Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an influential analysis of income inequality that charts the rise of the world’s richest 1 percent, who between them own half the planet’s wealth. At 658 pages, it’s a lengthy and densely argued work. But one that curiously finds no space to mention the role of art as a status symbol for the super-wealthy.
The Frieze Art Fair opens in London this week. An estimated $375 million worth of art will be on sale, drawing collectors, dealers and speculators from around the world. Of course it’s true that money has always gravitated to art. A century ago the industrialist J Pierpont Morgan paid a record $500,000 for a painting by Raphael. But what’s changed since then are the people doing the buying – a global elite of investment bankers and HNWIs – and the types of work they’re acquiring. The rarity of Old Masters and works by mid-century modernists has propelled many buyers to seek trophy pieces from contemporary stars like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince. Their works typically do well at Frieze and the ever-increasing network of fairs that take place across the globe, from New York and Miami to Basel and Hong Kong. But what’s particularly striking about the brash, Pop-inspired art of Hirst, Koons et al its self-awareness; this is work soknowingly brash and showy that it seems to be mocking the aspirations of the people buying it.
Watching the super-rich at play is a grim prospect. It’s at least a consolation that, come a visit to Frieze, at least someone might be having a laugh at their expense.