I’ve heard it said more than once now about today’s art market and it’s worth repeating: the emperor has no clothes!

The classic Hans Christian Andersen tale tells of the king convinced that he is wearing a fine suit that he cannot see. His people cannot see it either but don’t want to upset the king who thinks that they can see it. The curious charade of a naked king in plain sight is revealed when an innocent child blurts out “But he has nothing on at all.”

So it goes with the works that curiously lead today’s art market. Case in point is a mammoth $400 million auction coming up at Christie’s at Rockefeller Center. The Nov. 14 auction features “major Abstract Expressionist works but also seminal Pop Art icons, and Contemporary masterpieces.”

The evening sale will be led by a Franz Kline work, “Untitled 1957.” Yet, the work, valued at $20-$30 million, appears to be no more than a few incoherent large scribbles of a brush.

Call me a layman in the holy church of modern art, but the emperor plainly does not appear to be wearing anything.

Lest I lose my head, I’ll stifle my laughter and reserve judgment to listen to what the emperor’s trusted adviser, Christie’s has to say. (Remember, like an adviser, the auction house makes its money from the emperor’s pocket.)

Christie’s edifies: “A large, powerful and almost visually explosive work with its vast, sweeping brushstroke forms colliding into one another create a taut and febrile tension of surface, a classic example of the tradition established by Kline’s works. Untitled 1957 is the most important and the rarest painting by the artist ever presented on the market, and the most significant American Abstract Expressionist work to be offered at auction this season in New York. “

Let’s deconstruct what is actually being said here. The work is “large,” that is true, it’s approximately 7 feet by 8 feet. Still, while my six-year-old son might create a comparable image when trying to depict a heap of sticks, we may need to wait until he is 8 or 9 years old before he can work on such a large scale.

The next statement “powerful and almost visually explosive work with its vast, sweeping brushstroke forms colliding into one another create a taut and febrile tension of surface.” This could be said of some of my son’s existing scribbles. If there is an intellectuality that comes through with Kline’s explosive scribble, we could simply assemble some intellectually accomplished adults, with no artistic background whatsoever, and have them scribble to the same effect, could we not?

The next few phrases transform Kline’s large scribble into a “classic” and “most important and the rarest” by a simple convention whereby my son’s six-year-old scribble will be a classic when, at age 56, he is scribbling on page edges to get the ink flowing in his pen. (It could very well be his most important and rarest as well if I can get him to do the 7 feet by 8 feet version!)

And finally, we are left to dwell on the fact that the $20-$30 million price tag derives from the artistic period from which it emerged: American Abstract Expressionism. But what is American Abstract Expressionism? It’s in capital letters and Christie’s seems to think it’s important, so it must be in important, right? Still, I’m staring at the emperor’s underwear and it doesn’t look pretty.

Abstract Expressionism belongs to the genres of art that have come to define the Modern Art period in general, raking in the largest dollar sums. However, their starting point is throwing out the traditions fostered by millennia of great artists dating to antiquity. It is not hard to understand that the reasoning here itself is an abomination.

Previous art forms were truly great, from Leonardo da Vinci perfecting art through discovery of works from Ancient Rome and Greece to the exquisite works of French Academy painters of the 19th century to the increasingly marginalized realist painters of the present. Previous art forms and periods built on the traditions that came before them, perfecting the human form, mastering light and shadow, and putting their own profound insights into the arrangement and depiction of coherent subject matter.

In the last 100 years, like an old and demented emperor sitting in his underwear, today’s art market has essentially been decaying. Work’s like Kline’s “Untitled 1957” tear down the past with strange new creations that operate like malignant tumors on the skin of our society. They do not build holistically, healthily, or positively upon humanity’s evolving creations.

Incidentally, also on Nov. 14, Christie’s will hold, though with much less fanfare, a wonderful sale of Old Master and 19th Century Art in the Netherlands. These are excellent works, some of which are powerful and visually explosive in ways that are truly meaningful and truly represent a healthy humanity. I know which sale I’ll be going to.

Originally published in the Epoch Times.

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7 Responses

  1. Neal Whitman

    Ah, once upon a time, there were two kinds of Art: It was sublime or it was beautiful. Think autumn evening (sublime) and spring morning (beautiful). These was not a fariy tale. It once was. Evan gives voice to lovers of all the Arts — literary, visual, and performing — who share his dismay with the absence of the sublime and beauty in what is called the Modern Era. I am no art historian, but dare I take a stab at what has gone so very wrong? Well, maybe at least a poke at when! If I got it right, The roots of Modern Art are in the ashes of two world wars and atomic dust. I postulate that shock shook the beauty out of all the Arts. Its replacement? Post-traumatic sydromes we now call abstract expressionism, surrealism, pop art, op art, and total rejection of beauty as an alternative to the sublime. What we now harvest is shock and awe. But, what do I know? Not much, maybe. But, I know when a work of Art, well, when it “works.” Evan, please let us know what moves you at the Nov. 14 auction. Personal note re: sublime versus beauty. As a poet, I prefer shadows over light. So, give me the autumn evening.

    Amicus poeticae,

    Neal Whitman

    • Joshua Philipp

      ” The roots of Modern Art are in the ashes of two world wars and atomic
      dust. I postulate that shock shook the beauty out of all the Arts. Its
      replacement? Post-traumatic sydromes we now call abstract expressionism,
      surrealism, pop art, op art, and total rejection of beauty as an
      alternative to the sublime.”

      Very well said. I agree with you. I couldn’t have put it better.

  2. Neal Whitman

    James, I assume you meant that Evan might agree with the Stuckists, but your post might also have been addressed to my earlier post. In any case, in love of LIfe Long Learning, I went to the website you recommended. There I saw that, while Stuckists find Post Modernism alarming, their honorees include the German Expressionists and one Norwegian who fathered Abstract Expressionism. So, when it comes to Stuck, count me out. Of course, we each make our own bid. But, ah, that might be what Stuckists stick up for.
    de gustibus non disputandum est,

  3. Evan Mantyk

    “Stuckism” seems like a good start but doesn’t really get us back to good art. To answer Neal, I could write forever about the good art if only I had the time. For the particular auction I referenced check out this catalogue:

    I think you might like night paintings 55 (pg 37) and 231 (pg 143) … personally my favorites include paintings 150 (pg 98) and 195 (pg 122) … sorry all these number don’t do them justice. They are simply wonderful.

  4. Neal Whitman

    Evan pointed out night scenes, mindful of my poet’s love of the evening and shadows. Yes, I would love #150 [on the beach at sunset] over my mantle. The smallness of man conveys the true dimenions of humanity in #75 [ink and pencil of St. James]. Oh my, that one is a gem. But, for my money [well, if I had it] my bid is for #174 [steamer] which inspires me to write a “zip haiku” — two lines, each line split, total of 15 syllables:
    unexpected late storm
    distressed steam-boat going by the lead

    THANK YOU for the link to the catalogue. Like some of the still lifes of table tops, it is a feast for the eyes.

    Amicus poeticae,
    Neal Whitman

  5. Gabrielle

    The reference to “the ashes” in one comment here seems very apt; but the insanity in art (coinciding with the one in philosophy) preceded the 1st world war, though the original/ European Expressionism was by far more sensitive/human and more subdued than what’s being produced by some nowadays.
    Two hundred years+ of promoting evil under all its forms under the banner of various “revolutions” all like abstract painting bloody blotches on the conscience of history, all praised like valuable blotches…. For millennia, mankind all over the world had upheld the “classical” values of balance, symmetry, harmony / beauty = health as seen in nature e.g. from the perfect shape of leaves, spiderwebs, snowflakes, etc up to the perfect shape of the human body and the stars. The “(post)modernists” have been promoting the opposite of nature… Recently I’ve read about the effects of radiation at Chernobyl as seen after 20 years: among them, in – currently – an apparently thriving wild landscape – spiders who reveal their inability to produce normal (symmetric) webs, creatures gone insane… in imagining that, I couldn’t help thinking: the postmodern age has created a nature in the image of a (post)modernist painting: twisted and lost.


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