Friday, May 15, 2009

Our culture overvalues the wrong things.

The first time I saw David Hockney's painting Beverly Hills Housewife I scratched my head. "That's not very well done." I thought.

I didn't say anything out loud, of course, because the picture was hung in the home of the late Betty Freeman, LA's one-of-a-kind music patron, who is supposed to be the person in the painting. She had asked me to her Musicales for the very first time and I wanted to be invited back.

Hockney Beverly Hills Housewife Betty Freeman
Today I read this LA Times article that the painting has just been sold for $7,900,000. Seven point nine million dollars! I'm scratching my head again. If Hockney's intention in painting this picture was to keep me confused, he is indeed a very great artist.

He couldn't have been out to prove what a fine painter he was. Technique seems to be the least of his concerns. Maybe he was trying to point out the banality of Beverly Hills life, picking subjects that the wealthiest buyers of art could relate to.

Most likely he was focused on marketing himself as a painter. I guess he was developing his brand. Branding adds value to a low value object and, given this outrageous price for a not terribly decorative object, Hockney must be quite the master at adding value. His real art seems to be selling himself. Actual painting? Not so important.

And I wonder who is wealthy enough to spend nearly $8 million on a wall covering. Obviously someone with lots of income. Check out this New York Times report on the highest earning hedge fund managers in 2008. Go ahead, take a guess what the top salary was. (The sickeningly large answer is below.)

Do I sound bitter? I am. I sense that the value of art results more from the importance of the artist than from the artwork itself. And I sense that the a person's salary has more to do with manipulating the system than with creating a useful product.

Our culture can be such a great disappointment to me.

I've ragged on David Hockney before - on the subject of music.

Here's an Art Talk by Edward Goldman (a bit of borderline-pretentious KCRW filler) on the subject of Betty and this picture.

Read a note Betty Freeman sent me here. (Music critic Mark Swed questioned the authenticity of the letter because Betty said she enjoyed my piece based on the music of Johannes Brahms.)

Value Tags: . . . . . .

[According to the NY Times article "John Paulson, made $3.7 billion last year." That's Billion with a B. I wouldn't feel so bad if he had to pay about 90% of that in Federal income tax, but he doesn't. Sigh. That's a rant for another time.]


Elaine Fine said...

Yup. Freeman is the person that John Adams called the "American Medici." When money talks in assessing the value of art as well as in assessing the value of music, people tend to listen. It has always been that way, ever since the Renaissance.

I used to be impressed by "patrons of the arts," but the more I learn about them (after a lot of study), the more I understand that many of them did what they did and do what they do simply to impress and to feel like they have the kind of power that is really reserved for people who actually do the stuff themselves.

Maybe my tune would change if someone very rich took a serious financial interest in my work--but I'm not holding my breath.

I have been scratching my head over Hockney for a long time. The "branding" aspect of his work makes a good deal of sense.

kraig grady said...

Better a patron supporting too much art than too little. she also attempted to help some artists who should have done better but didn't Dane Rudhyar being one. who else supported Harry Partch? it sure wasn't the music community, which continue to put into place faux mircotonalist to ward away the very thing his work stands for.
I admit i just don't understand Hockney's work, nor have i spent enough time with it. In general visual art work is over valued, music , dance less so

David Ocker said...

Whoever is spending $8 mil for that painting isn't supporting Hockney (although I believe there is now a law which entitles the artist to a portion of the money - I don't know details). And the one purchase doesn't qualify the buyer as a "patron of the arts" either. Only as a consumer of the arts.

I did a little calculation: The percentage of a $3.7 Billion income represented by a $7.9 million purchase would be the same as a person earning $50,000 buying a painting for $112. A friend of mine described that percentage as "Walking Around Money".

Betty, on the other hand, was clearly a patron of the arts. She knew what she liked and what she didn't like, she enjoyed being around creative musicians and performers and sought out new things for the very fact of their very newness.

Her tastes in art and music didn't mesh with mine very often. She did many good things with her money. I hope ten people spring up here in Los Angeles vying for the title of "the new Betty Freeman".

ericnp said...

The painting is 144" X 72." That's only $761.96 per square inch. Of course it's worth all that.

Anonymous said...

I like Hockneys early work, his Pear Blossom Highway poloroids and a few artist sketch books I saw at the County. Who was engaged in contemporary landscape painting at the time? The way he singled out lawn sprinklers as subject matter? throw him a bone.

About bones; a girl friend of mine supplies him with his canvas boards. When his beloved dauchshounds died, he stopped work and my friend nearly lost her home to foreclosure. Hockney is prolific. More of him for you to dislike. (that was meant with affection but I refuse to put in a smiley face)

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