The Blackboard + The Big Wave
Regular readers of this blog know, that whenever it seems warranted, I’ve been happy to pop up from my burned-out lair and lick a few shots at the industry’s ever-encroaching obsession with auction results. Today is another one of those insurgent days.
This time, the occasion is a short piece by Rozalia Jovanovic at artnet titled "Cy Twombly’s Blackboard Painting May Set New Auction Record.“ To me, the absurdity is right there in between the quotation marks, nonchalantly flaunting itself for all visitors like an uncaring old man content to stew on his couch in a heat wave wearing nothing but briefs.
It’s a single syllable, three letters long: the word "May.” And yet what that world entails for the post and where art journalism goes next are much, much bigger.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve lost my sea legs for the constant, furious churn of fine art auction reporting. At this point, the results hit so fast and so frequently that tracking the houses’ activity qualifies as an entire beat unto itself–and not a particularly clarifying one, either, as I’ve argued before.
My tolerance is in especially short supply when it comes to the hyperventilation over auction records. In fact, I had just resolved over the weekend to ignore the topic entirely unless something truly noteworthy somehow appeared in the usual sturm und drang.
Strange as it may sound, the Twombly piece earned that distinction. It strikes me as the opening droplet in a new escalation of the squall.
Why? Because it’s not even a post about the fact that the Twombly piece in question–Untitled (1970)–DID set a new gavel-to-gavel high for the artist. It’s about the fact that it COULD.
The justification for this possible outcome seems to be that Christie’s forecasted a pre-sale estimate of $35-55M* for the work. Twombly’s current record perches at “only” $21,669,000 (after fees, of course) for Poems to the Sea (in 24 parts) (1959), which the Dia Foundation controversially deaccessioned from its permanent collection in 2013.
(*Side note: Nothing makes me smile like seeing an auction house define a price spread that itself covers more than half of the low estimate. What could make luxury commerce more used car salesman-like than a seller telling a customer, “Well, that thing you like is worth at least this…but it could also be worth more than twice as much!”)
The problem, of course, is that this potential new record hasn’t been set yet. And we won’t know if it’s going to be for almost another month. So realistically, what’s the value in discussing it now?
The only answer is that it qualifies as calories that can momentarily sate an audience hungrier and hungrier for market-based content, no matter how little nutrition resides in the portions being shoveled down their demanding gullets.
I wrote a piece a couple of months ago arguing that art journalism’s future will be sports journalism’s present. The latter now thrives on speculative writing. Who will win the NBA title this year, and why? What players are most likely to be dealt before the NFL’s trade deadline? How will the 10 teams in this year’s MLB playoffs perform next season? (For those of you who are virulently anti-athletics, this year’s World Series STARTED last night. The new season opens in spring 2015.)
It’s all just pontificating, with the pundits owning zero incentive to actually get it right. What matters isn’t the accuracy or the underlying analysis (if there is any). It’s just about providing something–anything–capable of temporarily filling space for readers.
The Twombly post looks an awful lot like a part of the same phenomenon to me, only translated to the high culture (or at least, high commerce) sphere. What MIGHT be is presented as just as important, perhaps even more so, than what is or was. Castles in the sky trump solid ground underfoot.
The rampant speculation that now drives the art market itself is simply being reflected in the media.
All of which is to say that I don’t blame Jovanovic for penning the story. First, she’s just doing her job. Most likely one of her editors assigned her the piece. (And by the way, I think her implied prediction is right.)
Second, the editor undoubtedly did so because his or her educated opinion is that artnet’s readership would show a healthy interest in the idea of a speculative auction high for a major blue chip artist whose works has also been in the news in a prominent legal context thanks to the Steve Perelman-Gagosian legal battle.
And my guess is that the editorial team is absolutely right.
So if you’re as impatient with the roiling seas of auction forecasting as me, batten down the hatches. Because artnet’s decision to run this Twombly piece suggests that the truly cataclysmic wave is only building now. And when it hits, there’s no turning back.