What does $142 million look like, hung on a wall? At first glance, disappointing. Auctioned at Christie’s in November, Francis Bacon’s triptych portraits of Lucien Freud fetched a price higher than any other work of art ever sold at auction. That distinction creates certain expectations. It’s also drawn crowds to the Portland Art Museum, where the paintings are being temporarily displayed before disappearing into a private collection.
From across the room the panels present a dull expanse of mustard and puce. Freud sits on a wicker chair, his ankle crossed over his knee, presenting the viewer with the sole of his foot, his body partially bound within a geometrically impossible prism. What’s remarkable about the work (to a layperson, at least) is the way it changes with a bit of time. After a few moments what comes forth are smears of purple across his brow and cheek; the energy roped in the muscles of his forearms; the weight of his slouch; the steady gaze of an eyeball.
The triptych’s record-setting price, fetched at an auction that set its own record for total sales, seems a small aside in the list of 2013’s significant events. That some anonymous billionaire acquired a new silver spoon to display at dinner parties may be boring or infuriating, but is it relevant?
Really, the sale of the Bacon triptych was a telling moment in a year marked by new highs for big money. The stock market made record gains, with most of the benefits of the upswell going to the corporate class. In search of new places to park their cash, buyers bandied about ever more absurd amounts of money in battles for prized works. The art market shot up by 27 percent. (Rolls-Royce sales ballooned, too.)
It’s difficult to ignore this glitter in the stratosphere, juxtaposed against the bleak fortunes of workers and the poor. Indeed, plenty has been written about 2013 as the year in which inequality entered the political mainstream—read: the lexicon of cable news. But neither soaring wealth nor the discussion of inequality were new; the previous top-selling painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, fetched nearly $120 million in 2012, the same year in which the dismissal of 47 percent of the country may have cost the GOP the presidency. Certainly these post-crash trends were amplified in 2013, but it’s hard to identify a real tipping point.
Pundits have moved on to consider whether 2014 will be the year that all this talking about inequality will propel a resurgence of the Democratic left, inspired by Bill de Blasio in New York and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate. What exactly economic populism will amount to in policy terms seems less clear than the idea that Democrats will find its language useful to distract from Obamacare hysteria in the midterms.