[ If this building was priced like an equivalently famous painting, it would cost more than the entire US GDP ]
The top floor of Corbusier’s Villa Stein (one of perhaps the top 500 most important houses of the late 19th/early 20th centuries – i.e. a Van Gogh of houses) is for sale for the same price per sq.ft. (approx $1400) as buildings in the same area of suburban Paris, designed by nobody in particular. Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for an inflation adjusted price of $136 million yet a poster of similar square footage and style costs around $10.
In other words, a work of art that you can actually live in has zero premium over a commodity item, but one that you can look at has a premium factor of 13 million over a commodity one.
There are 2 possible conclusions: architecture is vastly under valued or painting prices are almost entirely irrational.
Given that the cost of a single floor of the Villa Stein would be almost exactly the same as entire US GDP ($13 trillion) in the former case, and that Le Corbusier’s mediocre paintings sell at a vast premium compared to the buildings he is famous for, it’s the paintings that are too pricey.
The world’s two most expensive painting purchases were by Steven Cohen the Hedge Fund manager and David Martinez the corporate debt financier. Both work in finance, where the creative output is money rather than painting, quantitative rather than qualitative. Money hidden in a vault, is a less visible form of status than a picture, so the two can be exchanged, where the highest quantitative measure, status, can be accrued by buying the most famous paintings. If it were a purchase based upon qualitative measures such as the highest value to the buyer, then the sentimental subject matter of the painting would override or skew the ownership of the most famous paintings with the richest people, but that tends not to be the case.
Famous painting prices are based upon the idea that fame equals talent and that absolute fame is absolutely priceless. They are bought for quantitative price rather than qualitative value. They are a form or elite rather than mass hysteria where the wealthy attempt to buy prized individual taste, something you can’t really buy, by purchasing mass taste and therefore inevitably get ripped off.
The sub-conscious force that drives this bubble market is that the action of buying famous paintings is not to buy for private enjoyment but for pubic (even if it’s just your friends) prestige. This is perhaps based on the underlying psychosis that actually possessing rather than merely being surrounded by an acknowledged work of art somehow bestows a portion of the artist’s great taste and vision on the one who possesses it. Is this really any different from magical flesh diets such as the primitive practice of swallowing a lion’s heart for strength or eating powdered Rhino horn to get an erection?
The portability and size of paintings allow them to be possessed and coveted in a way that buildings can’t, but there is another factor. You can move a Van Gogh to the Upper East Side, but its more difficult to do that with the Villa Stein. Paintings are an historical, but irrational, standard benchmark of wealth, rather like diamonds. But the reason for their prestige is no more permanent than the prestige of lyre playing which was the pinnacle art form of ancient Greece, but is not coveted today. Painting is the reserve currency of art – but reserve currencies can change.
The fact that the obvious, near total, fallacy of the art market is rarely questioned seems conspicuously odd. Is there a form of sub-conscious cultural censorship at work? Perhaps the preservation of the painting myth is based on the fear that to challenge it means that you can’t appreciate or understand it? To even suggest that the Emperor is naked is to sound cliched.
But perhaps painting is a religion? When you read a book you can enjoy it even if you know its not true, but for the religious, the Bible cannot purely be a work of fiction, it has to have some truth. Art allows you to have a quasi-spiritual feeling by temporarily suspending reason and disbelief, unlike religion which requires you to permanently do so.
Why should art (temporary belief over reason) be any different from religion (permanent belief over reason)? Why is it more surprising that people worship Van Gogh irrespective of true merit when people worship god? Somehow, to suggest that art is largely religion is, well, heresy, or at least philistinism. Bizarrely, in our secular culture, where Madonna has replaced The Madonna, art is more sacrosanct than religion when it comes to questioning value.
Value is difficult to judge, but perhaps it’s the mark of a true Philistine like a money-is-everything Hedge Fund manager to believe in the price of a Van Gogh. Perhaps painting is a specific case of an art form that has become a religion, the opiate of the rich.