When the most valuable Picassos owned by the Goetz Family finally went to auction in 1988, it was a story of misjustice – a forced sale of artworks inherited by Goetz children, value of which was so high that the taxman would shatter their fortunes. A few years later, Steve Wynn, a Las Vegas casino magnate inadvertently put his elbow through one of the auctioned paintings, Le Rêve, damaging it beyond repair. For all its drama, this is a rather optimistic story. Goetz were middle-class Americans with great taste and a courage to buy what they liked at a time, when a mere mortal could still afford it. Piece by piece, they have created one of the most esteemed collections of Picassos on the planet. Sadly, their good taste made them famous, so that their children had no option, but to sell, when they passed away. Mr. Wynn, for all the clichés that he represents, shared the same true love for art. His big-ticket purchases were much less about status building as one might think, as in his world of casinos and kitsch, art collecting can only hardly resonate with his rivals.
Art collecting has always been connected with social status and wealth. The discipline has its origins in late reneissance, when the new class of rich burgeois asked artists to paint their families – a deviation from centuries-old tradition of art for religion’s sake. To own a portrait meant to advance to the level of aristocracy and kings. And yet, both for the renaissant Medicis and the wealthy Dutch merchants of this age, the art collecting was not only done to show power and wealth. It was also an act of enjoyment.
Art, by definition is a controversial endeavour of human race. Initially, it was a subservient tool of power and church. When there were no media, nor literacy among masses, painting the saints, kings and historical events was the only way to educate, influence and inform the people. Art was hard work and a craftsmanship, assessed judged on its merits of beauty. The more photographic, the better. But, when the artists achieved their peak in late reneissance,being able to paint the human body with a chilling precision, the beautiful turned boring. Just as the rich merchants started collecting art, a new generation of mannerist artists emerged. Stretching, emphasising and “overdoing” certain parts of the painting were their new way to give the painting a meaning, to express their opinion and feeling, not just depict the reality truly. A first step towards art’s decadence – towards art for art’s sake – a discipline that is beyond the understanding of simple people.
It has gone much worse, though. What impressionists started in the 19th century, Picasso has finished off a few decades later. They have began painting the “abstract”, depicting feelings, ideas and subjective opinions. The art turned modern and lost all its connection to the simple man. It became difficult to understand. It was also in this moment that the art turned useless to the kings, governments and the church. Ever since then, the art has became even more abstract and less understandable. Finally in the 1960s, when Pollock placed the canvas on the floor and started manicly splashing paint allover it, it has turned outright annoying to the simple man. Only but few snobs could see the value of a large canvas with random flecks of colour. And yet, the more misunderstood, pointless, or even damn ugly the modern art became, the more valuable it was in the eyes of the wealthy art collectors.
A simple black canvas by Malevich, a pissoire in the middle of gallery by Duchamp, or a plain cube of concrete placed in the landscape by Donald Judd. Modern art is controversial, not because it is decadend, but because it has progressed beyond beauty. Its role is not to please the eye, but rather to provoke us to think. A modern man has a thick skin. Dega’s beautiful balet dancers mean nothing to him. A six-meter long shark in a tank of formaldehyde in the middle of an art gallery, however, offends and provokes. That is why Damien Hirst, with all his sharks and dead cow heads, is a true modern artist. Art is a standalone element, evolving, living and breathing beyond the control of a man.
From the moment when art became “difficult” in late renaissance, it has relied on wealthy art collectors. First, the wealthy merchants and bankers have commissioned artists to capture the moment of their importance. Rembrandt has perfected his brushwork, painting portraits of his rich patrons and their families in royal poses. Similarly, Medicis have brought up a whole row of artists under their wings. Over time, as the market for art has developed, art has become a self-serving discipline. Its value was now completely separate from how it was (mis-)understood by the simple man. Artists like Picasso, or Salvador Dalí, blessed by the fickle market of their day have become celebrities and the value of their art went through the roof. Whether it was Picasso’s cubist de-faced ladies, or Dalí’s blank undersigned canvas, the more pricey their art was, the less understandable it became to the simple people.
It offends and provokes that a few random flecks of colour can cost such a fortune. Snobbism and decadence, are the curses that the art collectors will never shake-off, because their passion and investment is so beyond the simple understanding of people. If anything the damnation has only turned worse in the last years, as a new generation of ultra-high-net worth individuals from China and Asia entered the market. The western-educated daughters and sons of Chinese magnates are increasingly finding joy in the pursuit of art. Few other things shock more than a 26-year old signing million-dollar cheque for a steel dolphin by Jeff Koons. It does not help that the artwork of Jeff Koons is a matter of controversy. His giant balloon dogs, or toy rabbits cast in highly polished stainless steel offend by definition. They attack our sense of taste, being trashy and attractive at the same time. They speak to a child inside of us, making a connection between guilt and pleasure that is very physical and present at the same time.
That a Chinese capitalist, who has made his wealth a very “hands-on” business, or a Chinese Army honorary would let their offspring on a mad shopping spree, with no purpose seems odd. The reason to buy into art may be much more rational than we think. The Chinese clampdown on corruption has put pressure on a number of Western fashion and jewellery brands. But, for all its extravagance, even art cannot offend as much as luxus. In China, being seen in a golden Lamborghini or sporting a one-off Swiss watch is no longer such a good idea. Prices of art may have surpassed luxus goods many time over, but they will never provoke the sense of envy just as much. For a cynic, this might be rather clean than – art buying as window dressing by the wealthy Chinese.
But the cynic would be wrong. The Chinese show signs of acceleration in all they do. In economic growth, technology adoption, or even the fashion taste, they compress decades of change into just a few years. Louis Vuitton and Gucci, for example had to re-shape their products recently, when the Chinese customer suddenly turned them down as too trashy. In the space of a few years, the Chinese have developed appetite for the subtle sophisticated fashion with small logos and hidden quality that one usually sees in the Western Europe. There is nothing suspicious about the Chinese art collectors. Like so many generations of “snobs” before them, they have found joy and pleasure in collecting artwork. Tired and bored from their affluence, the rich always look for something more. If for no other reason, the misunderstanding of a simple man, makes the art divine and eternal. Modern art, for all its lack of purpose, would not exist without art collectors.