This Vox explainer is accurately titled “Why these all white paintings are in museums and mine aren’t”, something that has also troubled us now and then. More on Bloomberg:
In a record month for New York art auctions, one standout was an all-white work that sold for $15 million. Even if one lacks Tom Wolfe’s courage to doubt the value of contemporary art, the multi-million-dollar price tag for some white paint on canvas cannot but raise existential questions.
White paintings are something of a philosophical tradition. Kazimir Malevich started it in 1918 with “Suprematist Composition: White on White”. […]
So what is so special about the 1961 work by American conceptualist Robert Ryman that fetched $15 million in New York this week? Or the nearly identical one below, also by Ryman, which sold for $5.2 million yesterday?
The most probable reason for the price lies outside the realm of art, even defined broadly as a symbiosis of painting and explanation. Alexander Rotter, co-head of the contemporary art department at auction house Sotheby’s, simply decided that Ryman needed a push. “I thought there was really something to be done with the market, that’s why it’s been priced so high,” the New York Observer quoted him as saying of the untitled painting. “The public needs a great piece to elevate the market and give it an indication of where it could go. The sky is the limit for this painting.”
If one wanted to be poetic about this piece of marketing wisdom, one could say Rotter is talking of the same sky whose lining Malevich claimed to have overcome. I’m more inclined to call it cynical. In the end, the value of art is in the emotions it conveys, its power of holding one’s eye and occupying one’s thoughts. A white canvas may have had the requisite powers in 1918 or even in 1951, because it made a radical statement. In 2014, it’s meaningless. The business decision behind the insane price is the only true piece of art in the case of Ryman’s works.
Even in the highly unlikely event that certain art lovers are moved by the spectacle of unadulterated whiteness, there’s no need to pay millions of dollars for the pleasure. They can simply follow Rauschenberg’s advice: “Want one? Paint one.”