Art critics generally hate it when an auction house sets a record. On Nov. 15 at Christie’s in New York, a painting by David Hockney fetched more than $90 million (or $80 million plus fees), making him the living artist with the most expensive work ever sold at auction. Every time something like this happens, there is the inevitable question: Is a work of art worth that kind of money?
That question is really two questions, and most people don’t bother to distinguish them. It is superficially an economic question, about the market, about how the market values Hockney and which works of Hockney it tends to prize. But it is also a moral question, whether a painting should be worth what the state of Utah spent on homeless care in a year, or the cost of inpatient opioid addiction treatment for thousands of people, or the construction of a few rural health centers.
It’s fairly easy to answer the first of these questions, about the market and Hockney’s status within it. The 1972 painting, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures),” bought by an unknown bidder, is one of Hockney’s best-known works, depicting two male figures, one standing at the edge of a swimming pool, the other swimming in it.
Its value isn’t just based on its fame, however. It is one of Hockney’s most enigmatic double portraits, which depict relationships often fraught with tension, loss or the peculiar and acute loneliness we feel only in the presence of someone with whom we have lived for a long time. Although it was painted in England and was based on a scene in southern France, it has the hues and ambiance of Hockney’s sun-soaked Southern California works. And it is a classic among the painter’s daring representations of homosexual love and desire in the 1960s and ‘70s. So it is a quintessential work by a painter, now in his early 80s, whose importance is being re-evaluated and newly appreciated.
The second question, however, forces people who care about art to parse its meaning and importance in alien terms. And those terms almost dictate the answer. Would this money be better spent on health care or education? And very quickly you arrive at something that is both true and a cliche: That the value of art can’t be reckoned in dollars, nor can it be related to other tangible human needs that are more pressing.
But there is a deeper discomfort than simply reiterating a cliche about the intangible value of human creativity, and it’s more troubling than any polite squeamishness about reducing everything to money. When a work of art sells for a quantum of money larger than any ordinary person’s practical reckoning, it seems to make art foreign to ordinary humanity.
Gentrification is about displacement, about the market coming in, taking things that felt like accessible common property and making them so uncommonly expensive that they are no longer what they once were.
We often cherish what we think of as a private relationship to art, even art that is owned by other people or hangs in public spaces. But when a work of art is suddenly known to the world not for its content but its price tag, it feels like a betrayal of our private relationship to the piece. Like a gentrified neighborhood, it has evolved into something else, something more popular, something of interest to a wider audience.
That metaphor may explain why critics hate the market, hate auctions, hate record-selling paintings and sculpture and hate the ephemeral buzz and hype that come with each new stratospheric price tag. Perhaps it’s an irrational feeling, and perhaps whoever bought this painting will donate it to a museum where it will be forever a public possession. But the feeling of loss and alienation remains, and the anxiety it causes is real. When rich people speculate in art, you can’t help but think: There goes the neighborhood.
Philip Kennicott is an art and architecture critic with The Washington Post.