I wonder how long I can go on being amazed at the way our wealthiest citizens collect paintings without regard for whether or not the work and its price have any direct relationship. How valuable can a canvass covered with paint be? All things being relative, I admit an object’s value may vary according to circumstances. A gallon of water in the Gobi desert might be priceless. On a flood plain, you can’t give it away. But what’s at stake when an object is destined to be hung on a wall or, if it’s very, very valuable, to be locked in a vault?
In his essay for Town&Country, editor Jay Felden seems to say that though an art object is “nothing more than wood, nails, canvas, and paint,…”in the skilled hands of an exceptionally creative artist these hardware store offerings have been transformed into something utterly immaterial.” And in the case of Mark Rothko’s latest painting, Untitled, 1952 which recently sold at Christie’s New York auction house for $66.2 million, Feldon thinks the price was a “total steal.” (“Nailing it,” by Jay Felden, Town&Country, November 2014, pg. 36)
Feldon has a point. Shakespeare’s sonnets are far more than the paper and ink used to create them. Rather, these materials were transformed into something extraordinary, something that catches the breath and transfixes the moment with insight. I get his point. Yet while Felden waxes poetically over Rothoko’s auctioned piece, admitting he was “transported for several minutes, drawn into the picture’s depths, (Ibid, pg. 36) what I see is a canvass a painter might have used to clean his brushes.
Tastes differ to be sure. If Feldon says he was transported, I believe him.
Still, on a planet of dwindling resources, I do reserve the right to judge the price paid for that moment of exaltation. If joy is the measure of value, how lasting is Rothko’s gift compared to the joy of seeing a homeless veteran find a roof over his head or to witness the gratitude in a mother’s eyes to learn that her child has been successfully treated for Ebola? The joy of gazing at a Rothko or the joy of feeding a hungry man — which is greater?
I admit love art in its many forms and have dedicated my life to it. But for me, the ability to give comfort to the distressed makes owning a Rothko little more than owning hardware.