Why $44.4 MILLION for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting may not be such good news!

9229-Lot-11-OKeeffe-Jimson-Weed-248x300 Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 

In November there was excitement over the “record breakingsale of a Georgia O’Keeffe flower painting for $44.4 million,. Sounds like good news …but the record was for a woman and (as was pointed out in more than one article) it was completely outstripped by the highest price for a 20th Century artist – a Francis Bacon at $142.4m–– more than 3 times as much.

Turning to living artists: there has been some attention given to women breaking the $1million barrier. But again comparison with the men rather removes the shine. Artnet operates a comprehensive price database and crunches the numbers to help investors and collectors to best buys. Their findings are dismaying.

  • The 2 women on the British list Bridget Riley ($5,1m) and Jenny Saville, ($3,4m) were easily out gunned by Damien Hirst – $19.2m for pills in a cabinet.
  • The outright winner, globally, is Jeff Koons – $58.4m for Balloon Dog (Orange). This put Cady Noland, the only woman on the American list in the shade with her paltry $6.6m.

BalloonDogKoons Balloon Dog (Orange) stainless steel, h.12’

 One could go on – the gap between male and female artists’ prices yawns in all categories of art.

But isn’t this just crazy, obscene money, a horrendous commodification of art/culture? How the hell did it come about? What does it mean? And should we care?

In the post war period private galleries multiplied in the major cities of London and New York and ‘art’ become increasingly part of consumer culture. The media joined in on promoting living artists, wealthy nouveau riche collectors were turning to contemporary art. 1973 saw a turning point when Robert and Ethel Scull (money from a taxi business) sold their collection at Sotheby’s. Pieces sold for many times the original price paid to the artists – a Rauschenburg bought for $900 a decade or so earlier, fetched $85,000! Investors took notice, the ball had started to roll in earnest.

By 1997 a Christie’s auction took $206.5m in one session. In September 2008, Hirst sold 56 works through Sotheby’s (by-passing his dealer). On the evening of the day Lehman Brothers crashed and in the teeth of the mortgage crisis the work fetched $127m. As the stock market fell, ‘Art’ became a welcome ‘asset class’ (like gold) and despite some wavering and a dip in 2008, it is back on form. In May 2014 Christie’s took $745m at a single auction of post war and contemporary art and the annual turn over of the art market is reckoned to be in the region of $50 billion!

Beyond the initial investment in materials, time etc, the value of a piece of art is not intrinsic – so on one level these prices are bonkers. Yet neither is the pricing system arbitrary (if it were the gap between male and female artists would not be so consistent). There are questions of taste, of course – for eg Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst would appeal of the hedge funders whose taste without question distorts the market.

However, there are also more serious issues of value and artistic prestige formed with in a wider context. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term ‘the field of cultural production’ for the arena within which multiple players operate – sometimes in contestation with each other – to produce cultural value. Art schools, critics, galleries, art historians, museums, collectors, the auction houses, journals, investors, the media, public awards and prizes all jostle, inform and influence each other. Get exhibited in private galleries, get the critics attention, be purchased by national museums (the equivalent of Fort Knox for ensuring the value of gold). Your visibility and stature go up and so do your prices.

At any point in that complex web you’ll find the effects of sexism: women disadvantaged. Just for example, in the 30 year life of the Turner Prize women have only won 6 times (while on 6 occasions there have been men only shortlists). Check out Gallery Tallying or East London Fawcet’s 2012 survey to see how poorly women are represented in private galleries – hardly ever rising above 1/3. In Tate’s 2014 annual report 24 male and only 8 female artists feature in the acquisition ‘highlights’.

The high prices at auction are like pennants planted in the broader cultural field – brightly coloured markers denoting cumulative cultural value. The problem is systemic, endemic, premised on the value our culture gives to women in general – their ideas, experiences, actions (rather than just their looks.)

BUT before you despair I want to make 2 points:

  1. Viewed historically things are getting better! When I researched the gender balance of exhibitions in London in the late 50s early 60s I found an infinitely worse picture. Frequently men only shows, and when women were included usually between 2% and 8%. This was an unquestioned norm. At the moment the stats vary but do show an average of closer to 30% representation of women in exhibitions in private and public galleries. Although only 6 women have won the Turner Prize 3 of them did so in the last 4 years – a real acceleration.

And, as in any arena of life, this hasn’t happened of its own accord but due to the work of women artists, feminist curators, art historians, cultural commentators, gallery visitors, teachers, lecturers etc

Things have indeed now stalled and the figures give the lie to any comfortable assumptions of equality achieved. It hasn’t been. However – and now for my second point:

  1. because the problem is systemic it can be challenged at any place in the system. The struggle goes on and we can gain strength from the knowledge that ground has been gained over the last half century – and we are now engaged in a further push.

In my small corner as an art historian, my research on Pauline Boty (British Pop artist) has brought her visibility and her prices have risen from c. £20k for a large painting in 1998 (when I co-curated a show in private galleries in London and Tate bought their first Boty) to closer to £90,000 today. As Maura Reilly exhorts us in a recent keynote speech – curating can be activism. In education, from schools through to universities, there is ongoing work to be done – getting female values acknowledged, women artists on the curriculum. A wider audience can take an interest in the work of women artists – attending exhibitions, buying books, querying the policies of museums and galleries.

The $44.4 million for a Georgia O’Keeffe is both ‘record breaking’ and exposes embedded and gendered cultural values; it should be taken as a call to arms. And without question, the debate is on once more and to be pursued wherever one has access

Links and references:

East London Fawcett Audit   http://elf-audit.com/the-results/


Moira Reilly Curatorial Activism: Toward an Ethics of Curation http://contemporaryartandfeminism.com/2014/09/10/curating-feminism-keynote-lecture/

Women’s Worth: The Price of Being a Female Artist by Anna Heyward POSTED 12/22/14 http://www.artnews.com/2014/12/22/the-price-of-being-a-woman-artist/#sthash.cWkfxrz9.dpuf

Who Are the Most Expensive Women Artists at Auction? artnet News, Thursday, December 11, 2014 http://news.artnet.com/market/who-are-the-most-expensive-women-artists-at-auction-179521?utm_campaign=artnetnews&utm_source=121114daily&utm_medium=email

artnet News’ Top 10 Most Expensive Living British ArtistsColine Milliard, Sunday, April 13, 2014 http://news.artnet.com/market/artnet-news-top-10-most-expensive-living-british-artists-9496

artnet News’ Top 10 Most Expensive Living American ArtistsRozalia Jovanovic, Wednesday, April 30, 2014 http://news.artnet.com/market/artnet-news-top-10-most-expensive-living-american-artists-11863


One thought on “Why $44.4 MILLION for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting may not be such good news!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s