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Record $106.5 million price bought something besides a Picasso

By Blake Gopnik
Thursday, May 6, 2010; C01

At 7:32 p.m. Tuesday at Christie's auction house in New York, an anonymous bidder paid $106.5 million for the most expensive artwork ever auctioned, Picasso's 1932 "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust." But that bidder didn't actually get an all-time great picture. Those millions really ended up buying the price tag itself, and the attention that went with it. Imagine how much less satisfaction there would be in laying out a whopping $103 million, say, and nevertheless being totally ignored? That extra three-million-five was certainly well spent.

Interesting, isn't it, how quickly the bidding ended once the previous Picasso record, the $104 million paid for a work in 2004, had been passed? It's almost as though what was really being witnessed in that auction room was a battle for the rights to the record. That turns out to have cost exactly $2.5 million, by my calculation -- the difference between the $104 million that you had to pay just to equal the old record, and the final price paid.

What wasn't at stake that evening was a superlative object. In terms of overall art-historical importance -- how much it shook up what we think about art -- no Picasso from 1932 could come close to competing with his landmark cubist works from 20 years earlier. (These radical objects, such as the National Gallery's "Nude Woman" from 1910, almost never set sales records. They're too tough on a collector's eyes.)

In terms of direct influence, on other artists or on the course of scholarly research, "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" couldn't have had any at all: It wasn't included in the great Zervos catalogue of Picasso's works and went underground during World War II, then was bought in 1951 by an American couple who exhibited it only once and wouldn't let it be photographed in color.

Those years in the shadows were no huge loss. If the painting hadn't existed, we wouldn't have had to invent it. It reveals the 50-year-old Picasso, by then filthy rich and a darling of the cultural establishment, working hard to please. But when Picasso goes easy, he's not at his best. The painting's most notable qualities are its large scale and bright colors -- decorator values, not art-historical ones. The best words to describe it would be tame, un-Picassoid ones such as "stylish," "charming," "handsome." The racier pictures Picasso did of this model, his mistress Marie-Thérése Walter, some three decades his junior, are greater because they have more than a little threat in them and get at the tensions inherent in the couple's relations.

My mother, a feminist with a passion for modernist art, finds most of Picasso's images of Marie-Thérése so violent she can't bear to look at them. I bet she'd be okay with this one. That's not a good sign for its importance as art. (Mom might still balk, however, at its hint of a beheading, and at the ominous shadow that reaches out to claim Marie-Thérése's pink belly.)

What that dough could do

Let's imagine, for a minute, that this picture truly was a great cultural landmark. Would Tuesday night's record deserve celebration, even then? What would a Martian anthropologist make of a society that produces a roomful of bidders with such vast reserves of surplus cash that they can drop more than $100 million on a fancy picture -- while millions of their fellow citizens have their homes repossessed? Isn't this how we imagine Paris the day before they stormed the Bastille?

Think of what that money could have been used for: buying bed-nets for 10 million kids in Africa; filling the funding gap in the D.C. teachers' contract for three years running; installing air conditioning in a dozen Italian museums that lack it. Instead, all we're really applauding with this sale is the transfer of treasure from one ultra-rich person to another, accompanied by the passing of a middling-fine painting from one mansion wall to the next. We're clapping at the sheer knowledge of all that capital accruing. But wouldn't the world in fact be a better place if this transaction had tied up less cash?

I guess I'd gulp but agree if someone said $100 million needed to be spent to save a truly great picture from damage, or even to keep some soul-changing work where the public could see it. (Sometimes, a private collector will let a treasured work spend years on the wall of a museum, then suddenly threaten to sell it at auction unless a certain sum can be raised.) But there's no way this transaction can be said to do good, for art or anything else.

These headliner sales can even do harm. The desire to break records helps push art prices so high, it cripples the limited acquisition budgets at museums. No longer being players in the market on their own, museums are put more than ever at the mercy of the people who can play. (Curators complain about how much work it is to cajole objects out of collectors' hands instead of just buying the darned things.) Higher prices hurt the public's chance of seeing certain works of art -- works that, going by price tag alone, ought to be among the greatest in our culture.

I'd go so far as to say that when a work of art sets a record at auction, the object itself takes a real body blow. All those dollar signs can drain the energy out of even the most avant-garde of images. They turn a rebellious work of art into a safe consumer bauble -- into yet another deluxe commodity, like a yacht or a Learjet, whose worth comes mostly from how well it signals its owner's purchasing power.

It really doesn't matter whether "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" is any good. All that matters is the price that it fetched. To people with $100 million to burn, that's what's most beautiful about it.

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