As almost everyone has heard by now, a 1905 Picasso called "Boy With a Pipe" sold Wednesday night for a record-breaking $104.2 million, topping the $82.5 million paid for a van Gogh in 1990. (Though in inflation-corrected dollars, the van Gogh still wins out by several million. And in inflation-corrected ducats, Renaissance tapestries might still count as the most expensive pictures ever: They could cost more than a major battleship.)
One way or another, the money's impressive. If only the painting could measure up.
Though the word "masterpiece" was much bandied about in the buildup to the auction, it's unlikely there's a single art historian who would rate this Rose Period picture, showing a young street tough with a garland on his head, as among the 100 most important Western art works ever made. You'd have a hard time finding someone who would put it in the top 1,000. Top 10,000, anyone?
Picasso expert Pepe Karmel, reached in New York the morning after the sale, was waxing wroth about the whole affair. "I'm stunned," he said, "that a pleasant, minor painting could command a price appropriate to a real masterwork by Picasso. This just shows how much the marketplace is divorced from the true values of art."
If Picasso had died after making this picture, his name would barely register among today's art connoisseurs. As Karmel likes to say, if Picasso had been hit by a bus in 1905, he'd be lucky to be rated as an interesting if sentimental follower of Odilon Redon.
Picasso only becomes a linchpin in art history several years later, when he toughens up and launches his cubist revolution. If Picasso's early Blue Period and Rose Period pictures have been written into art history, that's only because historians have backtracked from what the artist managed later on.
But then, it's been a while since the top end of the art market had much of anything to do with art history or aesthetics, anyway. Today's big art auctions are a cynic's dream: All about value, and nothing to do with worth.
The record set on Wednesday simply indicates that a handful of people with way too much loose change were willing to tussle over a rare and ostentatious status symbol. Once rumors started to fly that a record might be set, bidders even had an incentive to pay more for the picture, rather than less. Owning the world's most expensive picture is much more impressive, and potentially profitable, than owning a picture that tried and failed to set a record.
The buyer of the painting now possesses one of the world's most famous works -- guaranteed to become an icon now that it's hit the evening news -- rather than the little-known early Picasso that the picture was before the sale. Works of art become popular icons from exposure, not from intrinsic worth: Even the "Mona Lisa" was just another Leonardo until early last century, when the scandal of the painting's theft from the Louvre and subsequent return kept a spotlight on it over several years.
As with all commodities, the price of art is all about demand and supply. The demand for Picassos -- at this point, almost any Picasso -- is guaranteed, just for his famous name. He has become as blue-chip as they come. The supply, however, gets smaller every year, as more and more of his pictures end up stuck in public collections, where auctioneers can't get their hands on them. Almost any good-size Picasso will fetch a crazy price, and what it looks like or where it sits in history is barely relevant to that. (By now, all the truly landmark pictures -- "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the "Portrait of Kahnweiler," "Girl Before a Mirror" -- are in museums anyway.) The suddenly famous "Boy With a Pipe" has more in common with a really big diamond or a choice misprinted stamp -- with anything whose value lies in simple rarity -- than with truly important, influential, inspiring works of art.
Of course, the picture did set a record. A few factors helped. The painting had excellent pedigree: It came from the collection of Betsey Cushing Whitney, famous socialite and patron of the arts, and had only had one other owner since Picasso painted it, so there's no doubt about his authorship. We also think we know the sitter's name -- he was probably a Montmartre hanger-on nicknamed "P'tit Louis" -- and there's a story about the making of the thing that tells of how Picasso raced home inspired from a poetry reading to add a garland to the figure's head.
Anecdotes like this about a picture's owners, subject and making can all add zeros to a price, giving proud owners a thing or two to say about the object they've just bought.
But maybe the most important factor in helping this picture break a record was the fact that the thing isn't too hard on the eyes.
It's just an attractive picture of a good-looking teenage boy, all in blue and terra cotta, with some flowers in the background and on the sitter's head to add a touch of easy poetry.
By buying the "Boy With a Pipe," you get a work by Picasso, famous artistic revolutionary, without having to cope with the ugly cubist revolution that he caused. Picasso's market has always been strangely skewed toward his easy, early works, though their value depends on the tough pictures he made later. (Even Gertrude and Leo Stein, among Picasso's first champions and collectors, could barely stomach his new cubist pictures. Picasso's closest comrades in Montmartre declared his "Demoiselles" a bust.)
There's one irony in all this: The "Boy With a Pipe" may be much tougher than it looks. "Pipe" in French is slang for oral sex. The verse that inspired that garland was by Paul Verlaine, a homosexual icon of French letters, and it was apparently being read by Max Jacob, eager leader of the promiscuous, polymorphous perversity of the Montmartre scene. Verlaine's feverish poem, "Crimen Amoris" -- "The Crime of Love" -- describes an orgiastic scene where "teenage Satans" indulge in all the seven deadly sins, while the handsomest of them all, "sixteen years old under his wreath of blossoms," looks on.
Picasso, though determinedly straight, was fascinated by the culture and antics of his gay friends. It doesn't seem far-fetched to imagine that his painting of bad-boy "P'tit Louis," with his legs notably spread, was meant as a kind of tribute to the hot new world the Spanish painter had discovered in France.
Maybe, now that the picture has had a spotlight turned on it, it will reveal secrets that no one's bothered to hunt for before. We just have to hope that there will be some chance for art lovers to get a decent look at it. That record-setting van Gogh has been buried in a Japanese vault since it was bought; the "Mona Lisa" sits safe but remote behind bulletproof glass. Once the market gives a work of art inflated value, its true worth becomes ever harder to make out.