The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup
The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup
Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 29 2001 3:00 AM

The $29,900 Styrofoam Cup

Do the art cognoscenti like the work they buy?

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Meanwhile, Cattelan and the other spectacle specialists go around making statements like: " 'The Ninth Hour' could simply be a bad joke taken too seriously." "Who cares about art? Art is such a little world." You would think art cogs would take offense at this. Au contraire. Christie's headed its press release with the first quote. Irony has a huge artistic license these days, even among its victims.

The art world is also unashamed of its elitism. "I think art should be for those who are more educated, who take the time to learn about art," says one dealer. The (real) ironies abound. It was precisely this sort of snobbery that drove the avant-garde in the first place. And since no one wants to be thought of as provincial, the rich and the intellectually insecure have gone along for the ride. For the past 30 years, art theorists, unlike film or literary or music theorists, have had an entire commercial and critical force in place to not just underwrite their most irrational whims but to actually promote them.

{{Standing Nude#111200}}When art finally breaks out of the theoretical stranglehold it's been in, there's no need for it to return to any sort of formalist fundamentalism, in which only a few immutable truths about color and shape and craft are allowed. The best art has not only been "a symbiosis of form AND content," as David Cohen, editor of, wrote in a Slate "Dialogue," but has worked to expand our aesthetic boundaries. And many works at the recent auctions did just that: four of Shirin Neshat's photographs, which sold from $18,000 to $57,000 at Phillips; John Currin's Standing Nude, which sold for $336,000 at Christie's; an Untitled, by Christopher Wool, which sold for $58,750 at Christie's; and works by Elizabeth Peyton, Sigmar Polke, Rineke Dijkstra, Anselm Kiefer. Not coincidentally, though, most of these pieces sold quietly and below estimate.

{{Sherrin Neshat#111202}}Perhaps people who are more interested in creating objects of purely social or cultural commentary than they are in creating something that also has an aesthetic component should be called visual commentators, in the same way that performance artist has become distinct from actor. Meanwhile, we in the un-art-cog world have to stop being so defensive about new art. "The uninitiated audience has developed a form of smugness about not being taken in that's equal to the insider smugness about not wanting to appear out," says Bruce Wolmer, editor and publisher of Art & Auction. Art that would cause us all to lose this smugness—now that would be truly subversive.

Karen Lehrman is writing a book on the substance of style.