A Gavel Falls…is the Pendulum of Art History Swinging Back?

The art and financial worlds were all abuzz about the vigorous buying surge witnessed on the evening of February 3, 2010 at Sotheby’s London, when a bronze sculpture by Swiss modern master Alberto Giacometti fetched the highest price in art auction history. Phillip Hook, the London-based Sotheby’s specialist in Impressionist art afterward commented about the supply and demand dynamics involved: “Throughout 2009, we could see plenty of demand for works but not enough supply. This sale confirmed there is more supply and, if anything, demand is even greater.”

Alberto Giacometti, L'Homme qui marche I (Walking Man I)“L’Homme Qui Marche I (Walking Man I)” by Alberto Giacometti

After the most significant world-wide economic downturn in more than 70 years, it’s not hard to understand the confusion, consternation and in some cases anger displayed by people wondering how a piece of metal could be worth 65 million pounds (104.3 million dollars). Add to this newest “shocking” price phenomenon the unprecedented prices fetched at the Sotheby’s London auction in September 2008, of the works of British artist Damien Hirst. This sale which contained dead animals encased in formaldehyde filled boxes, cigarette butts arranged on medicine cabinets, dead flies shellacked onto canvasses, and other prime examples of Hirst’s aesthetic ephemera, in total fetched an astonishing $200,700,000 the highest price in history at auction for a single artist (eclipsing even Picasso’s record of 1993).

The same Phillip Hook in his 2009 book, The Ultimate Trophy: How Impressionist Painting Conquered the World (Prestel), perfectly captured another aspect of the public’s mystification of art’s perceived value. “We live in an era, which more than ever before, equates novelty with quality,” he stated. I fear (and fervently hope) that this comment by Mr. Hook, may be no longer the case and that due to the confluence of economic, sociopolitical, and even spiritual realities our shrunken world is experiencing today the big pendulum of art history as evidenced by the Giacometti sculpture may finally be swinging back.

The financial realities everyone the world over is experiencing today have shifted the paradigm. The age of conspicuous consumerism if not over, is today like a cubist painting, offering multiple and fragmented views of reality. To me, it’s no wonder that a work of art can emerge as a symbol of our times, a touchstone for something that still reveals the glory and hope of human creativity. Like a Haiku, wherein great wisdom may be discerned in myriad ways by those who read it, the dramatic demonstration of the value of a work of art amidst times of uncertainty and even iconoclastic worldwide financial transformation still bodes well for us all.

Since the days when men first made markings on stone, stepped back and contemplated the mysteries of human consciousness found in the residue of those markings, art has been the beacon, the spearhead of human achievement. Why not now to once again affirm its enduring meaning in our lives and watch the pendulum move back again toward those same aspirations of form and content that created the narrative of art for 60,000 years? Seems like a perfectly fitting and beautiful irony to me.

The Ancient Greeks believed that sculpture was the purest and highest art form. I suspect they (and Giacometti) knew something we didn’t, until now.

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One Response to “A Gavel Falls…is the Pendulum of Art History Swinging Back?”

  1. With just a few brushstrokes (paragraphs) you have painted a wonderfully propitious and powerful interpretation of both the Sotheby’s sale and society’s relationship with art in general. Very moving.

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