David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold last week at Christie’s New York for over $90 million, breaking the auction record for the most expensive work by a living artist. The record was previously held by Jeff Koons, for his stainless steel Orange Balloon Dog which fetched over $58 million about five years ago.
Christie’s described the painting as “one of the greatest masterpieces of the modern era” (of course they would). In every instance of such a sale taking place, most people rightfully wonder: is a work of art ever worth that much money? And is that money better spent elsewhere? Both questions are extremely valid in their own right but simply asking them rhetorically leaves us feeling hopeless and disillusioned.
On the one hand and in simple economic terms, the sale reflects the state of the art market as well as Hockney’s position within it. The painting was completed in 1972 and is widely viewed as Hockney’s most successful work for combining the two subjects that made him famous early in his career: double portraits and swimming pools. With that being said, the opportunity to own a work by one of the most sought after and respected contemporary artists that in a way reflects his entire career is indeed an enticing one. That, coupled with the market-driven laws of supply and demand, escalates the price tag to unprecedented heights.
The piece, standing at about 2 by 3 meters, is strikingly beautiful and its value is not simply derived from its fame. Despite being painted in England, the painting has the colors and general atmosphere of sunny California, somewhat of a Hockney signature. It depicts some type of relationship between two men, one is less visible underwater and one is well-dressed peeking down from the edge of the pool. It also carries a sense of tension in their relationship and some type of loneliness often felt in the company of others. At the very least, it is a daring depiction of homosexual love in the 60’s and 70’s.
Despite all this however, $90 million spent somewhere, is $90 million not spent elsewhere. Simple opportunity cost. And when the market’s obsession with breaking sales records for already-famous artists is taken into consideration, one can’t help but think of the rate at which the art market is developing and evolving. Instead of pumping new blood into the art world, it seems as though we are coagulating its bloodlines and blocking new life from entering.
When we place more emphasis on prices, brand power, and token-collection, we sacrifice potential intellectual development. While the record-breaking sales further cement the already-cemented artists’ positions in the halls of fame, one true art world master reigns: it’s not David Hockney, it’s the art market.