Bacon: stamp of approval not required

CutBacon.jpgI’m not sure what happened in London on Tuesday, but yesterday and today several UK stories involved the upcoming Ewbanks auction “Items from the Studio of Francis Bacon.” A more colorful title for the sale might be “45 Auction Lots Assembled From Objects Once Rescued from a Dumpster Outside The Studio of Francis Bacon, Including Other People’s Passports and Postcards.” If you click on the link, you will see interesting memorabilia. There’s also some epically tendentious auction-catalogue language, such as (emphasis mine), “This would not seem to be a completed painting but Bacon frequently discarded canvases, returning to them at a later date, perhaps in this case this was one to which he meant to return but did not do so.” Wow, they read Bacon’s mind, 15 years after he died: Apparently, Bacon wanted it to be a real painting – but things just didn’t work out…

Kathe Kollewitz, c. 1926Personally, I always find it jarring to see something in an auction room or gallery, lovingly framed for sale, that the artist never meant to be considered as part of their oeuvre. Weirdest was stumbling across a Käthe Kollwitz lithograph, which she herself had crossed out (click on the image at right to see a pop-up with the X clearly visible), estimated at roughly $20,000 in a Swiss auction. By virtue of being sold in such contexts, these “pieces” tend to become integrated into the de facto oeuvre. Granted, there is a lot of complexity once one starts to consider the topic closely. It would be simplest, of course, to only deem as art those things which the artist has officially designated as art. But what about Henry Darger, whose stupendous work was only discovered after his death? Or an artist renouncing artworks after selling them, e.g. Richard Prince?

The Ewbanks Bacon sale itself isn’t really hot news, BTW – The Art Newspaper covered it in the March issue, which came out in late February. Either by coincidence or slyness on the part of TAN’s layout team, it adjoined an article that described how the Bristol student house Banksy inhabited is now being valued at double its normal price because of the mural he painted on one wall. Although, based on the image online, this work’s got nothing to do with his clever recent exploits (yeah, I’m a Banksy fan). Rather, it’s kind of cookie-cutter graffiti (one section reads “1st Division Airborne Aerosol Supremacy!”). Anyway, the mural’s being silent-auctioned “with a free house attached.” Right under that Banksy article was one detailing Damien Hirst’s painting a red nose onto a crappy  £200 Stalin portrait, which then sold at Christie’s for  £140,000.

Taken together, those three stories suggest that from a commercial standpoint, anything a famous artist has ever touched will be considered by buyers to be art – quality and intention be damned. Am I alone in finding this strange?

10 thoughts on “Bacon: stamp of approval not required”

  1. PS In the Guardian yesterday, Charlotte Higgins attacked the Bacon sale, writing, “It is not surprising – only a little dispiriting – that a pile of junk Francis Bacon chucked out 30 years ago could earn the man who salvaged it from a skip half a million pounds.” Actually the total estimate’s only £50,000.

    But that does not change the philosophical issues raised – and riffing off Higgins, Edward Winkleman today mulled whether this stuff should be classified as junk, historical material or art – and even if it is kind of junk, is it so wrong to value it so much?

  2. In a world where fame and brand play as big a role in defining value in art as the quality of technique of an artist or the depth of his thinking behind it, why is anyone surprised? Some people might buy because it is as close to owning a Bacon as they will get. Others because some small thing might have historic interest. Others the way tourists buy mini-Davids in Florence. No, it isn’t art in the traditional sense, not even the so-called “Studies.” But then, is very much these days? Art in any ‘traditional’ sense, I mean?

    The media, style and format of Art have changed so much over the last two hundred years, how are we to non-arbitrarily define the limits of what is and is not art? Is the artist’s intention enough? Everything is now soft boundaries and spectra. We can say something is closer to an ideal or further from an ideal, and this only within an individual’s subjective perspective. But getting objective, collective agreement on such matters has been quite hard, for many works, in recent decades.

    However, within the broad spectrum of artistically related works this collection, at best, qualifies as memorabilia. At worst, junk. At least to this subjective perspective.

  3. This is horrible to think that it is somehow ok for someone to fish through your garbage and then exchange it for something based on the value of your name. I am sure that some subset of artist moral rights laws could be used to block such a sale, but who would really put themselves through that? I don’t know details about Bacon specifically, but it does seem like someone’s rights are being crossed here somehow, and I can’t imagine any historical imperative that would make this ok. It would be different perhaps if it were Bacon the philosopher, rather than someone who died within the last 20 years.

    Money attached to art transactions these days seems independent from artistic value in so many circumstances, such as inflated auction figures. The money is a representation of some other kind of exchange. I am not sure what is being exchanged, but I am sure that it has nothing to do with art or an intrinsic artistic or historical value.

  4. Lisa, that’s an interesting point re moral-rights laws. In France, where law accords an incredibly strong (and transferable) right to an artist’s heirs, the droit morale is frequently invoked to protect an artist’s legacy and reputation. This usually applies to the selling and/or authentication of fakes or the dissemination of inaccurate information. Whether it would also cover the monetization of random memorabilia from the studio is a whole nother question. Also, I think there would privacy-law issues if Bacon were still alive. But the only legal systems I’ve ever dealt with in-depth are those of the United States and France. Maybe a helpful lawyer will weigh in via

  5. I think we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here with the moral outrage. First of all, artistic memorabilia, like religious memorabilia – the tongues, fingers, and other body parts of various saints lovingly preserved by the faithful – are a fact of life. They are a manifestation of our secular admiration for great genius, and there is a vast spectrum of random objects that have always been offered for sale coming out of artists’ estates. The auction orgy of Warhol’s cookie jars etc. was just one famous episode in this history.

    We especially admire commonplace objects linked to artists whose names are shrouded in a certain mythology. A quotidian item such as a pen or a piece of discarded scrap paper becomes imbued with meaning; it is, in a sense, a readymade. All this is doubly true for Bacon, who was certainly the most mythological of modern British artists. Already during his lifetime breathless documentaries were being made about his disheveled studio, now lovingly preserved, item by item, in what feels like an archaeological excavation of a dinosaur’s nest at the Dublin municipal gallery. Bacon’s ridiculously crowded studio was a kind of monument to a certain idea of the avantgarde bohemian artist. You can call it garbage, but taken together this flotsam and jetsam was a part of his aura, and it says a lot about about our late 20th-century culture of artistic hero worship. It is a very powerful thing to stand in front of this mountain of detritus, as anyone who has encountered it in Dublin can attest.

    A tiny recent show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery (no doubt linked to those London sales) evoked the same strong feelings. Glass vitrines crammed with letters and clippings from Warhol’s studio, displayed a couple of years ago at Dia Beacon, were another example of worthwhile fascination with meaningful memorabilia.

    The same may not be true for any artist. It seems to me that the value of such objects is deeply contextual. It derives from the question of whether the objects themselves are in any meaningful way connected to the artistic process and cultural legacy of the artist. Perhaps the correct question to ask is whether these objects mean anything once lifted out of such a larger context, separated from the original constellation of stuff to which they once belonged. Framed and sold separately, a scribble on the back of a restaurant receipt may just be a scribble on the back of a restaurant receipt. Caveat emptor.

  6. Warhol kept everything, it was a part of what he did, and interesting because he did make a point to frame it in some way or another as artistic product, like time capsules. the other stuff he collected says something else about him, and was not sold under any false pretenses as far as i know. We are talking about stolen objects from a garbage bin. If an artist keeps something, there is a reason, and tossed means that they dont want it to remain attached to them. Why shouldn’t artists have the same legal protection that any other person does, whether they were god-like or just only marginally known? If you have respect for an artist’s ‘aura’ than you should respect the decisions that person made in creating it. It is perhaps more historically honest, if what you really want to do is crawl inside their brain, than presenting what has been discarded. You cannot present a full collection of what has been discarded, so how could you possibly give it any real context?

  7. We can all agree that stolen objects from the garbage bin should be off limits (although, in Bacon’s case, the whole studio was like a garbage bin). I now realize that this incident has more in common with the famous controversy involving de Kooning’s painted toilet seats. There are so many gray areas. For example, as a writer, I have always felt somehwat dubious about the public display and commerical sale of original manuscripts, especially ones that were not intended to see the light of day. On the one hand, these manuscripts are full of embarassing passages that ended up on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, they offer a glimpse inside the workings of a creative mind. At what point do the curiousity and reverance (and profit motives) of a later age trump the privacy of a dead artist, or a living one?

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