Robert Genn
June 27, 2008
Dear Rodney,

In this remote cabin the cellphone never vibrates and my only companion is a solitary cabin-mouse on a regular route, checking and rechecking points of interest, sometimes deviating off the track to inquire of something new. While painting, I'm reflecting on the crazy parallel universe of art dealing and art speculation. What has my daily plodding got to do with what happens to the stuff I make?

These thoughts have been stimulated by a book I brought with me.  The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace seems to be a metaphor for art's secondary market--art aficionados, collectors, speculators, dealers and the fine-art auction business in particular. The book is about the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold--a 1787 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux, supposedly once the property of Thomas Jefferson when he was a young ambassador in Paris. Found bricked-up in a Paris cellar by a shady German wine merchant and collector, it was sold at Christie's in London in 1985 for $156,000.00.

Like a lot of high-priced art, the bottle is essentially undrinkable.

A few bottles are actually worth opening. Well-heeled, big buck guys get together for annual "tastings." Some tastings are called "horizontals" --all the wines available from different Chateaux from a certain year. Others are "verticals"--all the wine from a single vineyard for a series of years--say 1804 to 1927. Yep, sets of these old wines can be assembled by attending auctions and hanging out in the right cellars. In the expensive process of assembling, and the snobbish business of claiming the better palate, a kind of divine madness overtakes these guys, setting the ground for all sorts of tomfoolery and fakery. Bottles are topped up with younger wines and whole new antique vintages are concocted in found empties.

All this has nothing much to do with the wineries. Like artists, the vintners tend to their grapes, protect them from pestilence, oversee timely harvests, take care with pressing and bottling and send them out into the world hoping to make an honest buck. Then, depending on rarity, provenance and perceived quality, the speculation boys take over. Sometimes it takes a hundred years for all the stars to line up. But they do. Plonk or not, it takes these passionate characters to make things happen.
Best regards,
PS: "You can almost taste the wine that turns so many rational people into madmen." (Buzz Bussinger)

Esoterica: In the wine game, most of the tasters spit. Otherwise they'd be drunk as skunks. In the art game, obsolescence isn't as instantaneous. It takes time for art to win palates, and time to devalue as well. While it's okay to think ahead to tomorrow's tastes, and prepare as best you can if you must, the artist's job is to live in the now and to simply strive for maximum quality as he or she sees fit. Somehow the best lesson right now is the dedication and persistence of that mouse. I'm thinking he has a rather nice life in spite of all the traps that lie ahead.