Reactor

Is There a Case for Including Prices with Art Reviews?

by Jillian Steinhauer on January 25, 2013

Hirst-Spots-money

Original image of Hirst spot painting at Gagosian Paris via arrestedmotion.com

This week, The Stranger‘s art critic, Jen Graves, wrote a blog post titled, “Should We List Prices With Art Reviews?” When I first saw the headline, I had a knee-jerk reaction to the effect of, “No!!”

Of course, I’m sure that’s what Graves was anticipating. (Good job in the headline department.) When you click through, her post links back to a piece she wrote for this season’s Seattle Art & Performance Quarterly (A&P), which she begins by citing the art-criticism golden rule: “Thou shalt not talk about art in terms of money.” From there she goes on to wonder:

But would it be a bad thing for art and artists if the line between looking and possessing were less stark? What about for audiences? As art critics, do we implicitly support a system built on inequity when we leave out information that would point to the fact that most people can only afford to vicariously experience what certain people can take home and live with? Or is even entertaining that thought inviting more trouble than it’s worth?

The piece is very short, and that paragraph is the crux of it. She doesn’t go on to make a strong case for her proposition; she merely concludes by saying that in the current issue of the the A&P, they’ve listed the prices of the art they cover, “just as an experiment, to see how we feel about it.” (And then there’s a poll — you can see the results from when I voted below.)

Art-prices-pollAll of this got me thinking: how do I feel about it (beyond that initial, extreme reaction)? Graves raises a lot of good questions, ones I’m not entirely sure how to answer. On the one hand, I don’t really see the point of including prices in an art review. The art world is filled with money, and it’s gross. It’s not like we need to mention it even more. At the end of the day, for most people, what matters is whether they can afford to go see art, not buy it. So most publications list museum admission prices, which, as Graves points out, theater and music writers do as well. Even though art is often comprised of physical objects that can be bought, sold, and owned, for the majority of art lovers, it is ultimately a fleeting, transitory experience, much like seeing a performance. Your memories and the pictures you take (if you’re allowed) are all that you take with you.

Still, Graves’s first question is an interesting one: “would it be a bad thing for art and artists if the line between looking and possessing were less stark?” Again, my initial thought was a bit dismissive: how would listing art prices make a difference here? But the more I thought about it, the more I could see a way in which it might. Money is a huge factor in the art world, but unless you’re reading a piece of writing that’s explicitly about the market, it tends to go completely unmentioned, sort of like the first rule of Fight Club. The omission is sometimes so complete that I wonder if readers and even beginning critics realize that there’s art out there they can actually afford to buy. If you read about a show, saw a reproduction of one of the works, and then read in its caption that it cost $300, would the presence of that number in front of you make you more inclined to buy it — or at least contemplate taking that leap? I think it might.

But the question that got under my skin the most in Graves’s piece is this one: “As art critics, do we implicitly support a system built on inequity when we leave out information that would point to the fact that most people can only afford to vicariously experience what certain people can take home and live with?” I find myself genuinely concerned with and stumped by this one. If I review a gallery show of incredibly expensive work — something at Gagosian, say — would it make the review more honest to discuss or include prices; or rather, is it dishonest not to mention them?

My inclination is that, ultimately, it’s not so simple as “yes” or “no.” When Damien Hirst’s spot paintings rolled through town, it’s not like writers avoided pointing out that Hirst’s art is generally overhyped and overpriced. Then again, when it’s not Hirst, when the art is good, does quality eclipse the obligation to mention prices? Where does taste fit into all of this?

Edvard Munch, “The Scream” (1895), pastel on board (© 2012 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)

Last fall, Jerry Saltz criticized MoMA for showing “The Scream” mere months after it sold for an insane $120 million at auction. He listed the price near the beginning of his piece and then went on to write, “Yet, a show like this — which is not a show but an event — here, now, is a case of MoMA indulging its spectacle-driven side. With (we presume) the best of intentions, it is flirting with the bad magic — the system that guarantees that obscene art prices are good for business.”

Interestingly, though, Saltz concluded with this:

I am not against collectors spending grotesque amounts on art. But I want it to stop mattering how much art costs, because price has nothing to do with quality, and talking about prices is totally boring. See you in line.

I’ve always sided with Saltz in wanting to wish away the money and bring the focus back to the art itself, but now Graves has me wondering whether avoiding the money is not only wishful thinking but potentially harmful. Who is right? I really don’t know.

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  • http://twitter.com/sidecarhammond Señor Dolor DeCabeza

    The idea that most people can’t afford art is a myth that needs to be tied into a sack, thrown into a river and drowned. There is an abundance of quality work out there that is quite affordable. What about the idea that by introducing the public to the concept of actually owning work, that it is, in fact, actually quite possible to take art home and to live with it that maybe people would become more comfortable looking at art? Maybe reintroducing people to the process of making value judgements about art empowers them even more during the act of viewing.

    mkase

    • http://twitter.com/msCosmopolite Ms. Cosmopolite

      Well said. I agree 100%.

  • Monsoonking

    My feeling is that listing prices would ultimately translate into more sales for an artist and gallery, and that’s obviously good for artists and galleries. As an art collector, I see impressive works highlighted online everyday, but almost never think to reach out to the gallery regarding pricing. Seeing prices that are within my means would likely pull down a barrier and result in a larger collection.

    That doesn’t mean that prices have to be discussed. A simple postscript along the lines of “John Smith showing at Jane Doe gallery, Jan 25 – Feb 20, works from $2,000-$8,000″ would be sufficient. Sure, glancing at prices has an almost dirty voyeuristic feel, but as long as we don’t let our opinion of the art be colored by the prices, I see little downside.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Yes, I ended up talking about it a lot in terms of an actual discussion of prices within a piece, but Graves definitely presents it as something that could be little more than a side note, as you have it there. It seems like a genuinely interesting experiment.

      • John Redmann

        I think the price is a little like putting scarlet letter on a work of art. Price is only relevant to the parties interested in purchasing, if the public wants to know what something is worth they can ask, galleries are forward, artists are up front, I suppose a museum would tell you if you knew how/who to ask.

        Graves admission that “people can only afford to vicariously experience what certain people can take home and live with?” is a mis-statement. At some point in virtually every artists career, their work is very affordable, unfortunately most do not seek it out. I seem to remember anecdotes about Van Gogh’s in ability to sell a lot of his work in his lifetime. Gee where were the lines then? Yeah.

        Saltz is right that price =/= quality. But price can serve as a metric to measure intrinsic value to humanity. If something is worth 120m it is worth noting that dozens of billionaires think so highly of the work and serves as an affirmation of uniqueness, cultural relevance, stature within the art world. Warhol’s Elvis paintings & soup cans hit that part of financial stratosphere, and for good reason – look at the art landscape post Warhol, it’s very different.

        I think thinking about money and art akin to pandoras box.

        • Monsoonking

          Whether we like it or not, the media is going to continue to discuss art in terms of huge auction results, multi-million dollar backroom transactions, and the wheeling and dealing of guys like Gogo, Cohen, and Hirst. It makes for big headlines and juicy, easily digestible writing. The unfortunate side effect of this phenomenon is that the average member of the potentially art purchasing public views art collecting as exclusively the pastime of Russian oligarchs and international financiers. Art reviews accompanied by more accessible prices could go far in correcting that attitude.

          Yes people can look up a gallery’s number and call about pricing, but galleries are inherently intimidating to the uninitiated (and even to the initiated). No one wants to get laughed at for inquiring about the equivalent of a Koons or Johns. A lower price point would likely but people at ease with the process.

          As for a scarlet letter, maybe I’m being too charitable, but I don’t think most would immediately assume some emerging artist’s works are of low quality because they’re priced at 5k instead of 500k.

          • John Redmann

            This targets two very different art markets. I think there is a general understanding if something is at Sothebys or MoMA, it’s probably out of your league unless your bank account has 8 or 9 figures. Much in the same way you wouldn’t call up Sotheby’s and ask about the 7 bedroom vacation home on Maui. Also consider the market you are trying to be a part of, millionaires and billionaires, sovereign wealth funds, museums.

            Writing about prices for those types of transactions is tabloid fodder. Those numbers will likely be released because everyone involved wants the press, it’s good for the ‘artvestment’.

            The point of this article was putting prices near art pieces at any level. Which I think is inherently bad, I think it stifles the objective critique, I don’t think artists should be pressured by viewers not interested in actually purchasing their works, I think it can kill deals (how many collectors get a better price because they frequent a gallery?). What is a gallery to do if they believe vigilantly in an artists work but the public scoffs when the find out the price? What happens when a lot of unsold inventory accumulates because prices that have been published can’t be reduced, but the artist is an award winner, retrospective showing hotshot?

            I swear, and I hate to be honest because it feels like a fault here, plus it’s anecdotal. I have watched deals dry up sooo fast as soon as money comes up.

  • http://www.thebambamblog.com/ BamBam

    I’m with Saltz. It’s not a matter of whether it is right or wrong to mention a price in a review. It’s simply a distraction. It short circuits your critical opinion, preventing you from actually looking at the work. Salesmanship is not the job of a critic. Is Roger Ebert obligated to tell you about the best ticket price to see ‘Django Unchained’? Obsessing over the price tag will simply reduce all art to objects. Commodity status is just one facet of an art object’s being. In over emphasizing it, you placing it’s so called dollar over its capacity to interest, inspire, provoke, and so on.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Why do you think knowing the price of a work automatically short circuits your critical opinion?

      • http://www.thebambamblog.com/ BamBam

        Because once you know the price of a work, it is very difficult to contemplate that work outside of financial terms. Once you know its price, your attitude towards it changes considerably. Robert Hughes gave a great example of this. In 1961, the Met spent a record $2.3 million to acquire Rembrandt’s Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer. The museum placed a red velvet rope in front of it, differentiating it from all the other Rembrandt’s in their collection. This implicitly suggested that the painting surpassed all the other Rembrandt’s in the collection and that the price paid reflected this. Money thus translated into a quality judgement. At the Louvre, in the room where the Mona Lisa is on display, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone looking at any of the other paintings. The fact is that monetary and iconic status can be used to circumvent (or ‘short circuit’) critical opinion. We live in an age where the more something is reproduced, the more ‘importance’ (or value) we confer it, and this goes for prices too.

        • Emily_Colucci

          I totally agree that listing the prices in art reviews would short circuit critical opinion. For example, art critics, including me, love to skewer artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons whose work sells for enormous sums of money. I think alot of the animosity toward Koons and Hirst is due to their high prices that we feel doesn’t reflect the amount of work put into the art pieces (since they’re not usually doing any work themselves) or their critical value. So what I see happening would be readers and critics who aren’t used to the abnormally outrageous art world pricing would judge the pieces based on whether or not they feel the work is good enough to warrant the price the gallery is selling it for. As previously said, art criticism would become a financial judgement.

          I also don’t want to feel like I’m writing an auction house catalogue essay when I’m writing an art review.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            I see what both of you are saying, but often when I’m wandering around a gallery, I take the checklist, which includes prices, and use it to guide my way through. In those cases, I’m seeing the prices of artworks, but I’m pretty positive they’re not affecting my judgment. The Hughes example is a good one, but it’s also very specific in that it relates to expensive art. This is what I was trying to get at a little bit in the post—I think we react differently to expensive art. That often affects our critical opinion (as you say, Emily, e.g. Hirst and Koon). But with affordable or lower-end art, I don’t find that it does. But would it make sense to only list prices below a certain amount? I don’t think that would work. … All of which is why I find myself stuck.

          • http://www.thebambamblog.com/ BamBam

            Hi Jillian. I totally agree that most monetary debate about contemporary art centers on the big names (Hirst, Koons etc). But I wonder how many galleries (‘big’ or ‘small’) would actually be willing to publish prices? The fact is that most galleries don’t want to advertise them, because this denies them the flexibility to increase/decrease them. Any dealer will price a work according to how much they think they could get for it. All galleries (again, so-called big or small) are intent on ensuring that their collectors believe that an artists value is increasing. Making prices a matter of public record will inevitably frustrate this process. What I can anticipate happening is that the big galleries will refuse to provide prices for critics and the smaller ones will, thus stigmatizing those smaller galleries in some way (from a pretentious stand-point). I say stigmatize because the operations of money in the art world is a sort of absurd dance, with its own set of unstated rules!

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            This is a great point, and something I hadn’t considered at all. Thanks for bringing it up/in.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            By the way, BamBam, on this topic, there’s a nice little something in the New York Times, which I didn’t know! “And year round, galleries ignore with impunity a 42-year-old law that says they must post their prices.” Apparently they are required to list prices. And if they list them, I’m allowed to write them down and publish them. So technically, if this law were actually enforced, galleries wouldn’t get to play a stubborn game about publishing prices or not. Interesting.

          • http://twitter.com/msCosmopolite Ms. Cosmopolite

            Fascinating discussion and quite topical. As an art advisor dedicated to making the art world “a kinder, more friendlier place”, I work with many emerging and first time collectors. The issue of price poses huge psychological barriers for those interested in buying art, but confused about “value”. Too much press focuses on the trophy art market, which sways the lawyer/doctor type collectors away from buying. The moment I made the decision to speak plainly and transparently about price with clients, confusion cleared and desire increased. There is SO MUCH fabulous art out there at every price point. I think art critics, advisors and gallerists that serve the middle market need to be more transparent about price and help get art SOLD. As an example, I included prices in my blog about Art Basel 2012 and for the first time had new clients from around the world contact me. Why make it more complicated to invite art into one’s life? http://www.marynahrushetska.com/musings/2012/12/19/art-basel-miami-2012-finds.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/shawn.chapman.9026 Shawn Chapman

    Just like listing the dimensions of an artwork, price is just another piece of information about the work. Sometimes it would be nice to know how “big” the art is. I say, why not!?

  • http://duanethomasart.com/home.html Duane Thomas

    $120 mil… peanuts. Hirst, Koons and Murakami… bush league. If the market has reduced art to a bad horror flick scream franchise bloody xxx gorexplotation reality show, then artists should aspire to make priceless work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ethan.gould.3 Ethan Gould

    I’m for prices in reviews, surprisingly. While there is a flattening that happens when a high end and emerging show are both reviewed in the same magazine or what have you sans prices, ultimately it would better serve positively reviewed emerging artists with lower prices. The differences between their cost would seem like a chasm, it would spark conversation, and readers might be compelled to buy at their price range. Experiment?

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Yeah, I think this is precisely what Graves is getting at. I don’t know! Maybe?! Eek! It still makes me so nervous! (Why?!) But as you say, I do wonder whether it would help emerging artists who get positively reviewed. And maybe it would even give criticism a boost, in that we’d actually feel like we’re doing something tangibly helpful or useful once in a while. (Although that also seems like a potentially dangerous road to go down…)

  • Den Hickey

    How about some more artists statements included with art reviews? Seems a bit more interesting and relevant than their prices. I mean, unless you care more about the money in art rather than the art in art.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Unfortunately, I have to disagree with you on this. I love artists, and I love talking to them about their work, but I find artist statements pretty unhelpful/irrelevant when it comes to a review. Of course the reviewer should do their homework and have that knowledge in mind when they write, but ultimately, art writing is about grappling with what the art conjures up in the viewer. The artist’s statement often has little bearing on that.

      • Den Hickey

        Agreed, but then, that is kinda my point. The dissonance between what an artist says about a body or piece of work and what a viewer or reviewer finds in.. finds to be its strengths and weaknesses.. is interesting and I think opens up critical thought on the work and the artist for the reader far more by disrupting the authoritative voice of both reviewer AND artist with the voice of the other.

  • Larry Stephens

    They should definatly be included..I find it offensive that the prices aren’t included in just about all reviews/ articles, it gives off even a more smarmy feel to the art industry..this isn’t the go-go 1980’s where “if you have to ask the price then you can’t afford it anyway” its a new economy and market..I think way more sales would be generated at both the high and low ends of the market if prices were listed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bschulman1 Blair Schulman

    I am an art writer, not a marketer. What’s next, will I be asked to determine cost and value based on the number of brush strokes?

  • http://www.facebook.com/citizenJoe Joe Torrence

    to put it in lowbrow terms, you’d just get more “thousands of dollars for THAT?!?!”, which really only serves to turn more people off from the art world, though some would say one more turn-off won’t really be noticed. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, it’s too influenced by the particular context of the art/gallery/intended audience.

  • http://www.facebook.com/terryward7 Terry Ward

    i’d have preferred a poll structured something like:

    NO don’t list prices because…

    1) …it distracts from focusing on the visuals.
    2) …it falsely equates market price with artistic quality.
    3) …getting that info might disrupt sales.
    4) …it risks involving the writer with price-manipulation.
    5) …art writers shouldn’t need to know about the sales market.
    6) …i just don’t care about that.
    7) …other.

    or
    wait actually YES DO list prices because…

    8) …cafe reviews show $-$$$$$ ratings, so can art ones.
    9) …readers who can’t afford to buy might still want to know.
    10)…it helps preserve part of the art-historical record.
    11)…it might stoke interest in certain artists.
    12)…more investment-minded readers might pay attention.
    13)…i’m just curious about that.
    14)…other.

    the premise of the current poll question is a bit off.
    you have a specified-negative versus a generalized-positive (‘yes’ –here phrased as ‘why not?’– is an open-ended generalized item so of course it gets more votes).

    as for the the specific items of the negative response (it is too much trouble or not-caring whether one can buy it), they’re off the mark to me.

    too much trouble? what trouble? you just ask them. if they won’t say, they won’t say. it is no more trouble than schlepping out to art fairs ( http://grumpyvisualartist.blogspot.com/2010/12/blog-post_9055.html )

    or going out to real exhibits ( http://grumpyvisualartist.blogspot.com/2010/12/blog-post_2379.html http://grumpyvisualartist.blogspot.com/2010/12/blog-post_4666.html http://grumpyvisualartist.blogspot.com/2010/12/blog-post_2456.html ).

    it is part of the task.

    if too much trouble means ‘i have to wait until a staffer is present and is not with a client, doing a message, or eating lunch’ well, okay i can see that. one can duck into a gallery or expo booth and look and take notes or snap reference pics and be gone quickly whether or not staff is present if one is not seeking possibly-unlisted info like prices. i can surely see the benefit to the writers of getting in and out cleanly.

    sure, there’s also a potential liability thing that editors will jump on: what if the writer reports that a piece is priced at $12,000 and then someone buys it and resells it but it gets just $1,000 at auction –is the news outlet then exposed to liability from the disgruntled first-buyer who maybe was sure it would sell for more in part because s/he read it in the article? just for that reason, editors will likely never okay large-scale mentioning of prices that are not already newsworthy on their own (hirst, koons, et al).

  • John A Sargent III

    The “art Market” is a commodity market, most often driven by a brokers’ mentality. So why not declare Prices? The illusion that there should be some deeper purpose to the “Art Market” is expecting to much of it…. it already is about the money…. The danger I can see is that the buyers might recognize that too often the only qualitative difference between such commodities is in fact the price…. Hmmmmm

  • http://twitter.com/thewayoftheneon ###skulll###

    There seems to be a high degree of sensivity regarding the influence of price upon said critical opinions. If that’s indeed the case, I’m afraid that those abstract criteria that some take from granted must be thoroughly reviewed. Things are what they are and by not displaying a price you’re clearly making implicit assumptions. If an artwork has a price and is on sale, then the natural and obvious resolution to make is to state it. It’s just the normal thing, and it’s far from a noble gesture or an heroic realisation. Such assumptions, I’m inclined to believe, are in place to help protect a progressively disgusting market. The fact that this conversation is happening this way, asking if would be a bad thing to display prices rather than asking WHY AREN’T they already being explicitly stated, seems to imply some sort of guilty consciousness lurking around the critical mass.

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