Does culture still matter in a world where big money often defines value?

On a Monday evening in mid-November, the narrow street in front of the Dorotheum was throbbing with activity, as a steady stream of high-polish guests poured in over a golden carpet into the marble depths of the Continent’s largest auction house.

It was opening night for Vienna Art Week, combined with a preview for the upcoming auction of Modern and Contemporary Art. The preview covered most of the upper floors, room after room of Austrian and international paintings and prints – Albin Egger-Linz, Hermann Nitsch, Maria Lassnig, a small oil scene of Tulln by Egon Schiele, as well as sketches by Toulouse-Lautrec, an engraving by M.C. Escher and a numbered print by Picasso. There was a lot to see, not least including wall after wall of Abstract Expressionist and Color-field canvases.

A woman standing nearby looked mystified. “Who decides, what is ‘art’ and what isn’t,” she wondered, shaking her head? She laughed, gesturing at a splash of paint. “This one, for example, my six-year-old grandson could have done that!”

Ahhh. It was the eternal debate: What is art and who decides? Is something not “art” until someone says it is?  Surely there is more to it than that. There are so many measures: of quality, novelty, meaning, transforming consciousness, lifting the spirit. We wandered through the exhibit, waiting for something to spark. …Ahhh, a charming small ceramic by Italian Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) flowering like coral out of white clay revealing sleek black petal linings backed in suggestions of yellow. Estimated range: €25,000 to €35,000, on the bargain end of the offerings.  And then an abstract landscape by Austrian Max Weiler (1910–2001), entitled  Golden Evening Clouds over Cliffs, estimated at €90,000 to €160,000.

The most expensive listing was a shadowy abstract by Gerhard Richter (b.1932) – who commands the highest prices of any living painter – estimated at €400,000 to €600,000.

So does that mean Richter’s work is the best?  Better than the Toulouse-Lautrec, the Schiele oil, the Caspar David Friedrich or the Andy Warhol?

Suddenly publisher Oscar Bronner appeared out of the crowd. What did he think? Who decides? Is it the curators? The competition juries? “Yes, they all confirm each other’s judgment,” he said, nodding sagely, “…while keeping one eye over your shoulder for what’s coming next!”

The art market

Globally, the art market is valued at over €50 billion in sales of art and antiques, increasing by 7% to 8% every year, made easier thanks to online platforms like Auctionata. Today, online sales alone total around €3 billion worldwide.  It’s not a game of governments and museums anymore, though 70% of all dealer sales last year were to private collectors.

In this world, Austria is not a big player. Although the country ranks sixth in GDP per capita, with a projected growth of 1.9% for 2016, it is considered a smaller, and level, art market – with the top two the U.S. and the U.K., followed by the ascendant Chinese market. The
Vienna art scene has also lost two important private art foundations – the Generali Foundation, which relocated to Salzburg, and BAWAG Contemporary, scaling down to its main location at the historic Otto Wagner Postsparkasse – both major players.

And as we go to press, Vienna is grinding its teeth over a threat from leading art patron Francesca Habsburg to move her important collection of contemporary art to Zurich. As heir to the Thyssen-Bornemisza fortune and the Swiss-born wife of the late Otto Habsburg’s eldest son Karl, she has been frustrated by socialist Vienna’s ambivalence toward her family ties, and has seen her contributions overlooked by city culture officials.

The value of Austria’s art auction market is around €1 billion, or 2% of the global market. Average auction prices in Austria are around €8,000 euros, compared to €30,000 in the U.S.. Lots over €50,000 account for just 2% of sales, about 0.3% of the global total. For Old Masters, the percentage rises a little to a 1.3% share.

In this climate, museums and auction houses like the Dorotheum have become central.  For many
investors, the value of art is less about aesthetics or personal connection than a place to store money. Or speculate with it, which is where the museums come in. Like juries at film festivals, their
decisions are a kind of credential.

When a painting hangs in an important exhibition, it becomes ennobled, an art-world aristocrat. The right wall adds value.

The ties that bind

The tight bonds between art and money are hardly new, of course. In the ruins of
Pompeii, the villas of wealthy townsmen were decorated with frescoes and mosaic art whose beauty has survived the centuries.  The wealth of medieval churches and princelings was proudly displayed in architecture, illuminated manuscripts, painting and pageantry to reinforce the power of their earthly realm.  All of which cost a lot of money.

This was never more true than in the glory days of the Italian Renaissance. Beginning with the creation of the gold florin in 1252, Florence became the center of European banking. “Florentines were soon hired to oversee mints and mines in many financial centers,” writes Chicago economist David Galenson, setting up a financial network along the way. Florentine merchant bankers filled their palazzos and churches with glorious art, commissioning works heralding their piety and the divine sanction of their wealth and power.

As journalist Tim Parks pointed out for a 2011 exhibition Money and Beauty at the Palazzo Strozzi, all of the magnificence that was Florence “depended on the financial clout of a major bank.”

Fast-forward to Vienna, 1897 when Gustav Klimt and a group of like-minded artists walked out of the hide-bound Viennese Artists’ Association to form the Wiener Secession. They would leave behind the cozy world of patronage, where careers and contracts were in the hands of powerful officials, and declare a Ver Sacrum, a “sacred spring” of artistic renewal. They would sell their work to the bourgeois public, and be masters of their own fate.

Their creed was mounted over the door of Josef Maria Olbrich’s Secession building at Karlsplatz: “To Every Age its Art, to Art its Freedom.”

Seven years later, Klimt and eight artists walked out again. But this time it was not about artistic freedom. It was about money. Or more accurately, the right to make it. One of Klimt’s followers, Carl Moll, was connected to the leading modernist Galerie Miethke. This, said his opponents, was a conflict of interest. You should not be making art and also be in the business of trading in it.

To some critics, art has become all about money. This huge unregulated market has attracted the exploding wealth of the 1980s and ‘90s, where art became an investment to flip, like real estate. In a
paradigm example, a Picasso self portrait that sold by Sotheby’s in 1981 for $5.8 million was resold in 1989 for $47.8 million. To the late Robert Hughes, long time art critic for Time Magazine, the vast inflation of prices has resulted in art being admired “not for its merit but for its price tag.”

It’s an “orgy of consumption,” he concluded in his 2008 documentary The Mona Lisa Curse.

“Is the authoritative book on art history today just a check book?” he asked.

Thinking like a therapist

The antidote, says Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton, author of the international best seller How Proust Can Change Your Life, and most recently, Art as Therapy, is to stage a new relationship with art, as an alternative to “the aristocratic assumptions behind the museum.”

Curators, de Botton told Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker, should think less like professors and more like therapists: Instead of being organized by period, galleries should be organized around human scale themes, like marriage, aging and work. Art needs to be approachable.

“In many museums, a history of acquisitive, of moneyed splendor has hardened into a feeling of academic exclusivity, and has a chilling effect on the art.”  And on our ability to connect to it in a meaningful way.

Now, over a century after his death, Gustav Klimt has turned the Austrian and international art scene upside down all over again, as his paintings re-emerged from obscurity and have become darlings of the museum-going public. By the 1980s and ‘90s Klimt had joined the French Impressionists, becoming one of the most reproduced artists in the West.

And in 2005, after a long, drawn-out restitution battle, his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold at Christie’s Auction House in London for $135 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a work of art – a tale retold with panache and poetic license in the recent BBC film The Woman in Gold, with Helen Mirren and Daniel Bruhl, based on the bestseller by Anne Marie O’Connor.

Today in Vienna, Klimt is big business: His posters relieve the dinginess of countless college
dormitory walls and details of paintings like The Kiss or the Golden Adele, the Schloss Park at Schönbrunn or Unterach on the Attersee grace countless silk scarves, umbrellas and coffee mugs for sale in every souvenir shop in Vienna.

So is this great art? Robert Hughes doesn’t think so. He is particularly bothered that Ron Lauder, who purchased Adele for his Neue Galerie of German and Austrian Art in New York City, says “this is our Mona Lisa … the great picture of our time” as da Vinci’s was for his. Hughes finds this absurd.

“This is a very beautiful, decorative painting; it has a lot of charm,” he says. “But the idea that this is in some way equivalent to a great Leonardo da Vinci, well, having this fantasy and paying $135 million for it doesn’t make it true.”

Perhaps. But others see in Klimt’s painting a moment when humanity was struggling to emerge from the chrysalis of memory and ritual to spread its wings in the unadorned clarity of the modern age. With Klimt, we share that exact moment, emerging naked and vulnerable from the heavy golden trappings of a tradition and political culture whose time had past.

With additional reporting by Andrew Standen-Raz

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Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of METROPOLE. Over a long career in journalism she has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler in New York, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two US ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at the Department of Media Communications for Webster University Worldwide. In 2010, she was granted Austrian Citizenship of Honor (Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft) for outstanding contributions to the Austrian Republic