Thursday, June 24, 2010

Manet, Self-Portrait with Palette, 1878
It's a terrible painting. 

The Guardian: "Manet self-portrait fetches record £22m at Sotheby's auction"

The NY Times: "A Lackluster Art Auction in London"
Carol Vogel writes on auctions and the art business
The tone was set early on when the star of the event, a self-portrait from 1878 in which Manet depicts himself as something of a dandy — holding a palette and paint brush but dressed in an elegant tailored jacket — sold for the low estimate of $29.48 million, or $33 million including commission, with only one bidder.
Deal Book adds
It appears that Steven A. Cohen’s bet on a Manet self-portrait hasn’t exactly turned out to be the hedge fund billionaire’s most lucrative.
Mr. Cohen, who runs SAC Capital Management, bought the painting for what is believed to be between $35 million and $40 million almost a decade ago.
Richard Feigen is quoted as saying “It was a great picture, but he’s not an auction artist.” The second may be true, but I'm not so sure about the first. Most of the painting seems to me to present Manet at his most incompetent, and that's saying a lot.

Mozart wrote pieces that now are rarely played and Beethoven wrote works in his mature years that are called failures. But the art market is a market of speculators and speculators need material so I want to call this painting a well-timed and thematically well-placed failure. But it's also in the line of transition from a high material culture of great and greatly signifying craft, to a linguistic culture where objects are more like relics or touchstones to remembered arguments. This is something of a return to language. Failure for Manet is a given; more importantly it's his most important trait and primary subject. His best work is an articulate description of failure, but this one isn't so articulate.

The painting was at Sotheby's in NY a month before the auction and I spent about an hour looking at it, trying to separate the thing from its context: from the historical idea of Manet, from my idea of Manet, and from paintings by him that I like for what I imagine to be their internal logic. There's a kind of modern and contemporary art I sometimes call "cocktail party art", where pieces function more as part of an ongoing conversation than as free-standing things. A brilliant quip or retort loses its brilliance or even its intelligibility on its own, which is not to say it wasn't brilliant to begin with. A free-standing art is more resilient, because interpretable in different contexts and over time, whatever its original place. That's why many people -often conservatives- defend the notion of a "universal" art. But the intention or the claim of universality means little more than the claim of dogmatic specificity. History is the arbiter.

Manet's art was not fully situational nor was he anywhere close to being a master of communicative material craft (and at the time there was not yet a conflict, assumed or otherwise, in the relation of communicative immaterial craft to literature: Flaubert didn't have Manet's problems). He wasn't Duchamp and he wasn't Delacroix, though Delacroix was as famous for his weaknesses as for his strengths. Manet was in-between, and his work is awkward and ambivalent. That Duchamp's Fountain was and is one of the most important sculptures of the 20th century says as much about the century as about Duchamp.

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