The problem with self-righteousness


The untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat painting above, painted in 1982, sold for $110 million at Sotheby’s on May 18. This was a record-setting price for a Basquiat, and for any art made after 1980. The buyer was Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire who also holds the previous record for a Basquiat – $57.3 million.

Basquiat died in 1988, far too early into his career – he was only 27 years old. Being dead, I suspect he is little interested in how much his works sell for. In fact, most of the people I know who are artists or art critics are little interested in the news. Yes, it’s good to see an African-American artist commanding prices previously held by white men, but that’s looking at the issue from the wrong angle.

This is not a story about art, but about money and its familiar demon, greed. Scarcity raises the value of commodities, so it’s a good marketing strategy for an artist to die young. That sounds heartless, because it is. Markets are about money, not people, ideas, or history. Maezawa has said he intends to include the Basquiat in a museum he wants to build to house his collection. Single-collector museums are monuments to the market and the collector’s ego – Look! I could afford to buy all this, and build a museum to house it in!

It annoys me no end when the art press, which should be writing about art, spends time on a peripherally-related topic that is mostly bout money. Leave that to the business/financial writers and their audience. Art writers may feel justified to write about this as though they were not really motivated by the sale, but that’s a transparent argument.

Problem is, by voicing this complaint I’m as guilty as anyone else. I’m writing about this painting (not really, as I haven’t written a word about the piece itself) because it sold for so much.

I can’t address the issue without being part of it.



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