In the Tate Modern, a poster by the Guerilla Girls, a feminist art collective, hangs. You’ve probably seen a version of it somewhere online. It’s called The Advantages Of Being A Woman Artist and it looks like this:
I’ve been thinking about the Guerrilla Girls a lot this week, because it seems like they can add another list to their agenda: not having to worry about selling your work for £860,000, part-shredding it and then being hailed as the punk-rock genius of the art world. In your face, Sotheby’s! In your face, parasitic art dealers who are feasting off the work of artists!
Eight-hundred-and-sixty-thousand pounds is probably too much to pay for a piece of art, especially when the art in question is the girl-with-balloon thing that has been on every T-shirt in Camden market since 2004. But the art world being what it is, a million isn’t particularly eyebrow-raising, and cynics are already suggesting that the part-shredding was intentional – by being partially intact, the piece becomes a brand-new piece of art in itself and Banksy still gets to keep the £860K. In essence: Banksy gets to have his cake and shred it.
Weirdly, all of this has fallen on the anniversary of the art auction that changed modern art-buying for ever. On October 18 1973, Robert C Scull – a New Yorker with a taxi-cab empire, a huge collection of art and a Saatchi-esque eye for PR – sold off his collection of Warhols, Rauschenbergs and Lichtensteins, at an auction so frenzied that it led to alarmingly inflated prices. Paintings purchased for $10,000 were being sold on for $240,000, with absolutely no kick-back for the artist who had painted them. And, so, the radical journey of painting prices – “the biggest unregulated market in the world apart from drugs” – truly began.
There was one female artist at the Scull auction. One. Lee Bontecou, a sculptor and printmaker who – let’s be real here – probably slipped into the auction as a result of having a gender-neutral name. (I’m mostly joking. But also kind of not joking.) Since then, the most expensive painting by a woman has been Jimson Weed/White Flower by Georgia O’Keeffe, which sold for $44.4m in 2014.
Again, $44.4m is too much money to pay for a painting. Anyone can tell you that. And, yet, Georgia O’Keeffe, the most expensive woman artist of all time, doesn’t even grace the top 100 most-expensive painting sales. Scan through the list of the paintings that sold for millions upon millions, and you’ll notice a disturbing theme: that, while paintings of women’s bodies are among the most profitable in the world, paintings by women are less of a solid investment. This also applies to the vast quantity of bodies of colour in art – most famously with Picasso’s “African period”. This is something Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle de la Puente (the two young women who run the fantastic White Pube website) are passionate about exposing. “[B]odies of colour should be given the agency to represent themselves,” they say. “N if u wana put a black body in a gallery so bad, commission a black artist instead of a white one.”
But why should any of this matter? After all, neither you nor I are probably ever going to be in a position to buy a piece of art for over a £1,000, so the price of ludicrously expensive paintings shouldn’t be news. Unfortunately, though, it’s all part of the same cycle: the more the price of a painting inflates, the more public interest it gathers and the more people who want to see it in a museum. This is basically what museums like the Tate live off. The reason the Picasso exhibitions or the Warhol exhibitions are so popular is that people know who they are, and people tend only to know who they are once they have sold for stupidly vast amounts of money. A painting doesn’t become a news item on the BBC website when it moves people to tears; it becomes news when it breaks a Sotheby’s record.
There was one female artist at the Scull auction. One. Lee Bontecou, a sculptor and printmaker who – let’s be real here – probably slipped into the auction as a result of having a gender-neutral name
So, museums want paintings that will sell ticket prices, and paintings that sell tickets are the ones that come out of huge auctions. Auctions become inflated when critics and curators over-value the work and, because everyone in this chain tends to be white and male, the work they value most is also by people who are white and male. And the bigger the art bubble gets, the more the museums themselves get priced out of even buying the art, having to instead rely on loans from private collectors who want to increase a painting's value by showing it at the Louvre for six months. So, what do museums do? Spend everything on so-called “great” art, leaving even less budget for minority groups? Rely on the kindness of collectors? Close entirely?
Suddenly, it stops being a discussion about art prices and starts being a discussion about what the art of marginalised groups is actually “worth”. And because we still view painting as this sort of rarefied, “high” culture that we can only aspire to understand and only dream about one day owning, we’re getting this poisoned trickle-down effect of who can and who can’t be a great artist. It’s a kind of “money equals quality” view of creative work that makes it easier to judge if people can’t be bothered with engaging with the art itself, and that extends to movies, books and every other form of entertainment we engage with. This man got a huge book deal, therefore the book must be sensational. This actor got paid more than his female co-star, therefore his part must be more important.
It’s true that most of us will never experience the very particular problem of having a painting worth almost a million pounds shredded on us. But we might be staring down the barrel of a bigger problem about the future of art itself, and it won’t be cut into pieces so easily.