Article by Huntington Witherill
Art and Commerce
Note- This article first appeared as an e•Musings Newsletter post from June, 2014.
Art and Commerce
by Huntington Witherill
Despite the relatively enigmatic nature of the economy, you just knew that the following would eventually happen. It was only a matter of time. I trust you're sitting down...
A digital photograph has sold through a Christie’s auction house (in New York City) for a record $4.3 million! Allow me to repeat that… A single, digitally produced photographic print has now been officially sold for the sum of $4,338,500.00! (And yes... I’m a bit slow on the uptake, here. This particular sale actually took place back in November of 2011.)
Though reluctant to admit it to myself, you may already have surmised that I’m pretty well clueless when it comes to the capricious relationship between art and commerce. Granted, the photograph in question (titled: Rhein II, by Andreas Gursky) was produced by a photographer whose work is not only well respected, but whose prints are no stranger to record sales. (Gursky’s 99 Cent II Diptychonsold for $3.3 million, in 2007). And, as a digital photographer myself, you’d think that I’d be particularly delighted to learn that a digitally produced photograph had commanded such an attention-grabbing price. (After all, digital photographs have endured their share of knocks over the years). Yet, I’m reallyscratching my head here!
Oh, wait a minute… I see that the print is a rather large one at 73 x 143 inches. Well now that makes more sense to me. (I wonder... did the cost of the print include free shipping?) Frankly, the photograph itself appears to possess just the right mix of visual banality coupled with a price tag that's sure to tickle the fancy of most any art loving billionaire.
When it comes to art and commerce, perception appears to be everything. Yet, in this case, I can’t really determine what the appropriate perception is or should even reasonably be. The only perception I've been able to formulate is one of absurdity! (Or if not, perhaps incredulous disbelief.) Maev Kennedy (a writer for the British newspaper: The Guardian) described the photograph as: “A sludgy image of the grey Rhine under grey skies.” That pretty much sums it up for me (though I might add: “… with a few horizontal strips of green grass to provide just a hint of visual interest”). Have a look for yourself: here. Undoubtedly, I'm missing something.
Don’t get me wrong. I personally think that Andreas Gursky is a superb photographer. Yet, despite the fact that I admire and respect (actually like) many of Gursky’s photographs, it nevertheless makes me feel a bit queasy to learn that someone out there has now determined that there is more prestige, satisfaction, enjoyment, and perceived value to be garnered through the purchase of a single photographic print, than could be amassed through the acquisition of a reasonably priced new home, a couple of luxury automobiles, college tuition for the kids, yearly family vacations to exotic locales, and a generous annual donation to the charity of their choice! For some reason, contemplating this reality causes me to cringe and I can’t figure out why. Talk about "funny money!"
I don’t begrudge any artist commanding high prices for their work. Whatever the market will bear is fair game. However, in this case (as with so many other sales generated through the lofty domain of high priced art auctions) the artist doesn't actually set the sales price (nor share in the resulting profits). Because the sale was generated through the secondary marketplace, it is the marketplace itself that sets the price. As a result, it would be highly unlikely that the artist received more than a minuscule percentage of the final auctioned price (if even that). Yet, the final price tag in this case remains… simply staggering!
And of course, with respect to the anonymous individual who actually committed to this particular purchase, who am I to tell anyone how to spend their own money? Undoubtedly, there is far more to know about the backstage circumstances surrounding a sale of this type than the public is ever likely to be privy to.
Nevertheless, I'm having a great amount of trouble wrapping my head around a single print sale of this magnitude. Any previously held working understanding that I may have had in relation to the intrinsic (and/or perceived) “value of a dollar” has now been so completely skewed, that my brain seems to have settled into some sort of temporary "tilt" mode.
Going once… going twice… Sold for $4.3 million! (One of my able assistants can help you out to your car with that.)
Had I, through some highly improbable twist of fate, been the dubious bidder who was last to raise a paddle in that instant, I can assure you that it would not have been outside the realm of possibility for me to have, immediately thereafter, felt morbidly conflicted about whether or not to actually hang the freshly acquired print… or myself! No matter. It's not a situation in which I would ever find myself.
It's fun to ponder, though. Like all records, this one will continue to be broken over time. In this case it's gone from $3.3 million in 2007, to $4.3 million in 2011. Given the current annual rate of increase at 6.85%, and my present age at 65 years, with a bit of luck... I just might live long enough to see a single photographic print sell for... $36 million dollars!
Now, if I could just figure out how to sell my own photographs for a mere 1% of that figure...