A Lesson from Leo
“Why should anyone want to buy a Cézanne for $800,000? What’s a little Cézanne house in the middle of a landscape? Why should it have value? Because it’s a myth. We make myths about politics, we make myths about everything. I have to deal with myths from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. And it becomes harder and harder. We live in an age of rapid obsolescence… My responsibility is the myth-making of myth material—which handled properly and imaginatively, is the job of a dealer—and I have to go at it completely. One just can’t prudently build up a myth.”
The words above are from Leo Castelli all the way back in 1966. I encountered them last night in the opening pages of Noah Horowitz’s Art of the Deal, which, if his taste in opening quotes is any indication, I’ll probably be writing about again in the near future.
For now, though, I want to stay focused on Castelli’s surprisingly honest acknowledgment of the gallerist’s role as storyteller. His message is essentially that the only “real” value in a piece lives entirely in our heads. The work is only worth what buyers and sellers voluntarily agree it’s worth—and aside from psychological hobgoblins like scarcity and competition among collectors, the core factor motivating that price consensus is the narrative wrapped around the work like a golden fleece.
My regular readers know that I’ve pumped these ideas many times before, both on this blog and elsewhere. And just shy of 50 years later, I’d argue that Castelli’s words are more relevant than ever. (Although if he thought the mid-60s were a time of rapid obsolescence, it now seems entirely plausible to me that the cause of his death in 1999 was actually his discovery of the Internet’s existence.)
However, I think we all have a tendency—myself included—to act as if this phenomenon is only a recent one, that the importance of myth-making to the art market only solidified with, at the earliest, Wall Street’s cocaine-and quaalude-fueled stampede to collect in the ’80s.
Castelli’s words disrupt that perception. They confirm that art dealing has been as much about heroic and intelligent marketing as about the artwork itself since well before the Jordan Belfort era, let alone our current epoch of oligarchs and emirs and hedgies.
So as we barrel into the fall gallery season, it’s worth remembering Castelli. Despite how badly certain parties want to cast art as a traditional investment commodity with market fundamentals to match, his mid-60s wisdom is an almost Darwinian lesson that the skin, bone, and muscle holding the industry’s guts in place is—and has always been—storytelling. And no matter how else the market evolves in the coming years, that structure will remain a biological fact.