Veblen good of the day, Julie Mehretu edition

By Felix Salmon
December 16, 2010
Lloyd Blankfein, talking about the art in his lobby:

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Do finance types pay millions of dollars for art because of how good it is — or do they pay millions of dollars for art precisely because it costs millions of dollars? If there was any doubt before, you only need to listen to Lloyd Blankfein, talking about the art in his lobby:

Lloyd was overheard bragging to one extremely powerful hedge fund manager and renowned contemporary art collector (Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol among his acquisitions) to the penny what the canvas costs.

“Guess how much?” “Three?” “No.” “Four?” “No.” Blankfein flashes five fingers, says “Fiveā€¦.Five!” and breaks into a big wide grin.

You can only imagine how this went down with Julie Mehretu, the artist. “It took me a long time — six months or so — to decide I wanted to do this,” she told Calvin Tomkins earlier this year. “What would be the reason to make a painting for a financial institution?” The reason, in the end — or at least the stated reason — was the sheer acreage of space that Goldman was offering her: “I could never make a painting on this scale anywhere else”. Left unsaid was the obvious reason not to do it — that the painting would be reduced, just like everything else at Goldman Sachs, to a dollar amount.

Goldman, it’s clear, buys artists as much as it buys art (or buys regulators): remember how they coopted Ric Burns to make a puffy marketing documentary over which Goldman has editorial control. You can do that, when you have as much money as Goldman does. But increasingly I feel that when I buy art I want to buy unlimited editions or other work with no resale value. Because the art-as-luxury-object game has become completely disconnected, at this point, from the art-as-art game, and has become nothing but a pissing match between oligarchs to see who has the largest bankroll.

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3 comments so far

Is this any different from the way high-end art has always been? Many of the outstanding artistic achievements of Western Civilization — the Sistine Chapel, the Scrovegni Chapel, Versailles — were paid for by rich and powerful men who wanted to demonstrate those things by commissioning high-end art.

Posted by linda53 | Report as abusive

The Sistine Chapel was a religious commission. In theory (and in practice) it glorifies God. The thousands of visitors who pass through have no idea which Pope commissioned it…

Our poor museum system (which was originally designed to mitigate this and give access to fine work, selected on its merits, not its price) is only a couple of hundred years old. True philanthropy has died off the last twenty or so years and everything has become about making money through the vehicle that is art.

Posted by SCurator | Report as abusive

Felix wrote:
“But increasingly I feel that when I buy art I want to buy unlimited editions or other work with no resale value.”


I hear you. One of my favorite original paintings hanging in my apartment, I bought from an artist who’d had a bunch of his works arrayed on a sidewalk outside a clothing boutique on Walnut Street. I think I paid $40 or something for it, and it is a galvanically moving work.

The week that New Yorker issue arrived in my post box, I recall reading that article and thinking, “Okay, either the Eighties are truly back, or they never went away.” Because that artist… well, there’s no accounting for taste, but there’s no doubt Lloyd’s $5MIL could have netted him something to be a lot more proud of than that ‘thing.’

Posted by EricVincent | Report as abusive
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