Another week, another delightful interview with Michael Bell. Today, we are going to talk about… money! It’s necessary, it’s controversial and… is it art?
I.R..- Hello, Mr. Bell. We have a little controversial Andy Warhol’s quote to begin this interview: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art”.
What do you think about it? What do you think about art and money? Can they live together?
M.B.- While I’m not a fan of Andy Warhol, simply because I don’t like his work or his values as an artist, having most of his work done by nameless studio assistants, but I do believe there’s validity to that quote. Let’s face it, in the world of high priced contemporary art it’s all about the art of making “the deal.” And there is an art to that. Warhol became his own brand, his work became the market and he knew how to create a following. Any artist that says they’re only in it for the art and not to make money is completely full of shit. Every artist is seeking some sort of response through their work, or why do it at all? In a perfect world, all ulterior financial motives aside, the ultimate compliment is the deal – the purchase. It says to me, “this is something I personally connect with and cannot live without. It’s not enough just to have a love affair with it for a little while and then never think about it again. It’s about committing to owning it. I think, for the serious collector that isn’t just in it just for the potential profitability of an artist or a certain piece, it becomes the difference between reading hundreds of love stories and actually falling in love.” In this way, I do believe art and money can live together, but it certainly makes for a controversial relationship.
I.R.- Talking, again, about money. In one of the latest auctions, one painting by Cezanne has been sold for $259 million. Do you think it’s its real price? Is it just speculation? Are current art movements economics toys? What is the price of a piece of art? Can we measure the value of an artist as the value of his/her works?
M.B.- It’s funny, even the way you worded that question speaks to the real issue at large. Everyone probably knows a “Cezanne” but could anyone tell me which work you’re actually talking about right now that sold for $259 million? Probably not. Here’s why. In the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s, which was before my time in the art world, these astronomical sales were confined only to the Cezannes – Old Masters being sold for millions of dollars. Then Warhol stepped in, and whether I like him or not, he did change the landscape of contemporary art forever. His early paintings were only selling for cheap at first, but in an age where the “dot-commers” were on the rise, buying contemporary art starting becoming a speculator’s sport, so for these guys, instead of buying up stock shares, they’d buy up as many cheaply priced “Warhols” as they could in bulk in hopes that the artist might become the next Picasso so they could “cash out” for millions. Much like a pump-and-dump scheme. In Warhol’s case, once he figured out ways to raise his own public profile, the price of his works also rose and his collectors made a windfall.
M.B.- For billionaires who collect high priced art it’s a lot like playing the stock market. Money is never the real motivation since they already have more than they’ll ever need — it’s about playing the game. Donald Trump said it best, “Billionaires don’t care what the odds are. We don’t listen to common sense or do what’s conventional or expected. We follow our vision, no matter how crazy or idiotic people think it is.” Sound familiar? Those ultra-successful billionaires think a lot like artists — like actors, like wiseguys even…which are people I, too, know a lot about. It’s all about the art of the deal. But once dealers and collectors began to play a more important role than critics and curators, economic toys, as you put it – are exactly what you see as passing for high priced contemporary art today. It’s that “Emperor’s New Clothes” crap Koons is selling for millions. It all simply becomes worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it.
Even with me, I know people know my work not only because of what I paint but for whom I paint. They’re intrigued about my painting the likes of John Gotti, the connection I have to all my Sopranos pals, how my best friend and painting clientele just happens to be Dominic Capone (Al Capone’s great nephew).
As a celebrity artist you live and die on the sales figures of your new work.
I’d like to think you can measure the value of an artist as the value of his/her works, but history shows us it’s simply not the case, even at the auction houses. Take Julian Schnabel for instance. One of his plate paintings, “The Patients and the Doctors”, a painting that sold for around $3,500 in the late ‘70’s, went for almost $100,000 at Christie’s just a few years later in 1982. So what was his real worth? $3,500 or $100,000? This was the turning point. When people were suddenly talking more about the price of a work of art than what was actually in the picture. I think Eric Fischl put it best (speaking about value and our art) when he said, and don’t quote me as this being exact, but something to the effect of “You could never pay me enough money for my paintings, and any amount of money you pay me is way too much.”
I.R.- Tell us, have you ever do any work you wouldn’t ever sell?
The train paintings I made for my son, and any of the works I did as a child that won me my 1st art show at the age of 5.
Nice week, Michael