, not, like the Mantegna, by a museum. The 1987 Van Gogh sale would seem to mark the beginning of high net-worth businesses’ or individuals’ interest in collecting Modern Art at almost any price.

        In the last decade this interest in Contemporary and Modern art could possibly be described as ridiculous. A painting by Munch (one of 4 in existence) recently sold for £78m, and a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti  (‘Walking Man’, one of 6 castings,) sold for £68.2m. One of Cézanne’s Card Players sold for $250m+ (rumoured) to the Royal Family of Qatar, becoming the most expensive painting ever. Artists like Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn have created objects in Gold platinum and diamonds valued at £50m: Hirst’s For the Love Of God and Marc Quinn’s £577,250 Siren, a sculpture in the mould of an Aztec goddess depicting Kate Moss in a contorted Yoga pose.

         But before we consider the possibility of a new Golden Calf, let’s fall back slightly and consider the life story of the old one.  It seems we can still use the phrase “Golden Calf” to mean “false idol”, although I think in the popular consciousness it has got mixed up slightly with the general public’s favourite response to Contemporary Art: “Emperor’s New Clothes”. But the problems of the Golden Calf and the Emperor’s New Clothes are opposite- the Clothes are tricky because they are inadequate and inexposable as such; the Calf is tricky because it is super-adequate and mesmerising as such. The Calf has a very strong grip of our conscious and subconscious, strong enough to divert us from the true path of (in the original tale) the invisible, ineffable Old Testament God. Why do we continue to fund enormous public art projects when there is still poverty and starvation in the world? Because we chase large, gold statuary, that’s basically the reason.

         But to discuss this in length would be to write another essay. I mention all this to begin with the assertion that the Golden Calf has, for better or worse, had a difficult life. There is a constant oscillation throughout history between image worship and image destruction, but as far as talking about the Calf, and the money/psychology involved, it is more useful to begin with destruction.

In 1978 a man walked into the National Gallery in London and attacked Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf with a knife, focusing particularly on the area of canvas that looks like a golden calf. In 2011, the same painting was attacked again by a man with a can of red spray-paint, this time focusing on the revellers adoring the calf. An eyewitness reported: “The security guards then came over and snatched the paint cans from him, before clearing the room. It wasn’t obvious why he did it, perhaps it was some kind of protest. Maybe a protest at the nakedness of the painting. He covered it all.” Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones called for the National Gallery to charge and search visitors in order to protect the paintings: “Free museums are very fine. But what is the point if people just come in and desecrate the world’s cultural heritage? Charge, search, protect.”

         The actions of all the characters implicated in the Poussin damage sagas are wonderful in their ways, but first let’s remind ourselves first exactly what actually happened in the book of Exodus with the Golden Calf. Moses is up Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. In the absence of anything else Aaron gets together a load of gold; makes a large sculpture of a calf. Everyone gathers round, dances and venerates. Moses, in response, smashes the sculpture down and makes everyone drink the gold they once worshipped. The roles, therefore, of the two vandals (a word from the name of a tribe that sacked glorious Rome), Jonathan Jones, and Poussin are entirely backwards compared to the original story: Jonathan Jones plays the people of Israel- a venerator demanding art to praise-; Poussin plays Aaron; and the vandals, who tear or wreck the image, are milder forms of Moses (in that they don’t make Jonathan Jones actually eat the canvas). In the modern version the Moseses are mobbed, jailed, and sectioned; branded counter to the public good and held in detention at the expense of the public as a sort of half-thief-half-murderer: on one level deprivers of property, on another as deprivers of life.

         If this biblical allegory does not function what is different? In probably my favourite academic essay ever, David Freedberg (‘Ideology and Iconoclasm’ in The Power of Images) takes up this kind of question, and maps the constant tension between images as dangerously powerful and inciting, versus images as instructive and venerable: when we are not tearing down images, we are worshipping them. This is not only true with artworks. Why does an invading army tear down statues of enemy generals? Why do people have any emotional reaction to people burning national flags when these things are just stone and canvas? Why make American schoolchildren salute the flag every morning? It seems we are in an age of veneration. A flag is more than a bit of cloth. Actually, it’s more than a flag.

          “It wasn’t obvious why” the 2011 vandal of the National Gallery Poussin “did it, perhaps it was some kind of protest. Maybe a protest at the nakedness of the painting.” The 2011 vandal hated, perhaps, the nakedness and its associated sexuality/abandon. The 1987 one hated the calf. One seems to have disliked Jonathan Jones’ worshipping, one seems to have chosen Poussin’s Aaron-like act as the object of his rage. Freedberg tells a story in which, in 1911, Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch  was sitting in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum when it was attacked with a knife. The man had just lost his job as a cook in the navy, and was disaffected with the state- the “logic” (although the emotion I am mentioning here are subconscious, if present at all,) this time seems to have been to damage the state’s most prized possession. You can make a new flag; there is only one The Nightwatch that we venerate as being made by the true hand of Rembrandt van Rijn. So attacking The Nightwatch is actually the most effective way (short of revolution) to do the state irreparable damage. No matter the state of the Dutch economy, the state will always be slightly poorer than before because its prize Rembrandt has been damaged.

         Another story of slashing old paintings, also from Freedberg, about the damage done to Titian’s Rokeby Venus:

There are further implications that were bought to the fore in the public response to the affair of the Rokeby Venus. The Times of that year was obsessed with the rise in the value of the picture and its consequent reduction after the assault. To the list of the actual figures it had at its disposal- such as the purchase price of the painting- it added figures of its own purporting to give an indication of the drop in value. The drop is always notional. The same happened with The Nightwatch in 1911. This kind of assessment of the putative financial implications has now become commonplace. It is clear that to reduce the possibility of object fetishism is significantly to impugn its status as a commodity fetish. Fortunately the magic of the picture restorers will do something to reinstate its former value- though not all of it.

‘It is clear that to reduce the possibility of object fetishism is significantly to impugn its status as a commodity fetish’: to damage a painting is to damage its monetary value. This is nothing new really- if you dint your car door you don’t expect to get full price back for it. But the key part here is “commodity fetish”, and now I approach where we began- with price tags. A car is mass produced, and each unit has a recommended price which will cover manufacturing costs and an adequate return for the manufacturer and everyone up the supply chain. (Hirst throws a spanner in the works of what I am about to say, but I will return to him anyway- it was always inevitable he would pop his stupid head in here somewhere.) A painting, however, has no such prescribed value. Cézanne did not demand $250m for a painting- the Royal Family of Qatar did the demanding by demanding they owned it, and therefore demanding to hand over $250m. It is also a (sub)conscious decision that a piece of canvas is worth more than $250m of public infrastructure, or education, or cars.

         Although one route into this is explaining art as a category of “luxury goods”, I’m not sure this entirely holds water. The logic of “luxury goods” is that they are expensive: the (semiotic) point of something like champagne is that it gives the drinker the opportunity to directly imbibe their wealth; a Maserati can’t get anywhere different to a Rover 250 (except maybe certain garages), but that is not the point of owning a Maserati. With art I think it is different, though I am not discounting this as a motive or aspect: This perhaps goes some of the way to explaining the snobbishness occasionally directed at the Affordable Art Fair- to one way of thinking, “Affordable” and “Art” are oxymoronic.

         But the difference between art and champagne/cars must surely be because of the unique “God” aspect that surrounds certain artists. Champagne and cars try to do this by advertising the year they were made, but it doesn’t quite work as well as having an artist involved. We know from things like the Eucharist that even though God is everywhere, in all things, some things are more Godly than others. Taken into art, however, this pattern of argument becomes extremely odd, because it is perfectly valid to think (although these are never quite the words used) that one painting by an artist is more painted by that artist than another painting, despite them both being from that same artist’s hand.  A work can be more “characteristic”, or “biographically interesting”, or, at a very basic level, signed.

         I am not talking about fakes, I am talking about the degree of “touchiness” a painting exhibits. There are four versions of Munch’s The Scream- all have different values. In 2012, the version sold by Norwegian businessman Petter Olson was worth $120m. Sotheby’s said the painting was the most colourful and vibrant of the four versions painted by Munch, and the only version whose frame was hand-painted by the artist to include his poem, detailing the work’s inspiration. “It is clear that to reduce the possibility of object fetishism is significantly to impugn its status as a commodity fetish” conversely, the implicit assumption is that the “best” painting is the most expensive. But this reasoning is circular- the most expensive painting is the “best” because it is the most expensive because it is the “best”. Because it is the most “vibrant”, but the hand-painted frame and poem seems to imply Munch had more to do with this one than the other versions he painted. This one is the most unique out of the four, despite them all being unique, and by Munch, and the phrase “more unique” not really making sense at all. Therefore this painting is “more” by Munch than the others, therefore “Munch” is stronger in this one, therefore it is the “best”, therefore it is the most expensive.

         What about The Scream’s other, “inferior” “less expensive” versions? Two have tall tales in their pasts, and following these tales through illustrates the oddity that inevitably occurs in art when veneration takes on an economic, hard-cash element.

On 22nd August 2004 gunmen broke into the Munch museum in Oslo and stole their version of The Scream, and also Munch’s Madonna. In April 2005 a man was arrested, but the paintings were still missing. On 1 June 2005, the city government of Oslo offered about $313,500 for information leading to rediscovery of the paintings. Six men went on trial, and three were sentenced to between four and eight years in prison in May 2006. Two of the convicted, Bjørn Hoen and Petter Tharaldsen, were also ordered to pay compensation of 750 million kroner (roughly US$117.6 million or €86.7 million) to the City of Oslo. On 31 August 2006 the paintings were discovered, in much better condition than expected. Madonna was repairable, Scream had water damage on the lower left corner. Some damage to The Scream may prove impossible to repair, but the overall integrity of the work has not been compromised.

         The special oddity in this story is the costs involved. It is worth $313,500 to know where The Scream and Madonna are, to get a hold of them again. The loss of these paintings, however, would have cost the city of Oslo $117.6 million- so they demanded recompense of that amount from the thieves (a charge levied before the paintings were found). However, after the paintings were recovered that compensation (the same amount), without them doing anything, suddenly became a charge for the damage of the paintings (compensation is a charge levied against something lost- if the paintings were found, it is only their condition that is lost). Then, after restoration, that $117.6 million became from the irreparable damage to the paintings caused by the theft. Incidentally, $117.6 million in 2006 equates to about $130 million in 2012- just the irreparable damage to a version of The Scream and Madonna was worth more (to the city of Oslo) than the entire “best” version of The Scream sold at auction in 2012 (was worth to anyone in the auction room). On 22 February 1994, four men stole the version of The Scream hanging in Lillehammer, Norway and asked for a ransom of only $1m (about $1.8m in 2011). The ransom wasn’t paid, so the version in Lillehammer isn’t even worth $1.8m. Their version must be very bad indeed.

         All the numbers are real, but hopefully this shows that they are essentially random and ridiculous. I am not saying that you can’t put a price on art, you definitely can put a price on art- Sotheby’s and Christie’s do that every day. What I am saying is that the figures involved are an absurd-looking objectivising of a subjective, deeply hard-wired, and frenzy-inducing impulse to build a huge statue by taking all the gold from each man, woman and child in your tribe, be that the public coffers or your family bank account, and that this absurd objectivising of what is very old-style pagan image veneration has become such a part of the world as a whole and the art market in general that the absurdity of it normally totally evades us. We are at a point where when we hear $120m has been paid for The Scream, we think “that’s a lot of money”, but that’s all. More instructive questions would be things like “Why not $121m?”; “What could Munch have done to make it worth that extra million?”; or “would it still be worth $120m if no one had bought it?”

         I think questions like this expose one a central point in the Golden Calf problem, especially when applied to the art market. The money involved doesn’t really exist- it’s a token of something far weirder. At the high end of the art market, money isn’t the same as it is to you or me. The Scream could have easily gone for $121m- presumably the buyer had that extra million in their pocket. But because there are no price tags (just guide prices, which are surely slightly self-fulfilling prophecies) and lots of money around, there is no real theoretical cap to a work’s monetary value- the price at auction is only the point when, instead of two people wanting it, one person wants it. The $120m is an expression of worship, just more quantifiable than dance.

         Arguably The Scream is worth more than $120m- like the stolen or damaged paintings, but would we as a globe take $120m in exchange for The Scream’s total disappearance? The money is different from the “worth”- it’s the difference between saying “I love you” and the ineffable feeling of love. But would you pay $120m to burn The Scream? Probably not- Jonathan Jones would have a mental breakdown along with all the other tribesmen. What is more important, The Scream, or $120m? $120m would solve more problems spent on practically anything but The Scream- including, even, a painting by an unknown artist. What are we willing to give up so that a painting may live? That question puts us right back in front of the Golden Calf.

        The tribes people of Israel gave all their bracelets so they could make something to dance around, forgetting themselves. Shortly after the Golden Calf episode, God sent a plague that killed vast numbers of Israelites.

Words: Jack Castle Edited By Paul Carter Robinson © ArtLyst 2012


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