Thursday, March 27, 2014

Now how much would you pay?

Not too long ago in Germany, Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi were arrested and convicted for forging and selling works of art in the style of Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Kees van Dongen and other famous painters. In the documentary film “Beltracchi - The Art of Forgery,” just released a few weeks ago, I was struck by a scene which showed an auction in progress at Sotheby’s. Art collectors and enthusiasts were bidding over $13,000,000 -- thirteen million dollars! -- on one painting. And that’s not even one-tenth the price of the most expensive work of art ever auctioned. Francis Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” was sold at Christie’s auction house last November for $142.2 Million. It turns out, we’ve been wasting our energy trying to convince people opera is as valuable as, say, sports or blockbuster movies. Apparently, the discrepancy exists within the art world itself. What is the value of opera? What is the value of art?

This question comes to mind in light of the forthcoming closure of San Diego Opera, announced last week. Immediately after the surprising news, criticisms of the $500,000 salary of General Director Ian Campbell (also wearing the hat of Artistic Director who, by the way, employed his wife as Director of Strategic Planning, whatever that is, for $200,000) began to surface. Incidentally, their combined salaries equalled roughly the cost of one Campendonk painting. Campbell’s snide remark about only hiring big names, because doing otherwise would “be like putting water in the beer,” ruffled enough feathers to put Papageno on edge. Hey, let me offer up a forgery of Diana Damrau for a tenth of the price! I really don’t think Mozart would mind.

As fishy as the story of San Diego Opera’s folding may sound -- after all, this is not a company on the brink of bankruptcy, at least not more of a brink than anyone else’s -- hearing about opera houses closing hardly makes for shocking news any more. A quick Google search reminded me of Connecticut Opera, Orlando Opera and Baltimore Opera going belly up in 2009, and New York City Opera shutting down last fall (about the same time that the Francis Bacon triptych was sold down the street, be it duly noted). 

And what would an opera be without an orchestra? Minnesota Orchestra’s famous lockout lasted 15 months before the Board and the musicians could come to an agreement about money. Recently the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (for which Mrs. Ian Campbell used to serve as Director of Development, by the way; oh, the irony) had to raise $5 Million in a last minute “emergency” fundraising campaign to stay afloat -- and then, only under the stipulation that they reduce the size of their ensemble by about 10 members. Is that an orchestral gesture akin to Van Gogh cutting off his ear? A measly $5 Million? Heck, I’d pay that for a Picasso doodle on a napkin.


Beltracchi and his wife would comb the flea markets looking for canvasses already yellowed by the passage of time to make their forgeries that much more authentic. Like visual art, opera reflects the time in which it was created, yet it can also be relevant for the contemporary observer. In a way, opera paints on an old canvas, too. Unlike visual arts, however, a new production of a 400-year-old piece by Monteverdi is never considered “fake.”  Maybe that is what is so elusive about performing art. It’s not something that you can keep all to yourself. You can’t bet on the outcome like you would with the World Series or the Superbowl -- in opera, it’s already written who will die in the end. You can’t ‘own’ a symphony or hang a ballet on the wall. Even if the music stays constant, no two productions will be alike. That, to me, is exciting. 

It is at this point where I almost sympathize with Beltracchi, because he allowed these dead artists to live again by creating the works that they never got to create while they were living. He allowed Ernst and Campendonk to live in a time when their art was not condemned by the Nazis as entartet (degenerate), rather celebrated, auctioned and fought over for exorbitant prices. Why is it that painters in their days of creating have to struggle, only to become “rich” after their deaths? Why not support them while they live and breathe? What better opportunity than opera (or other performing arts) do patrons of the arts and cultural institutions have to support living artists?

Beltracchi made us question the worth of art. One person who unwittingly bought one of his forgeries asked to have the painting back after the investigation because it’s one of the best "Max Ernsts" he’d ever seen. It's a bit like that saying, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like," and that from someone who paid millions for a pretty picture to hang above his couch.  So it comes down to this -- anything is only worth as much as we are willing to pay for it. 

*painting: Cheryl Graham
p.s. the painting above my couch is priceless, and not for sale!