We live at a time where a piece of art depicting dogs playing poker while puffing on cigars sells for $658,000, and a significant portion of the world doesn’t have access to running water.
My teenage son alerted me to the bestial ferocity of the artwork of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. My son wasn’t a scholar of the arts. He was playing Fallout New Vegas Ultimate Edition, and the Bethesda team had created their homage to Coolidge by inserting an Easter Egg of one of his famous Dogs Playing Poker paintings within the game.
I don’t get art.
I try, I do.
I visit museums and art galleries whenever I visit a new city. Some pieces suck me in. The sheer grandiloquence leaving me rooted to the spot. Then there are times when I think the whole world has gone slightly mad. Standing in a field of crazy Asians peering at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre was one such time, and staring at an exit door in the Tate Modern for 10-minutes thinking it was art before someone walked through it and I realised it was an exit door, was another.
I am not surprised that an unknown person of extreme wealth recently brought down the gavel at the $658,000 mark to purchase Coolidge’s Poker Game. But I still don’t get it.
Poker Game is one of 16 oil paintings, created by Coolidge, and known collectively as Dogs Playing Poker. This unique painting of peculiar pooches ended up in the Alexander Gallery, New York before it was acquired for a private collection in 1986 before being sold on in 2008. That lucky buyer is now the proud owner of $658.000.
Why buy it?
One could argue that art has it’s worth if put on display in a museum or gallery. Over time, millions of people would pay to receive the value of joy through their artistic gaze. One could also argue, and Peter Singer does in his book The Most Good You Can Do, that it would be better to invest that $658,000 towards curing blindness. After all, isn’t everything beautiful to the man or woman that has lost sight?
I don’t know for sure, but it’s likely that the piece ends up in a secure dungeon, growing in value, in readiness to be sold on for profit. Art is an investment in the same way that real estate, stocks and bond and commodities are.
The 19th-century designer, poet and entrepreneur William Morris would have called this purchase ‘the just price’. Morris believed that ‘work’ should consist of beauty, wonder and value, and that workers should love and be proud of their work. He was like the Aston Martin workers of today. Then the Industrial Revolution came along and mass-produced the shit out of everything. Everyone decided to buy the cheapest things they could buy, and Morris’s ideology struggled to gain traction.
There is a lovely little tidbit of information that I gleaned from Morris’s work that I try to apply to my life, and it seems the new owner of Poker Game also does. Only have things in your house that are either (a) useful, or (b) you believe to be beautiful.
I guess there is an argument that a painting of dogs playing poker, that will one day be worth over a million bucks falls into one or both of those categories.