The Power of Art
Date: 19 Feb 2010 | | Views: 2761
As it turns out, the very rich did feel the pain of the global financial crisis — just not for long.
Last year, the Mei Moses Fine Art Index, which tracks changes in the price of artworks at auction, fell by 24 percent. Its subindex for postwar and contemporary art, the preferred aesthetic of rich young financiers, was down a cold 30 percent. But earlier this month, an anonymous art lover paid a record $104.3 million to scoop up “Walking Man I,” a 1960 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.
Art, of course, is a window into the soul. It builds meaning from thin air. It measures the pulse of culture, the heartbeat of civilization. All that. But it also is a neat indicator of the unique economics that govern the lives of the Masters of the Universe who buy it.
Works of art are among those peculiar commodities whose appeal grow as their prices rise. They are Veblen goods, named after Thorstein Veblen, the economist who posited that conspicuous consumption has an inherent purpose as a signal of status. They work a little like that short-lived “I Am Rich” iPhone application, which for $999 flashed the picture of a red gem.
Evolutionary biologists argue these conspicuous purchases do the same job as peacock tails — signaling to peahens that they are fit enough to expend an inordinate amount of energy on producing colorful feathers. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that aesthetic choices are social markers with which the powerful signal their power and set themselves apart from other, inferior groups. Anybody can buy stocks. Hedge fund managers can buy pickled sharks by Damien Hirst.
That’s why the record set by Giacometti’s “Walking Man I” is so significant. Not only does it signal that the plutocracy believes it successfully eluded financial Armageddon. At a stroke, the sale made clear that the rich are back in their rightful place at the apex of the world.
The 6-foot-tall Giacometti was the piece to prove it. The bronze was cast as part of a commission to plant several of Giacometti’s statues outside the 60-story Chase Manhattan tower in Lower Manhattan. (Giacometti pulled out for unspecified reasons.) As the Sotheby’s auction blurb noted, the gaunt stick figure represents “both a humble image of an ordinary man, and a potent symbol of humanity.” It would have made a perfect illustration of the relationship between mankind and banking.