Fraser Forum

'Untitled' painting sells for $46.5 million—good buy?

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Business Insider recently reported on an art auction at Sotheby’s. Art auctions always make good copy because readers can gasp at the prices that wealthy collectors are willing and able to pay while simultaneously critiquing the rotten taste of those collectors. The sale of a Mark Rothko painting, “Untitled (Yellow and Blue)” is tailored made for that kind of reader.

Untitled (Yellow and Blue)” is a colour field painting. It consists of a large stripe of yellow paint, a large stripe of blue paint, and a narrower stripe of yellow paint. With its faintly incredulous headline, “This painting just sold for $46.5 million at Sotheby's in New York” (which is kept from sounding like everyone’s Uncle Morty reading the paper out loud at breakfast only by the absence an interrobang), Business Insider plays into everyone’s desire to play the “Rich people are crazy” game.

But value is subjective, and the value of art may be one of the most subjective values out there. Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play Art explores such subjectivity precisely. The play begins as Mark tells us his friend Serge has just purchased a very expensive and entirely white painting.

“My friend Serge has bought a painting. It’s a canvas about five-feet-by-four: white. The background is white and if you screw up your eyes you can make out some fine white diagonal lines.”

The rest of the action of the play is about the reactions of Serge’s two closest friends to this purchase. The painting becomes the catalyst that forces them to question their understandings of their selves and of their friendship. What does it say about Serge that he sees something of value in this painting that is practically a parody of modern art? What does it say about them that they are his friends? Are they missing some crucial aesthetic sense? Is Serge missing a sense of humor? Has buying this painting made him different? Less like them? Less likable?

The three friends come to their own uneasy resolution. In the play’s final lines Mark leaves us with a more nuanced, but less comfortable, interpretation of the painting.

“My friend Serge, who’s one of my oldest friends, has bought a painting. It’s a canvas about five-feet-by-four. It represents a man who moves across a space then disappears.”

We do not know what the person who bought “Untitled (Yellow and Blue) sees in it. Maybe it’s just an investment. Maybe it’s a signal of culture and status. But maybe, like Serge, the buyer finds the painting deeply moving and the skeptics just need to look a little harder.

But with an estimated auction price of $40-60 million, even Uncle Morty would probably have to admit that the buyer, for whatever reasons he or she spent $46.5 million on the painting, got a deal.


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