Money Versus Merit

  A few weeks ago, I told BreakPoint listeners about the hidden side of the controversy over the obscene "Sensation" exhibit at New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art: the triumph of commerce over artistic merit. Well, the prestigious auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, have just completed their fall auction season, and I'm tempted to say, "I told you so." Auction houses like Christie's lobby museums to display art works owned by their clients. In some cases, the auction houses help fund exhibits. They know the so-called "museum effect" can make a huge difference in the price a work fetches at auction. Any controversy over an exhibit drives the prices even higher. Well, the controversy over the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art--which Christie's helped fund--has been phenomenal, especially over the painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. This fall's auctions showed just how valuable the museum effect can be. Christie's and Sotheby's auctioned off an incredible one-half billion dollars in art--thanks in part to the huge interest in contemporary art the "Sensation" exhibit created. According to the New York Times, the auction houses' commission is between 10 and 15 percent of the sale price. From these auctions alone, Sotheby's and Christie's made a commission between fifty and seventy million dollars. Not bad. It was profitable, as well, for the artists and those who own their work. Among the artists was Damian Hirst, whose work is featured in the "Sensation" exhibit. All five of Hirst's pieces sold for far more than anticipated. If you think the "Sensation" controversy had nothing to do with this, consider: Two of Hirst's works failed to attract ANY bidders at an auction last year in London. Yet they sold at Christie's for huge sums. David Darcy, who covers the New York art scene for National Public Radio, told listeners that "sex and controversy are accepted selling points in contemporary art." And if the controversy involves a prominent elected official, all the better. As Darcy put it, "Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's denunciation of 'Sensation' helped" drive the prices up. It certainly helped Christie's, whose commissions on the two pieces I mentioned alone exceeded their entire investment in the "Sensation" exhibit. What's lost in this incestuous relationship between art and commerce is the concept of artistic merit. That's why some museums steadfastly refuse to accept sponsorship from people and institutions with a direct financial stake in the proposed exhibit. Unlike the folks who run the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Elizabeth Ferrer, the director of the Austin Museum of Art in Texas, knows how to say "no." When faced with similar offers from art dealers who stand to profit from a show, she says she simply "turn[s] them down." Sadly, Ferrer is a rare exception. And the recent auction house sales prove that all the caterwauling about "artistic freedom" was a cynical sham. In reality, Christie's and the rest of the art world welcomed the controversy, knowing it would help line their pockets. Christians are offended, rightly, by obscene and blasphemous "art." But we ALL ought to be offended by art peddlers filling their pockets in the name of artistic freedom. The evidence exposes the Brooklyn Museum controversy for exactly what it was: an exercise in pure hypocrisy.


Chuck Colson


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