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How record-setting art auctions are ruining the old neighborhood

David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist” fetched over 90 million dollars at auction. So what makes this, and others so valuable? It’s complicated. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Art critics generally hate it when an auction house sets a record. Thursday, at Christie’s in New York, a painting by David Hockney fetched more than $90 million (or $80 million plus fees), making him the living artist with the most expensive work ever sold at auction. Every time something like this happens, there is the inevitable question: Is a work of art worth that kind of money?

That question is really two questions, and most people don’t bother to distinguish them. It is superficially an economic question, about the market, about how the market values Hockney and which works of Hockney it tends to prize. But it is also a moral question: Should a painting be worth what the state of Utah spent on homeless care in a year, or the cost of inpatient opioid addiction treatment for thousands of people, or the construction of a few rural health centers?

It’s fairly easy to answer the first of these questions, about the market and Hockney’s status within it. The 1972 painting, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures),” bought by an unknown bidder, is one of Hockney’s best-known works, depicting two male figures, one standing at the edge of a swimming pool, the other swimming in it. It appears on Hockney’s Wikipedia page and was recently seen in the enormously successful Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective of the British painter’s work.

Its value isn’t just based on its fame, however. It is one of Hockney’s most enigmatic double portraits, which depict relationships often fraught with tension, loss or the peculiar and acute loneliness we feel only in the presence of someone with whom we have lived for a long time. Although it was painted in England and was based on a scene in southern France, it has the hues and ambiance of Hockney’s sun-soaked Southern California works. And it is a classic among the painter’s daring representations of homosexual love and desire in the 1960s and ’70s. So it is a quintessential work by a painter, now in his early 80s, whose importance is being reevaluated and newly appreciated.

The second question, however, forces people who care about art to parse its meaning and importance in alien terms. And those terms almost dictate the answer. Would this money be better spent on health care or education? Of course — which forces the critic to seek some other form of parsing the problem, something that isn’t quantifiable in blunt terms. And very quickly you arrive at something that is both true and a cliche: That the value of art can’t be reckoned in dollars, nor can it be related to other tangible human needs that are more pressing. Its worth and importance are things that stand to the side of ordinary human valuations of the world.

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But there is a deeper discomfort than simply reiterating a cliche about the intangible value of human creativity, and it’s more troubling than any polite squeamishness about reducing everything to money. When a work of art sells for a quantum of money larger than any ordinary person’s practical reckoning, it seems to make art foreign to ordinary humanity. The feeling is akin to what it’s like to arrive back to some beloved place that has been gentrified so thoroughly that it now feels almost hostile to its former inhabitants.

Gentrification is about displacement, about the market coming in, taking things that felt like accessible common property and making them so uncommonly expensive that they are no longer what they once were. A small restaurant that a family could eat in for $50 becomes a boutique restaurant in which $50 barely covers the appetizers. The change isn’t just about how much it costs to eat there. It is about the loss of a place where you once went, once felt welcome. Something that was once habitual, a part of a beloved place — buying a cup of coffee or getting a haircut — becomes a locus of exclusion.

In some ways, that is what happens to art when it sells for such extraordinary sums. Suddenly people seem to care about it, but the thing they care about is not the thing you remember when you last saw it. Like a chic new bar or a hot new neighborhood, it has “buzz,” but the people who are buzzing about it are not the people you know from your community of art lovers.

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We often cherish what we think of as a private relationship to art, even art that is owned by other people or that hangs in public spaces. But when a work of art is suddenly known to the world not for its content but its price tag, it feels like a betrayal of our private relationship to the piece. Like a gentrified neighborhood, it has evolved into something else, something more popular, something of interest to a wider audience. And somehow, for some reason, perhaps involuntarily, no matter how hard we try to resist it, that seems to dilute or even negate the feelings we once had for it.

Consider the thing we often say when we revisit a place that has been taken over by developers and the moneyed crowd: The place we loved no longer exists. In one sense, that’s not true. Of course it exists — the houses still stand where they once stood and the streets still meet at their usual corners. But in another sense it is absolutely true. The place is lost to us, and we no longer participate in its meaning.

That metaphor may explain why critics hate the market, hate auctions, hate record-selling paintings and sculpture and hate the ephemeral buzz and hype that come with each new stratospheric price tag. Perhaps it’s an irrational feeling, and perhaps whoever bought this painting will donate it to a museum where it will be forever a public possession. But the feeling of loss and alienation remains, and the anxiety it causes is real. When rich people speculate in art, you can’t help but think: There goes the neighborhood.