Absinthe and logarithms

by Colby Cosh

(Reuters) – Christie’s has put a record price tag on an important Picasso painting from his celebrated Blue Period that will be offered for sale in London in June. Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto (The Absinthe Drinker), dated 1903, is expected to fetch 30-40 million pounds ($45-60 million), the highest pre-sale estimate for any work of art offered at auction in Europe.

I don’t know if anyone else does this, but I think about art prices on a logarithmic scale, the way we rate earthquakes and loud noises. Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet (I), which sold for $138 million in today’s dollars, would be an 8.1. The most expensive single works by Jeff Koons or John Singer Sargent are around 7.4. Mary Cassatt’s about a 6½; Borduas or Kurelek, around 5½; and so on, right down to the creators of embroidery samplers at your local craft fair. Logarithms make things like this a lot more comprehensible; they make the whole Great Chain of Being visible, they permit interpolation and prediction, and they run almost from 1 to 10. To 9, anyway, if you assume that there are objets d’art with a hypothetical market value of nearly a billion dollars, which there surely are. It’s not important how much an artwork or an artist’s oeuvre is worth at auction, of course, except that an ounce of revealed preference is worth a ton of gum-flap.

Picasso has a lot of paintings still changing hands between collectors and is therefore always contending for nominal-dollar auction records. It’s interesting to me to find him still doing so 40 years after his death; somebody paid a magnitude-8 price for a Dora Maar painting a few years ago. How much of Picasso’s standing in the marketplace comes from the plain fact that he became synonymous with “painting” during his life—largely on the basis of bluster and myth and populist touches and, above all, surviving the big wars cockroach-fashion—and that, as a result, even dumb people have heard of him and have a shot at recognizing his work? I am inclined to think the answer is “A lot”. Nor does it hurt that there’s a lingering fragrance (or stench) of Old Left romanticism attached to his name.

I don’t mean to suggest that these features of Picasso are not every bit as “real” as his technical gifts or his innovativeness, but when one considers these paintings as equities, as items that will have a certain resale value in the year 2100, the social resonances that accompany the man’s name are bound to fade in memory. I wonder if he will remain an 8. When some Japanese executive pays that kind of price for a good Van Gogh, he’s paying for Van Gogh’s power—acquired by being spiritually injured in a certain way, at a particular place and time—to endow ordinary objects and scenes with a particular beauty and cosmic significance. Van Gogh might not be your particular cup of cadmium, but somebody will definitely still feel that way about those paintings in the future. It’s a lot harder to be sure about Picasso, at least in his various 20th-century incarnations.




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Absinthe and logarithms

  1. So Gen X : Logarithms. Base 10.

    Au naturel: "e" Go Eulers!

  2. You are using natural logarithm of US dollars. Isn't the Richter scale base 10?

    And, in 2100, are you assuming we will still be using US dollars, and that they will never have any Zimbabwean-Zero-Lopping going on? If so, you may assume that the log score will be waaaay more than an eight, just thanks to inflation. The currency devaluation may be even more imminent, when more and more people realize that Social Security needs to start cashing in its T-Bills (uh-oh…) to meet its obligations.

  3. "When some executive pays that kind of price for a good Picasso, he's paying for Picasso's power/ability to endow ordinary objects and scenes with a particular beauty and cosmic significance. Picasso might not be your particular cup of cadmium, but somebody will definitely still feel that way about those paintings in the future. It's a lot harder to be sure about Van Gogh, at least in his various 19th-century incarnations."

    What you endow to Van Gogh's art, another may endow to Picasso's, or even another may endow to the works of Bill Watterson (In time your hypothetical billion dollar mark could be hit).

    • That's true to some degree, but I don't think many people are tempted to use the word "cosmic" in connection with any phase of Picasso's work. Obviously the extremely avant-garde stuff comments on perception, but to the degree that Cubism had anything meaningful to say about that, I don't know that you can argue that it was successful the way a scientific discovery is successful; it didn't, and couldn't, displace traditional ways of representing three dimensions in two.

      And by dollars I mean to refer to "the equivalent of today's dollars", though the social surplus available for art purchases is bound to grow even in real terms. We may migrate toward the "billion dollar mark", but slowly.

      • I think you can only see the importance of Picasso's work by taking all of his work into account. IMHO he is a very important painter because as an artist he clearly found and was able to reveal something new through the entire process of his painting career. That is not to say that others didn't reach a higher level of finding the new as well, but Picasso was a bit of a show man besides and that certainly helped for exposing his work to the world. (at that point one has to be aware that some of Picasso's work was deemed important because it was done by Picasso, not because of the work itself, but any famous artist's work runs the risk of being thrown into that trap).

        For a period he worked closely with Braque and some of Braque's work of that time is better than Picasso's, I think. Yet, when looking at Braque's work in total, his level reached could not match Picasso's.

      • Van Gogh as an artist reflects his time as well, but much more in a personal regard. Picasso's entire works reflects a much wider direct grasp of the times he lived in and by.

        Therefore, Picasso's work does reflect the deepening out of the three dimensional within a two dimensional plane, yet, one would, at first glance, consider his work to reveal less of an increased dimension. That is, I think, not easy to explain or understand about Picasso's entire progression of work.

  4. AH! being Absynthe-minded is quite the experience and I am talking about the real deal not the glorifeid Vodka crapola.

  5. You are using natural logarithm of US dollars. Isn't the Richter scale base 10?

    aha. Caught the U of Montreal engineer. He did in fact use log(base 10) instead of ln(base e) on his calculator. I think you wee using i.

    • were

    • Actually I used Excel 'cause it was handy. I thought the LOG function was natural log. Maybe I need to click on the "help" button a little more often.

    • You know what, my memory is coming back more clearly, and it was even worse than that. I did it in my head before I commented, and I believe I posted before double-checking in Excel. I guessed that the natural log of 138 must be Colby's 8.1, because the base-ten-log was obviously barely above two. Of course, it's not 138. It's 138 million. Ooooops.

      Then I double-checked in Excel, used LOG(138000000) correctly, got 8.1 like my Ln(138)-in-my-head had pre-approved, and erroneously confirmed my original error.

      For the record, Excel tells me the natural log of 138 million is 18.7. The natural log of 138 is 4.9 (in my undeserved defence, not that far from 8.1…). The base-ten log of 138 is 2.1.

      • Here's a trick: in general if you want the ln and you already have the log, all you have to do is multiply by ln(10), or 2.3.
        So in this case 138 mil is approx 100 mil, which is 10^8. So the log is about 8, and therefore the ln is about 18-19.

  6. To take inflation and different currencies into account you should really price these things in dB. Take 10*log(P / Pref) where P is the price of the painting and Pref is the price of a beer, or some other handy reference.

    Then you have a scale from about 1 to 100, with Portrait of Dr. Gachet worth about 75 dB independent of currency or inflation.

  7. It's fairly easy to translate things into March 2010 US dollars (which are about even with March 2010 Canadian dollars); if I were getting really serious about calibrating I'd go with ounces of gold as the time-invariant standard.

  8. But besides that, I think paying millions for a piece of artwork is absurd in the extreme. It's all about hype, really. The dollar amount at such levels has absolutely nothing to do with the art work itself, but with the world around it.

  9. That's true to some degree, but I don't think many people are tempted to use the word "cosmic" in connection with any phase of Picasso's work. Obviously the extremely avant-garde stuff comments on perception, but to the degree that Cubism had anything meaningful to say about that, I don't know that you can argue that it was successful the way a scientific discovery is successful; it didn't, and couldn't, displace traditional ways of representing three dimensions in two.

    Cubism was the revival of pre-Renaissance conceptions of the relationship between the viewer and the work of art. A Cubist work of art is projected into reality instead of receding into its own version of reality. It is thus non-representational without being abstract. In my opinion this is infinitely more important, artistically, historically, and philosophically, than the mad genius of Van Gogh, whose "cosmic" quality is just 19th century romanticism in a vibrant, colourful, beautiful new dress. Cubism is the most authentic version of Classicism since Giotto.

    • I don't know Jack. In my mind, Picasso was so much more an elite it seems than Van Gogh; he had connections and he deliberately tried to influence (not that it should take away from the intrinsic value of his art). Cubism certainly made a statement about art and anti-realism, which we needed in the art world. But Van Gogh's style and story influenced just by being himself. There's something so much more wholesome in that. Maybe these two artists shouldn't really be compared, but appreciated for what each brought to 20th and 21st century thinking about art.

      • When you're saying "I don't know" to someone named "Jack", the comma is REALLY important.

      • When you're saying "I don't know" to someone named "Jack", the comma is REALLY important.

    • Authentic? Enh, maybe. Important? For heaven's sake, how? There aren't any Cubists left. Cubism didn't supplant Renaissance discoveries about perspective; people don't insist on commissioning Cubist portraits of themselves because they're superior representations (or a metaphysically superior means of capturing the essence of a three-dimensional face; or however you want to put it). Cubism's a failed hypothesis, a dead end. Whereas the "mad" genius of Van Gogh somehow continues to influence every kid with a palette knife.

      • Is importance measured by influence? Who will judge it, God or Hegel?

        I guess what I think is vital about Cubism is not the specific techniques they used (for Analytical Cubism: seeing things from more than one angle, integration of background and foreground, pointy edges, lack of colour) but the fact that the painting becomes something in itself — a thing-in-itself, if you will — rather than a representation of something. Of course, all things are things in themselves, properly considered, but Cubism refused to allow the viewer to wallow in the representation, forcing him to confront (or seek out) the subject. A synthetic example: http://bit.ly/cGZooD . A work like that creates the subject rather than depicting it. Thus the viewer participates in the work of art rather than merely gazing at it.

        What I like about this is that it rejects the dualism that permeates our world of art (and art auction culture). The artist is no longer a Promethean figure (Picasso and Braque didn't sign their canvasses); the viewer is not an Untouchable peeping at the secret Brahmin rites & feeling unworthy of such genius. (I hate the idea of genius: it's the "ordinary" person's excuse for not emulating the great.) The work of art is neither a holy relic nor a postcard. As Nietzsche says, "The true world and the apparent world: that means the mendaciously invented world and reality." Cubism rejected the "true" world in favour of reality; the shame is, as you say, that it has so few successors in painting (though you could argue that it launched installation art etc.). We have reverted to our romanticism, a state of emotional dependency on art that one can barely imagine democracy without.

        • "Thus the viewer participates in the work of art rather than merely gazing at it." And this wasn't true at any time before 1907? Honestly now. Picasso was a lot more of a Promethean mythologizer (an Orphic one, anyway) than, say, any Dutch painter of the 17th century. What sane person would suggest Vermeer's contemporary buyers weren't aware of his paintings as things-in-themselves as much as representations? Some of this stuff was probably sold by the square foot.

          • I'm referring to the aesthetic experience of the viewer looking at the work of art rather than that of the banker buying it.

            Here's a Vermeer, which I guess you picked as an extreme opposite to Cubism: http://bit.ly/9HlzXj . Everything works to give the picture depth — the window in extreme perspective, but most of all the shadows of the objects on each other — so that the table is in front of the bread basket, the bread basket in front of the bowl, the bowl in front of the woman's wrist, etc. The effect is to locate the subject of the picture, the woman, within the painting. That's what people like so much about Vermeer, no? Apart from the sentimentality of depicting daily life, I mean.

            Contrast this with a Byzantine icon: http://bit.ly/bFuqJ0 . There is no spatial relationship between head and body or either of those and background. As a result, the figure stands out from the surface. This is necessary to the act of devotion, because the worshipper needs to interact with something real, not just with their imagination. This is what I mean by Classicism and participatory art.

            I don't deny that Picasso was an egomaniac and as Promethean, in his own self-mythologising, as anyone ever born. I am not a huge fan of his post-Cubist stuff and honestly don't grasp why his Blue Period and Rose Period stuff is much valued. But it is a fact that he and Braque did not see their Cubism as a projection of their Own True Self or experience, their Vision, their idiosyncratic Soul — they were trying, ascetically, to reject all that.

          • I'm referring to the aesthetic experience of the viewer looking at the work of art rather than that of the banker buying it — that is, the inherent aesthetics of a painting.

            Here's a Vermeer, which I guess you picked as an extreme opposite to Cubism: http://bit.ly/bFuqJ0 . Everything is done here to embed the subject behind the pictorial plane and thus within the painting: not just the perspective of the window, but the way objects are layered one behind the other through the use of shadows: the bread basket is behind the table, the bowl is behind the bread basket, the wrist is behind the bowl, etc. By the time the eye gets to the subject, she's quite some distance away in our imagination.

            By contrast, here's a Byzantine icon: http://bit.ly/9o00l6 . There is no spatial relationship between head and body or either of those and background. As a result, the figure stands out from the surface. This is necessary to the act of devotion, because the worshipper needs to interact with something real, not just with their imagination. This is what I mean by Classicism and participatory art.

            I would be glad, however, to see an example of European art from before 1907 and after 1600 in which the subject is not embedded behind the pictorial plane. It is difficult to compare and contrast these qualities with flat images, though: this is the one aspect of aesthetics, unfortunately the most vital one, in which a photograph is no substitute, because if flattens both what recedes and what projects.

            I don't deny that Picasso was an egomaniac and as Promethean, in his own self-mythologising, as anyone ever born. I am not a huge fan of his post-Cubist stuff and honestly don't grasp why his Blue Period and Rose Period stuff is much valued. But it is a fact that he and Braque did not see their Cubism as a projection of their Own True Self or experience, their Vision, their idiosyncratic Soul — they were trying, ascetically, to reject all that.

          • Very interesting conversation, Jack.

            Indeed, a great transformation took place when Cubism was going on. Therefore, I find it important to line up the painter (Picasso in this Cubism era) with his time surrounds, because the artist (as opposed to just being a painter) has the capability to let the times flow through the self for bringing out in the completed work what had gone through the artist as time. I see time as motion by generation. Art is a form of generating as is all else.

            I don't believe any true artist is as much preoccupied (when working on a piece) if the viewer will or will not come to appreciate the finished work. A lot can be said about "art" in context of the understanding that art must be good if it is appreciated by many. The appreciable effect after the fact is not what the true artist is after. There is a difference between paiinting pleasing pictures and being busy making art. Ask any painter/artist which cap he or she is wearing at a particular time and you might find the answers insightfull.

    • Where does that idea come from that cubism is a revival of pre-Renaissance conceptions ……..?

      I think not!

      Why do some people hang onto to the notion that experiencing a particular history can be done twice? Cubism is not in relation to Giotto. One cannot enter through an experience (such as pre-R travelling through R and back) as if coming to stand in front of preR times once again. No way. Cubism is as reaction to (or sontinued progression of) the Renaissance and other moverments which came out of that. All movements are in relation to each other but never as standing completely pure in front of entered-through eras. Cubism is much more in relation to how fragmentation is setting in, whereas during Giotti's time, the "roundness" of view (painterly and generally speaking) appeared ,to be entered into.

      • I was thinking of the way that Giotto's figures seem to come alive off the background rather than existing within that background. Contrast for instance http://bit.ly/aGQtCS with something by Bellini (http://bit.ly/8XcYGU or http://bit.ly/aNM7zh ). To say nothing of perspective, post-Mantegna painting seems to me to do its utmost to embed the subject into the background through the use of light. Cubism, by contrast, pulls the subject out of the background.

        • Interesting, Jack. I would say that cubism (after perspective and all of that has been through time) takes things OUT of perspective again, thereby bringing relational space into a new view. Later, Picasso pushes this much further and is able to achieve a lot with just lines. His work may seem to lead toward the simplistic (so called backward if you will) whereas in fact they are progressively pulling things forward in a new way. The complete abstraction Picasso never entered into, but complete abstraction takes a hold during the same time as Picasso was delving into his line and shape paintings, etc. Abstract paintings could be seen as either a step further than Picasso's work or they could be regarded as having given up on Picasso's pursuit altogether. But that's another matter all together.

          • " Abstract paintings could be seen as either a step further than Picasso's work or they could be regarded as having given up on Picasso's pursuit altogether. But that's another matter all together. "

            One could argue that abstraction too, is a reflection of surrounds, meaning that perhaps Cubism and Picasso's progression after the cubism period was no longer fully understood, in other words, what cubism tried to explore (or revealed as being the reflection of the times) could not be followed by the masses as such. I think Cubism was a phase to be passed through in order to come to the next stage, and it is the next stage where the fork in the road really makes itself visible: on the one side there is the complete abstract direction in artwork and on the other hand there is a complete drawback into extreme realism (using the two dimensional plane to portray a three dimensional being as "real" as possible).

  10. What is interesting, Colby, is the fact that here you bring the phenomenon of paying atronomical prices for art together with Picasso. Because, in a way, Picasso's progression as an artist had to do with lifting out a thusfar unrevealed phenomenon, (namely the "entity" of a brushstroke as being) and making it , as being, in relation to a "picture". If you look at how his work progressed over the decades, one can sense a gradual simplification of sorts, and yet, this simplification could reveal mood etc. in an increasing manner nonetheless.

  11. If we look at the being of money, likewise one could say that money, too, has been lifted out as separate entity, as separate being within a "picture" (the picture in that case being the human social structure).
    Think about what the being of money has become. Money, as being, is no longer just in relation to value of goods and services rendered. Money has also come to stand as an entity all on its own.

  12. If we look at the being of money, likewise one could say that money, too, has been lifted out as separate entity, as separate being within a "picture" (the picture in that case being the human social structure).
    Think about what the being of money has become. Money, as being, is no longer just in relation to value of goods and services rendered. Money has also come to stand as an entity all on its own.
    It would be interesting to find out if the gradual higher prices being paid for particular artworks, would have started happening at around the same time as Picasso was digging into finding that separated entity of the brushstroke. Because that would indicate to me, that Picasso was indeed of his time and by his time. I believe he was very much in tune with his time and therefore his art progress is of great importance.

  13. " Abstract paintings could be seen as either a step further than Picasso's work or they could be regarded as having given up on Picasso's pursuit altogether. But that's another matter all together. "
    ————————————————————————————

    One could argue that abstraction too, is a reflection of surrounds, meaning that perhaps Cubism and Picasso's progression after the cubism period was no longer fully understood, in other words, what cubism tried to explore (or revealed as being the reflection of the times) could not be followed by the masses as such. I think Cubism was a phase to be passed through in order to come to the next stage, and it is the next stage where the fork in the road really makes itself visible: on the one side there is the complete abstract direction in artwork and on the other hand there is a complete drawback into extreme realism (using the two dimensional plane to portray a three dimensional being as "real" as possible).

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