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Art, Gangsters & Money

James CagneyEarly in the last century art was seen to be attracting some enormously unsavory admirers. Hans Arp: "Revolted by the butchery of the 1914 World War, we in Zurich devoted ourselves to the arts....We had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art as a way of deadening men's minds." [1]

Advertising people seeking techniques for hidden persuasion had become interested in such things as the comparative persuasive efficacy of photographs vs. drawings. There is in the photograph an inarticulateness, a mute mindless willingness to be put to unintended uses the drawing lacks.

Arp was likely to have been remembering that in the USSR the cinema was regarded by V.I. Lenin - of all the arts the most important, he said - as little more than a means for assisting in the wholesale ideological re-education of the vast illiterate Soviet peasant masses. Kuleshov, Eisenstein and the others obliged with agit-montage spectacles. In 1934 Hitler, egged on by Goebbels, an admirer of those Soviet masters and their montage theories, ordered Leni Reifenstahl to be provided with an unlimited budget and countless numbers of technicians and cameramen to film the week-long National-Socialist party congress at Nuremberg. The result was THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

Leni Riefenstahl

These were the partnerships of art and savagery Arp anticipated and feared.

In a letter to Soviet premier Molotov, the great Russian theatre producer Vesevolod Myerhold described his brutal interrogation by the KGB. They were after a confession that he murdered of his wife, when they knew it was they who'd tortured and murdered the woman, and an admission that he'd been a spy for Japan, another lie. Myerhold was shot in 1940, essentially punished for a media crime, his outspoken contempt for socialist realism.

Convinced that the time of the great work has indeed passed, that the art world has been taken permanent hostage by ephemeral manipulations of media, in 2004, 500 art experts voted The Fountain( 1917), Marcel Duchamp's white Panama urinal, the most influential work of modern art.

"Time was, art was less diverse and its big prizes were awarded for displays of competence in widely accepted skills. Nowadays they reward risk-taking, and are received in what I'd call the "Who, me?' mode." [2]

Nevertheless, serious money from oil, hedge funds and cosmetics pursue trophy works: $140 million for Jackson Pollock's No 5, 1948 in 2006, $82.5 million for Vincent Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr.Gachet(1890) in 1990, and $104.2 million for Pablo Picasso's Garcon a la pipe (1905) in 2004, $33.6 million for Lucien Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping(1995) in 2008, the highest price paid for a work by a living artist.

1.^From Hans Arp, Dadaland (1948), cited by Hans Richter, DADA: art and anti-art, Thames and Hudson, 1965, p.25.

2.^Peter Plagens, "Art Sweepstakes", Art in America, March 2008.

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