Despite my desire to move on to another topic this month, the controversy over Hunter Biden’s artworks continues. What prompted me to address it again was the remark by Berlin-based art dealer Georges Bergès organiser of Hunter Biden’s debut exhibition, who said that Biden’s work would make him “a great artist” of the 21st century. As a practising painter and art academic, I found this statement incredulous and maddening, as well as financially self-serving on his part.
I still have doubts and concerns regarding the “emerging artist” status of Biden, and his “discovery” and subsequent exhibition and sale of his work for such high prices. Whether Biden has been painting most of his life or not, my concern lies with the fact that there are many emerging artists, and struggling professional artists, especially during the COVID pandemic, who have never made such high prices or been so well represented. Many are living under the poverty line despite dedicating years to their profession, having formal qualifications, and obvious expertise in their field. So, what is the difference? I would argue that it is not so much what an artist can do, the struggles they have overcome, or how well they do what they do, but who they know or are related to.
I stand by my previous remarks that Biden’s work is in my opinion, not bad art, and in the examples I have seen, not unlike the work produced by many art students at TAFEs and universities. What I still contend is that there has to be more to the underlying reasons for the prices being asked, and the fact the art is selling for that much, for an “emerging artist”.
Bergès organiser of Hunter Biden’s debut exhibition in the gallery that he owns states that Biden “worked at this and that” spending 20% of his time painting, which considering his previous extremely high salary, is more than most if not nearly all people get for doing a bit of “temp work”. He then goes on to say that he was in a cheap motel as an addict, which as the son of a then senator, seems strange, and leads me to ask how he continued painting whilst under those circumstances.
More incredulous is the following statement made by Bergés, “In the long-term, I’m thinking about museum acquisitions and who I’m going to target, because — mark my words — I believe that he’s going to be considered a great artist of this century. His father will be known, of course, as a US president, but most importantly as the father of a great artist.” Firstly, in response to this statement, consider the source, because as Biden’s manager and curator/gallery owner, a hefty amount goes to this person out of each sale, so promotion, fuelled by controversy (often used by contemporary artists and their managers and curators) fills his pockets. Secondly, we are only in the early years of this century, so a little early to speculate on who will be remembered as a “great artist”, as these things tend to rely on future art historians. Lastly, I will reiterate my objection to an “emerging artist” with influential contacts being touted as an historically significant great artist and linking that with astronomically high sale prices.
This is all underpinned by what the Art Newspaper says about the turnout, saying “Several outlets have also reported that turnout to the show has been dismal so far” and that few collectors were likely to brave the crowds of paparazzi in front of the gallery, especially considering that buyers are remaining anonymous. Rolling Stone has also voiced ethics concerns in this regard, confirming that the art market is not regulated enough to prevent or even monitor the prospect of buyers expecting “favours” from the White House after purchasing Biden’s work.
The attention that this is getting from major news outlets, no matter the result, I worry, is that it will only do what controversy has done for artists in the past, and that is to raise more interest, and increase sales, even if they are outrageously priced. This can only take attention away from artists who don’t have the connections and sway that Biden has in the media, who may continue to be ignored because they can’t break into the high end of the market.
This is not only of concern to the American and other overseas art markets, but to Australia as well. This is because as long as controversy and connections can make or break an artist’s career we will never have open and fair opportunities for them to be successful, or at least have a reasonable standard of living based on a remunerative arts practice, that makes significant contributions to our culture and appreciation of art long term.