Nobody cares that the president’s son has taken up painting. The issue is the money: It’s been reported that Bergès is planning to price the works from $75,000 to $500,000, figures that would raise eyebrows even for a successful midcareer painter, which Hunter Biden assuredly is not. Since artists typically spend years carefully building markets and nudging up their prices — hoping to avoid any sudden drops that would frighten away investment-minded collectors — this hardly seems like the move of someone planning on a long-term career. You have to figure that the gallery, an otherwise obscure one, is hoping to make one quick score on the strength of Biden’s celebrity. (Think of the gag on Steve Martin’s album “A Wild and Crazy Guy” about pulling in $2 million for a single performance by pricing the seats at $800. “One show,” Martin jokes. “Goodbye!”) A concern for the Bidens — and the rest of us — is that collectors might attempt to buy influence along with their art; the White House has tried to deal with this by drafting an agreement with the gallery to keep buyers’ identities secret, even from the artist.
But I suspect that, ethics aside, many people simply object to the idea of a neophyte artist making so much money — or gaining recognition and what looks like legitimacy — just because he’s already famous.
I get it. Personally, it’s George W. Bush’s work that drives me crazy. So far his paintings, mostly portraits of immigrants and veterans, aren’t for sale, though they have been exhibited in prestigious venues like the Kennedy Center. But I can’t set aside my anger at his policies long enough to find any interest in his retirement hobby, even if he does seem to be groping toward some rudimentary self-reflection about his legacy.
Or to take an example less tied to the presidency, I remember encountering Jim Carrey’s political cartoons at the 2019 Outsider Art Fair in New York. To me the pieces, which included some caricatures of Donald Trump, looked like the work of an energetic but uninspired high school student, and I was dismayed at the way they drew attention away from better artists who weren’t also famous comedians. Carrey, at least, is a talented artist in his primary field — but what does that have to do with drawing?
Yet the fact is, whether it’s about the object itself or the person who made it, every piece of art comes with a story. Sometimes the story is about the other work the artist’s done in the past, or the recognition they have already received, so that when a new work arrives, you’ve got some idea what you’re looking at and even whether you like it or not. Sometimes the context is the story: It isn’t just an unfamiliar painting, or a shapeless pile of plastic, or a weird-looking sculpture — it’s an unfamiliar painting hanging in the Met, a shapeless pile of plastic in a cutting-edge Chinatown gallery, a weird-looking sculpture that was rapturously reviewed by a famous critic. Or the story may be more personal. The early-20th-century abstractionist Piet Mondrian, now one of my favorite painters, didn’t really move me at first, but I kept looking at his work because I knew my father loved it.
As an art critic, I try to encounter a given work with as little context as possible, at least at first, so that I can gauge what I really think of how it looks. But even then, I’m bringing a context with me — a whole set of assumptions about what art is and what it can or should do. I’ve built up those assumptions from all the other art I’ve ever seen, from any education I’ve had, and from TV, billboards and the rest of the inescapable visual culture of the modern world.
The way a piece of art is talked about and identified is always part of the way we experience it and the way it’s valued. It’s no surprise that galleries, museums, auction houses and artists themselves will all do whatever they can to influence that talk and to amplify it. And it’s no surprise that celebrities like Bush, Biden and Carrey — or Sylvester Stallone, Bob Dylan and Jemima Kirke, for that matter — are drawn to a field in which their fame seems to carry not just financial possibilities but aesthetic and cultural weight.
Lots of contemporary art depends almost entirely on its story. Damien Hirst’s famously expensive dot paintings never repeat a color, however many dots a given example may contain, and that’s essential to their shtick. But you wouldn’t necessarily get that by looking at them. You have to read the news release. Jeff Koons’s stainless-steel balloon animals are three-dimensional price tags — stories that corporations and oligarchs can tell themselves about the shine of their money — as much as they are sculpture, and NFTs (non-fungible tokens), the art world’s faddish new spin on crypto-currrency, are nothing but a story.
It’s not just contemporary art, either. Van Gogh barely sold a painting in his lifetime; his sister-in-law parlayed his story into posthumous fame. (She did such a good job with his narrative of tortured genius that people are still wringing money out of it.) Pablo Picasso changed the direction of modern art in the early 20th century, but he also was and remains famous for his outsize personality; and if we remember Jackson Pollock for his mid-century drip paintings, it might also be because we remember his serious pose over a horizontal canvas in a 1949 issue of Life magazine.
Covering New York’s Outsider Art Fair the year after Carrey’s debut there, in 2020, I encountered Quebecois figurines discovered by an American antique picker; an artist who learned to tool leather in a Southern prison; and a former bus driver who moved to Chelsea to paint. I knew these backstories because the dealers made a point of sharing them, and I included them in my review both as explanatory context and because I found them interesting. But while the figurines and leather were certainly more accomplished than Carrey’s cartoons, the basic components on offer — an art work and its story, or an object and its personality — were exactly the same. And any type of backstory gives you an entry into the work. The Quebecois artist, Cléophas Lachance, built an entire miniature village in his Lafontaine backyard, and Jim Carrey starred in “The Mask.”
Ideally, the work and its story would have similar weight: Visually innovative work would be made by fascinating people and receive its fair share of recognition, and dull work by dull people would be forgotten. Usually, though, imbalance is the rule. History is full of artists whose reputations never caught up with their talents, and so is Brooklyn. Galleries are full of indifferent work selling on the strength of its brand name, its provenance or whatever line of seductive folderol the gallerist tailors to a particular collector. Even when good work does get recognized, that can create a bankable reputation that the artist may or may not continue to live up to even while continuing to cash the checks.
I haven’t seen Hunter Biden’s work in person. Judging from the photos, it looks slight but not totally awful. (He makes colorful, trippy, generally nonfigurative ink paintings.) It’s the story that goes with it — the president’s errant son, buffeted by tragedy, embroiled in controversy and sunken in addiction before cleaning up and finding some respite in high culture — that’s really irresistible. That’s why they’re selling it.