The value of art, like pornography, lies in the eye of the beholder and the willingness of said beholder to pony up cash to acquire whatever artistic creation strikes his or her fancy. People purchase art for many reasons: as decoration, as sentimental reminders of special vacations and as an investment. The art market is a true supply-and-demand market basically unregulated by government, except in cases of forgery and fraud.
Until fairly recently, it appeared to be the case that President Biden’s son, Hunter, had more experience with pornography than art. But this is America, the land of nonstop personal reinvention. The president’s Yale Law School-educated son has morphed this year into an author and now a prolific painter, whose abstract-expressionist designs reportedly will fetch between $75,000 and $500,000.
Hunter has explained that many of his creations result from blowing paint onto a canvas or piece of paper. The straw is clearly Hunter Biden’s contemporary take on Jackson Pollock’s ladles and sticks that he used to hurl paint across large stretches of canvas.
Consider two artists who were close friends and studied art together at what is now Carnegie Mellon Institute of Technology: Philip Pearlstein (still painting at age 97) and the late Andrew Warhola, better known as Andy Warhol.
Pearlstein left Pittsburgh, spent time in the army, got a job as an illustrator, began as an abstract painter and then, about the time that Jackson Pollock was hitting his stride with his abstract drip paintings, decided to move back into realism. Pearlstein’s decision at the time was controversial, as he intentionally decided to buck the emerging abstract-expressionist trend.
When Pearlstein moved to New York City, he and Warhol roomed together until Pearlstein married another of his art school classmates, Dorothy Cantor.
Warhol launched the era of American pop and conceptual art – his Brillo pad boxes and Campbell’s soup cans follow the lineage established in 1917 by Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal installation at the Society of Independent Artists’ Salon. Warhol’s silk screens and other works established a market for celebrity art in which the celebrities included both the subject (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and the artist (Warhol himself).
Meanwhile, Pearlstein painted figures day-in and day-out using models in his New York City studio filled with Disney puppets, unusual weather vanes and other bric-a-brac. In my view, Pearlstein is by far the better artist, and his works command impressive prices at the Bowery’s Betty Cunningham Gallery. Nonetheless, a Pearlstein portrait of two nudes lounging amidst flying model airplanes and marionettes will bring far less than the typical Warhol thought experiment.
Why? Because when it comes to the value of art, there’s literally no accounting for taste.
But here’s the real rub: how on Earth can a blow job by Hunter Biden, exhibiting in his first gallery show, sell for more than a Philip Pearlstein figure painting?
Does anyone doubt that the answer lies in the fact that Hunter Biden’s father happens to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
As press secretary Jen Psaki notes, the president’s son has every right to pursue a painting career. Yet, he must do so in a manner that avoids the obvious ethical issues associated with setting his prices that reflect whom he’s connected to rather than the quality of his work, which one art critic characterized as the sort of mass-produced art you often find in hotel lobbies, corridors and bedrooms.
At this point I must confess: I’m jealous of Hunter Biden’s success. For several reasons.
I worked in the White House (but had no relatives residing upstairs), left government, wrote a memoir about my experience and then took up painting to decompress from the writing experience. Since 1994, I’ve been a serious oil painter – figure, still life, landscapes and the occasional abstraction. I’ve taken classes at the Art League of Alexandria (Virginia) and at New York City’s National Academy of Design. I even got to know Philip Pearlstein while taking an intensive weeklong figure-painting class with him and 14 other painters.
With close to 1,000 works of art (paintings as well as drawings) and Hunter Biden for inspiration, I’m now open for business. Whatever Biden’s getting, I’ll sell my works for 50% less. I have no White House connections and no ethical conflicts to resolve. Nor will I disclose who purchases my works or at what final price.
Let the bidding begin!
Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House