On May 11th, Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #96” from 1981 passed all records for photography when it was sold at auction for $3.89 million. This is what it looks like:

What’s that you said, you philistine? Did I just hear you say, “meh?” Did you say you don’t see what all the fuss is about? Oh my. You should just pluck your eyes out now if you can’t appreciate High Art when you see it. Take a closer look. Notice the interplay of the monochromatic hues of orange and how the diffusion of light . . .

Ah, who I’m kidding. I can’t even pull off a parody of what a Pretentious Art Connoisseur would say in this case because I simply can’t fathom how anyone could justify paying the equivalent of the annual GNP of Haiti for a picture that would have earned a B+ if it had been taken for a community college photography class.

However, Sherman’s Kodak moment is a work of genius compared to the snapshot that previously held the title of World’s Most Expensive Photograph. That would be Andreas Gursky ” 99 Cent II Diptychon ”:

No, I did not go down to the Dollar General and snap a random photograph. This is a real thing. In 2007, someone with too much money and too little sense paid $3.34 million for this Work of Art. Another auction in May 2006 fetched $2.25 million for a second print. Of this same photograph. (Seriously, they did.) A third print—yes, a third copy of this same photograph—sold for $2.48 million in November 2006. (I promise you I’m not making this up.)

You can now say that you have seen the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th most expensive photographs of all time. ( This is #3.)

This sort of silliness gives realism a bad name. It’s almost enough to make those of us in the Tom Wolfe school of art criticism long for some good old fashioned, overrated abstract expressionism. ( Almost. )

Update: In the comments section, FT’s deputy editor Matthew Schmitz says, “At the end of the day, it’s hard to tell if we’re doing art criticism of just criticizing the elites. The former, I think, is much harder to do well than the latter.”

That is certainly true, though, as I explain in the comments, I think it is there is a legitimate reason why such “pre-criticism” is required. But he does have a valid point. I mocked the piece without even attempting to do any actual art criticism. While I don’t believe its necessary or worth the time or effort to give a full-blown critique of the piece, I think I can easily explain one of its major flaws.

I’ll assume for the sake of time (and because I’m lazy) that our readers are familiar with golden proportions and how they apply to aesthetics. So let’s see what happens when we apply the rule of thirds (the theory that if you place points of interest in the intersections or along specific lines that your photo becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally) to the photo:

By adding the lines, it is easy to see that Sherman has attempted, but failed, to apply the concept. But notice what happens if we simply rotate the image 5 degrees counterclockwise:

The difference in symmetry is striking. The two main objects of interest in the photograph (the woman’s face and right hand (the one on the viewer’s left)) suddenly fall into a natural, aesthetically appealing alignment. Several other areas also fall into place. Notice the top of the left hand, the bottom collar of the shirt, the right breast, and the right wrist are now all on the same axis. You can also almost draw a golden spiral from the right wrist (the one on the left) to the woman’s face. Even the angle of her face makes it more appealing.

I could go on, but why belabor the point? Sherman isn’t competent enough to get the basics right, so there isn’t much point in discussing the more nuanced flaws in the piece.

Articles by Joe Carter

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