I Could Cry
Art and its dollar value
By Joan Altabe

A couple of recent, unrelated art stories seem to interconnect.

Sixty Old Master paintings got chopped up, and Dr. Seuss's characters got cast in everlasting bronze.

What's wrong with this picture?

Here come enlargements in the round of The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch in Springfield, Mass., and there go one-of-a-kinds by Watteau, Boucher, Bruegel and Cranach—stolen by Frenchman Stéphane Breitwieser. His mother did the chopping.

And get this. While reports about the reproductions of Seuss's children's book illustrations go into their art qualities of line, color and shape, those about the lost paintings mentioned only their monetary value; i.e. the value of the Cranach painting was said to be between $7.9 million and $9 million.

Period. Fat price. Thin story.

We've all heard how art is good for us. In school we're taught that it cultivates us, polishes us and makes us better people. So why is it that whenever fine art is written about in mainstream media nowadays, money is the main idea?

Van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet

Some years ago, when a pair of thieves robbed a museum in Boston of masterworks by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas, the loss was described in dollars—$200 million. When Picasso's "Nude in a Black Armchair" got attention, it wasn't for the painting, it was for the sale price of $45.1 million. And when news reports came out on the sale of Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" for $82.5 million, they omitted the significance of the picture. They didn't mention that the doctor, who slumps in seeming despair, attended the Van Gogh in his last days before the artist shot himself.

It's no wonder, then, that Washington Post columnist Henry Mitchell wrote this about the Van Gogh sale:

The gall of some painters. They point out that Vincent van Gogh never had two dimes to rub together and here one of his pictures has just been sold for $82.5 million. A number of painters sleep and eat when they feel like it. They punch no clocks, fill out no time cards... They are as free as anybody else to sell a picture for millions. All they have to do is convince some idiot its worth it.

You have to wonder whether Mitchell would have written that if reports of the sale included something about the painting.

It's not that prices aren't notable. They are. They imply the art's preciousness. But in the recent case of the shredded canvases, where is the information about what the paintings look like, what they mean, how they stack up with the artists‚ others, with others by others? What happened to art's reason for being—its ability to distill, codify and deepen our sense of the world, of ourselves?

At one time, art was thought to be as necessary to survival as food. Cave people put their wall paintings on the same plane with hunting for food. They believed that if they captured an animal's likeness, the animal was as good as dead. Art was a kind of magic, then. Picturing herds of bison and reindeer was like an incantation for plentiful game. Showing animals speared was a prayer for a successful hunt. Stone Age artists hadn't tamed horses yet. They had to run down their food on foot in hostile wilds and with the most primitive of weapons. They needed magic. They found it in their art.

Now art's magic seems lost on us. Not only have dollar amounts become the main idea, but originality has dropped from the picture: Old Master art gets the money talk and mock-ups of children's book illustrations get the art talk. Lost is art's sensory experience—the scale, the brushwork.

Lost in the story of the destroyed Cranach painting is how hypnotic it was. You don't get the meticulously rendered detail. You don't get the sensuality. You don't get how his brushed-on pigment can move you to stand back, stung, in total disbelief at the skill. And Cranach didn't even paint for a living. He was a licensed apothecary by trade.

But here's the kicker. The Greeks tried without success to find a paint that would not lose its vibrancy. They and those who followed had to be content with whites of eggs and vinegar, which yellowed their work. Only in the early 14th century in Flanders did the brothers Huybrecht and Jan van Eyck invent oil paint by substituting linseed oil for the egg whites and vinegar. Ever since, oil painting like Cranach's has lasted in its original glory. It took an art thief's mother to kill it.

And all the media could talk about is its dollar value. I could cry.