Arts feature

Do you think this painting is worth $48.4 million?

The market thinks a Basquait is worth that much; art critics disagree. Maybe the market is right

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

Earlier this year a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, depicting two figures stoned on the hallucinogenic drug PCP, was offered for sale at Christie’s in New York. ‘Dustheads’ was given an estimated sales tag of $25–35 million. In the end, the hammer came down at $48.8 million, a sum that easily broke the previous record for the artist, $26.4 million, which was achieved last November. It was the fourth time in 12 months that Basquiat’s record price had been smashed, and confirmed the artist’s dominance of the contemporary market.

Such record-breaking at auction tends to elicit valedictory statements from auction houses and Christie’s Loic Gouzer duly obliged: ‘“Dustheads” is pure, concentrated energy, freedom and honesty.’ But it is what Gouzer went on to say that is of more interest: ‘Ten years ago [Basquiat] might have been perceived as a misfit. Today, he is the most collected artist of sportsmen, actors, musicians and entrepreneurs.’

This statement, with its defensive undercurrent, attests to a gulf between what the market now makes of Basquiat and how art critics and historians have, at least until relatively recently, rated him. Basquiat’s career was short-lived and dramatic. He emerged as part of a graffiti collective called SAMO spraying buildings in Lower Manhattan in the late 1970s. Then, in quick succession, he formed a band (which included Vincent Gallo), appeared on Glenn O’Brien’s television programme TV Party, starred in an indie film, popped up in Blondie’s video for ‘Rapture’, and met and hung out with Andy Warhol. He also decided to move his artwork from the streets to the gallery and, from his debut solo exhibition at Annina Nosei’s gallery in 1981, he enjoyed a meteoric rise that saw its apotheosis in his appearance on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in early 1985. Basquiat exhibited with some of the most eminent art dealers in the world, including Bruno Bischofberger, Mary Boone and Larry Gagosian, producing paintings at a tremendous rate, fuelled by a gargantuan appetite for drugs. True to the cliché of burning bright and short, Basquiat died aged 27, three years after the cover shoot, of a heroin overdose.

Despite his fame, Basquiat was dismissed by a number of art critics and historians. The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists labelled him a ‘street artist’ and included him under the entry for ‘Graffiti’ rather than giving him his own named entry. The art critic Robert Hughes described his work as ‘merely novel’. But arguably his biggest adversary was the eminent American critic Hilton Kramer, whose descriptions of his work included the posthumous appraisal: ‘talentless hustler, street-smart but otherwise invincibly ignorant, who used his youth, his looks, his skin colour and his abundant sex appeal to win an overnight fame that proved to be his undoing’.

In fact, it was not Basquiat’s overnight fame that was his critical undoing, but a style of painting which, in its insistence on an expressionist style and the figurative, was rejected as regressive by art historians. And it is here that the critical mauling of Basquiat has parallels with that of a painter of the previous generation whose reputation has been revalidated by the market — Francis Bacon. The record for Bacon’s work ($86.2 million) was achieved in 2008 and, despite a recent blip, the artist has been one of the most consistently high-achieving modern artists at auction in recent years. (A number of observers expect a huge price for his 1969 painting ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’ to be auctioned by Christie’s in New York this week, although the auction house’s first autumn sale there last week was decidedly sluggish.) Yet the Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, was able to open a 2007 article on Bacon with the question, ‘Is Francis Bacon a great 20th-century artist or not?’, before going on to argue that he ‘was the first modern artist to abandon modernism’. Jones was referring to the fact that Bacon rejected the key tenet of modernism: abstraction. In the eyes of art history, the story of the avant-garde is a move from the figurative to the abstract, and Bacon’s reliance on the figurative, like Basquiat’s after him, was seen as an abandonment of the prescribed path of the avant-garde.

Bacon’s choice of sitters — friends and lovers who were drunks and wastrels of Soho — also flew in the face of modernist art history’s disavowal of the personal. Basquiat’s insistence on personal subject matter was equally suspect. For this marked out each artist as a neo-expressionist, reviving the idea of the artist as a tortured genius pouring out visions that are heightened but recognisable depictions of the world around them. These are paintings that prize a highly individual vision and, for the majority of art historians, this was unspeakably regressive. Notions of individual expression were the enemy of modernist and postmodernist art history, a discipline that was heavily influenced by critical theory, a hodge-podge of writings that ranged from the unreadable (French post-structuralist theory) to the poetically barmy (post-Freudian psychoanalytical theory), much of which removed agency from the individual and placed it instead with societal or psychological structures.

Expressionism received a comprehensive debunking at the hands of the influential academic Hal Foster in his 1983 essay ‘The Expressive Fallacy’, a work that became required reading in art historical departments over the next 20 years. In the widely cited article, Foster argued that, even if artists were able to experience a truly subjective emotion, the act of trying to recreate that emotion on canvas was necessarily fake. By the time the artist had got the paints out and made the necessary marks, any raw emotion would be a distant memory. At best, the paint-marks would be a half-remembered account of an emotional experience. At worst, the entire depicted emotional experience would simply be fiction. Foster preferred and recommended postmodern artists such as Cindy Sherman, whose work was all about the constructed nature of supposedly real experiences. This contrasted starkly with Bacon, and his booze-addled subjects, and Basquiat, with his druggie drop-out persona and subject matter, who would rank pretty high up in the faked emotion scale.

But the subsequent 21st-century market dominance of Bacon and Basquiat suggests that art history’s pronouncements are marginal to the main business of selling and buying art, no more relevant than the embittered outpourings of Marxists and ex-Marxists who desperately wished art would point to social progress rather than simply being a series of pleasant things to look at. And while this might sound like an overly simplistic reading of the situation, there is significant evidence of the growing influence of taste-makers who really don’t care about art history’s judgments — collectors.

Basquiat’s biggest collector, Jose Mugrabi, strolled out of February’s auctions with the simple statement: ‘Basquiat is the best artist in the world.’ His son Alberto has a Basquiat-style crown motif tattooed on his wrist. The Mugrabis, like those who collect Bacon, seem to value nothing more than a highly individualistic, expressive view of the world. And auction houses seem ready to make the break from those fusty old Marxist art historians and instead follow the lead of the prescient remark, made by Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer in 2006, ‘The best art is the most expensive because the market is so smart.’ The market, fuelled by the money of ‘sportsmen, actors, musicians and entrepreneurs’ (as well as that of oligarchs, sheikhs and hedge-funders), might not be as smart as Meyer suggests, but it is certainly determinedly revalidating the value of highly individual visions, whether fuelled by hallucinogens or not.


Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Derek Grierson

    No work of art is worth that much. Let’s face it – people who are real collectors invest small sums of money to take a punt on unknown artists who have captured their imagination. This isn’t about any enthusiasm for art – more like trying to buy kudos by buying into the culture. It is, I suppose, a slightly less odious way of throwing around your disposable largesse than buying guns…

    • Simon M

      but the buyer says ‘he is the best artist in the world’ and probably believes it, so his imagination has clearly been captured, to him the paintings were worth the sum of money and he may have possibly paid more

      • Derek Grierson

        Thanks for making my point. Artists and art-lovers don’t measure their passion for art on the “mine is bigger than yours” scale. If I like a work, I’ll defend even if Saatchi says it’s crap. I don’t love it more just because somebody paid the price of a hospital wing for it.

  • Icebow

    ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’; but if the ‘art’ is sold on at a profit, I suppose the fool-status is passed on with it. I don’t know a great deal about painting, but I know what I hate.

    • wonderman

      if u don like this u’l never know real art. PERIOD.

      • Icebow

        If that’s how you write, you are unlikely ever to know true English.

        • settingitstraight

          Its called internet slang writing u pretentious dolt. It’s not an essay to Harvard.

          • Icebow

            What, you egg? Bugger off.

    • Mahi Tuna

      depends, it’s all relative. if they have billions whats 45 million? not much. spending habits are also subjective, you could buy a house and love it and someone else would think your a fool for spending money on the dump.

  • Eddie

    The art market has nothing to do with art, and everything to do with money, status, power, vanity.
    The sort of conceptual ‘art’ dross people spend huge sums on is the sort of stuff I would rather pay not to own. It is not art at all – it is just showy noise signifying nothing.
    But hey, I like laughing at stupid rich people too – as I sit in my lovely house surrounded by REAL art that cost very modest sums – y’know, proper paintings from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries; cartoons and drawings; bronzes; a few antiquities (a basic ancient Greek pot’ll cost you only £50).

  • Daniel Crowley

    You know, I kind of think the Nazis were right about the whole ‘degenerate art’ thing poisoning society. Have you been to the local galleries lately? It’s disgusting.

    • post_x_it

      Disgusting comment. You’re entitled to hold whatever opinions you like about the quality of the art in your local gallery. You can even stay away from said gallery. But there is no conceivable situation when it’s right for a government to say which art is ‘good’ and have everything else banned and destroyed. It frightens me to think that anyone actually wants governments to be the arbiters of such things.

      • Daniel Crowley

        So degenerate art being funded and ruining society is ok, but having a concept of certain types of ‘art’ being degenerate is disgusting?

        Sort your priorities out. Art is a reflection of civilisation. When you look at the art our society produces, do you see any truth? Do you see beauty and virtue? I doubt it, because I don’t.

        You do realise that the degenerate arts are being publically funded, too?

  • Cornelius Bonkers

    “The personal is the political and the profitable”. Basquiat is the James Dean of the now art-world. You only have to ask “would I want a Basquiat on my wall?” and it all becomes clear, Yes, Yes, Yes…..His energy makes Bacon look like Hockney .- I’d pay $48 m if I had it

    • Budgeri Guitars

      All art is of value to somebody and comparing Basquiat to JD is one opinion. $48m is obscene for a work of this kind, but, hey ho, there is probably nothing more deserving of this amount of money these days.

  • Jake

    Basquiat is a far less radical, original or talented artist than his former friend filmmaker Vincent Gallo.

  • Leslee Sharon Wills

    the unwritten sub-text to Basquiat’s art is the reference/fear of the Haitian religious influence and unique graphic symbolisation that mesmerises and yet excludes us.Of course his work is worth millions for like Bacon he taps into a metaphysical vein that is the lifeblood of true Art.

  • Ron Burgundy

    You can see the creativity in this piece, while he may not have been able to draw technically by the book, still brilliant in it’s own right, does blur the lines between graffiti and artwork

  • Value is relative, $1 or $48.4 million, who cares. My personal take is the naked emperor is everywhere working social media and marketing the world into the religion of money and art, and since I have no beliefs I respond with how I feel, I feel this art sucks, it’s not my taste, but it is famous, and that’s what makes art valuable. Fame is king in art.

  • RobinConwy

    I bought a similar painting from the artist in 1981 for $100.00 I sold it in 1987 for $10,000. Now $40 million+. That’s a big mistake, huh?

  • Deirdre Zema

    The critics are wrong about this artist. As an educated Art Historian and professional appraiser, as well as a painter, I can affirm that with respect to expressive communication, arguably the object of aesthetic effort, Basquiat has no peer in the twentieth century.

    Arguably he was the best artist of the century, and certainly might even be said to have shown the way to a revolution in aesthetics. His ability to communicative strong emotions exceeded that of Picasso, for instance, making Guernica pale in comparison.

    The key I think is not to be distracted by crude imagery, which is beside the point. The artistic power of this painter must be appreciated with respect to the conscious and subconscious resonance with a viewer of his pictures, regardless of the label of school or regardless of the red herring of being too attentive to the idea of representational realism as an aspect of artistic verisimilitude, or regardless really of too much focus on artistic taste.

    But in addition to to communicative power of his imagery, Basquiat apparently subconsciously displayed a solid understanding of balance, of value, of the power and range of color, of the ability to create focus and power within the confines of the canvas. This combination of a strong understanding of aesthetic principles combined with the expressive power of his imagery does serve to put this artist miles above the appellation of ‘Graffiti artist’ ( which sounds suspiciously like Ruskin in his comments about Whistler’s paintings) and firmly at the forefront in whatever makes art important.

    Scott Zema

    • ThilmCo

      The writer of this article is dismissive of Basquiat with the paragraph beginning, “He emerged as part of a graffiti collective called SAMO spraying buildings in Lower Manhattan in the late 1970s.” By being dismissive the writer is demeaning Basquiat. Basquiat was not only an artist by the age of four but could read and write. His mother provided him with many tools to work his art. He studied Grey’s Anatomy as a child while recuperating from an accident. He created so much more than only street art.

      As far as being a collective of street artists called SAMO, SAMO was a phrase that Basquiat and two other friends came up with in conversation. He used it in many of his early paintings as a way to express (I think) his feelings about the world around him. He “hungout” with like minded people because of his prolific artwork (the writer makes it sound as if Basquiat was a groupy of somekind). During the days when television, art and film were experimental, the 1970’s in particular, artists were creating works and encouraging each other to continue to create outside of conventional thoughts about art and the meaning of art.

      Basquiat was an artist who worked non-stop. His mind was so active and intelligent, as seen throughout all of his work. A mind that active must have a way to express itself or go crazy. In a lot of his work the questions of: Why are we here?, What am I doing here?, and Where do we all go from here? are running themes. He was so young when he died I can only suppose he did not get the answers except to at least one of those questions; where do we go from here? I am sad he was unable to stick around long enough to perhaps get the other answers.

      As an artist who is getting a relatively late start at being prolific (I spent time bring up children among other things) I can relate to Basquiat on many levels. As a young person my mind was constantly going, trying to answer those questions. I wrote poetry and short stories and drew along with dance and acting. Shyness was a huge obstacle back then and I cared what people thought of my work. Many times I felt as though I would explode with all the thoughts and emotions. But as I have grown older I have begun to understand, as long as I am observant enough that life reveals those answers.

      Clearly the writer of this article has a limited understanding of art and the artistic process. Anyone can be a critic but you should at least be knowledgeable about what you are critiquing.

      Thank you Mr. Zema for your insights, they are deeply appreciated.