If society has never done a very good job of finding punishments to fit crimes it has probably done even worse at finding rewards to suit accomplishments. Last week the world was in a lather over the Academy Awards, an annual event in which people who regard themselves as artists are treated like racehorses competing for a large lump of sugar in the form of a shiny gold-plated statue shaped like a naked man with a long sword.
A few hours before, a glittering crowd of bedizened millionaires assembled at Sotheby's auction house in London for a sale that produced the highest price ever paid for a work of art. The price of $39.85 million was more than three times a previous record of $11.9 million paid in 1983 for a 12th-Century illuminated manuscript.
By all reports the recent bidding--being done by two anonymous competitors, one via the telephone--was regarded by the audience as somewhere between a gladiatorial contest and a sudden-death game of Monte Carlo baccarat between James Bond and Goldfinger.
The painting--of course--was an 1888 sunflower still life by Vincent van Gogh, an artist who--as all journalists were quick to point out--died a suicide in 1890 and sold only one painting in his life--for about $30.
The record-making painting is one of a series of six similar works done by the star-crossed artist during a tumultuous sojourn in the village of Arles in the South of France. Now it can join marathon beer drinkers and masters of trivia in the Guinness Book of Records.
Anybody current with artistic lore knows Van Gogh painted it for very different reasons. Arles was the place where the lonely Van Gogh hoped to fulfill his dreamed "studio of the South" where idealistic radicals like himself would assemble to create great art embowered in the comfort of one another's company.
In reality Van Gogh could barely afford his beloved little yellow studio house. He smoked like a volcano, boozed like a stevedore and attracted only one colleague into his circle, the mordant and flamboyant Paul Gauguin. They wrangled and made up like petty lovers, Gauguin finally being frightened off by Van Gogh's rattling intensity. The episode culminated when Van Gogh severed his left ear and sent it to a local prostitute.
You can see madness trying to swallow the artist at Arles in his weird "Night Cafe" and in the frantic brushwork and whirlpool space of many another picture. Knowing how bedeviled he was we find the blazing hope of the sunflower paintings all the more touching. He painted them in happy anticipation of his friend's arrival.
"As I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I would like to make decorations for the walls," he wrote to his brother Theo. "Nothing but large sunflowers. . . . Well if I carry out that plan there will be a dozen panels of them. The whole thing will therefore become a symphony in blue and yellow. I work at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers wilt quickly and it is a matter of doing the whole thing in one go."
For the flowers wilt quickly. . . .
For posterity these paintings became an icon of humble cheer snatched from the maw of despair. For decades they symbolized the capacity of man to make priceless sunshine out of a few sous' worth of canvas and colored mud. But the flowers wilt quickly and those who saw the painting at Sotheby's say that the "high yellow note" of its chrome pigment is faded and dingy. Experts opined that the only reason such a sad remnant could attract such a price was because it was the last one in private hands. Since the rest are in museums it is likely none will ever come on the market again.
Clearly paying $40 million for this poor thing is tainted with a kind of obscenity. The act of turning such a work into an overheated commodity whose value is based on fame, exclusivity and rarity is a grotesque travesty of the humane spirit in which it was made. It is a spectacle that recalls other flower paintings by Dutchmen--those tulip still lifes made in the 17th Century when Holland was awash in a frenzy for tulips imported from the Orient. So great was the passion for the waxy flowers that an escalating fad market developed among competing collectors. Prices rocketed precipitously. When the bubble burst, fortunes were lost. The tulips, however, had a good laugh.
But society has ever fumbled its artistic rewards, maybe because great wealth, power and celebrity have their own kind of arrogant innocence. They assume their own desirability and they are contagious.
In the most perverse possible way paying $40 million for a painting by Van Gogh is the greatest accolade these heartless times can accord to a work of art. If that is manifestly bizarre and an indictment of our lapidary Post-Modern values, it reflects at least a nostalgia for the kind of tender genius it devours in the process of its voracious admiration.
Van Gogh was a spiritually generous and empathic guy who once cautioned a critic not to write about him as, "I will certainly never do important things."
You get the feeling his shade might manage to see the kernel of good intent behind the terrible distortion thrown over a painting by such a ludicrous price--once he had recovered from his embarrassment.
It is like this: If that painting stays locked away in a vault or private collection, it will remain the expensive seraglio slave it has become. If it goes into a public museum where it belongs, it may finally recover from the paralysis of the Midas touch.