June 23, 2012 12:08 am

Questions of taste

Contrasts and contradictions are what make the art world so fascinating. Sales of the season will reveal what we value
‘Baroque Egg with Bow’

“Make people feel smart, and they will put up with anything.”

It’s routine for art critics to make snide cracks at those who buy high-priced art, but Peter Schjeldahl’s comment in The New Yorker (written in relation to the work of prankster Maurizio Cattelan) was more than that. “Self-parody,” he declared, “has become the life-support system of international art infrastructures. This mind-set cannot be outflanked or overturned, because it performs those operations on itself.”

It is a fair comment on the parts of the art world dominated by kitsch and glitter, by stunts, puns and tricks, even by the deliberately gross and tasteless. The once countercultural has become mainstream: for instance, Joana Vasconcelos in Versailles, her riotous gimcrack geegaws set against the exquisiteness of a past age.

But that transposition – from radical to insider – is what new art has always done, and always should do. Of course, Tracey Emin becomes a Royal Academician. Of course, Paul McCarthy’s lewd pieces find their way into the most respectable of venues.

Elsewhere in the art landscape, naughty-boy art seems merely jejune: different values reign. And as summer comes and art-world doyens head for their beaches, boats and islands, the last sales of the season – modern, contemporary and Old Masters – will reveal our current thinking about what we value.

Comparisons can be appealing. Last month in New York an eager buyer shelled out $1.3m for Urs Fischer’s “Untitled (Standing)”, a life-size model of collector Peter Brant by an armchair. It is made of wax, and contains dozens of wicks that could, if lit, melt those greenbacks into a puddle. Ars brevis, vita longa?

For a buyer with different tastes, that amount could, in next week’s Old Master sales, net a Rembrandt drawing, plus a chalk nude study by Constable, plus a Gainsborough pencil/watercolour, plus a magnificent Caspar David Friedrich, plus a small Joshua Reynolds oil ... and much more.

That’s a fun game to play, and it may not even mean much, except as a way of saying that not everyone likes the same things. In this supplement, our writers give a flavour of the range of what collectors are up to – from buying Old Masters to commissioning a crystal grotto, from bidding for a Constable to making gracious gestures of philanthropy. As Jackie Wullschlager writes in her piece on gigantism, the only thing for sure is that it’s all getting bigger.

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