by josh orter
Please, dear aesthetes, have a moment to take in and contemplate this “portal to the sublime” with its “iconic and revolutionary zip.” It’s clearly a very serious work of periodic significance. Which is why it’s so very, very deserving of our attention here.
We begin with an admittedly vulgar calculation, namely the cost per square foot. Art certainly can't be judged by size, but it’s irresistible when things have moved into the realm of obscene. At 102 in. by 120 in., Barnett Newman's Onement VI is a total of 12,240 square inches or 85 square feet.
Dividing that into the selling price works out to $3,578.48 per square inch or, to put it into more relatable real estate terms, $515,294 per square foot.
Next up, theoretical compensation. Instead of passing through death and a series of progressively inflated wallets and peacocking egos, what if Newman was paid directly for his painting? Man’s gotta eat.*
That means figuring out how long it took to paint Onement VI. A day? A week? Month? I haven’t a clue, but ten days would seem a reasonable and safe assumption. So if Newman was working in a fugue state every hour he wasn’t sleeping, eating, or showering, it’s about 150 hours.
$43,800,000 / 150 = $292,000 an hour. Nice work! My grandparents might even look past the fact that I never became a lawyer.
Onement VI’s unlikely to head to a museum. No, its fate is someone’s private collection where it’ll hang on one wall in a home with many rooms owned by someone with many homes. Sure, it’ll end up with pride of place for maximum look-what-I-got-ness, but how much viewing time will it actually receive?
Since the buyer’s anonymous, we’ll start with an assumption that he or she is 45 and will live to 90. That’s 45 more years for a total of 16,425 days. If it’s hung in the principal residence, that means he’ll probably see it about 60% of the year. Weekends and holidays will of course be spent at the chalet, beach house, or pieds–à–terre strung around the world.
That’s 9,855 days. At an exceedingly generous half hour of shared viewing every one of those days, it’s 4,927 hours. This takes into account the likelihood of family in the home and the certainty that parties will be thrown with Onement VI in full view.
$43,800,000 / 4927 hours = $8889 per hour.
Seems I’ll be sticking to MoMA free fridays. Speaking of which...
By contrast, let’s work out the viewing cost of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night at MoMA. The museum’s been averaging about 3 million visitors a year. It’s hard to say how many were tourists and how many are repeat visitors, but perhaps 2.25 million stand before the painting each year. It’s not for sale, but how’s $200 million sound? We’ll use a 45 year timeframe for direct comparison.
If the average person looks for a minute, it’s 2.25 million ppl x 45 years x 1 minute. Total: 101,250,000 minutes or 1,687,500 hours.
$200,000,000 / 1,687,500 hours = $118.51 per viewing hour.
Onement VI $8889
The Starry Night $118
Canvas or Food
Not everything’s a zero sum game. A slice of pizza skipped in New York does not make it magically appear in the Sahel. But money flies and $43.8 million does a lot of flying. Exactly how much?
The low-end price of unhulled rice on the world market is $425 per ton. That means the painting’s buyer, if humanely motivated, could have bought 103,058 tons of rice. That’s 206,117,647 lbs and it's something that demands envisioning.
According to my new best friend, unhulled rice has a weight of 47.01 lbs per cubic foot. 206,117,647 lbs / 47.01 lbs per cubic ft. = 4,384,548 cubic feet of rice.
Storing it would require a cube-shaped building measuring 163 feet x 163 feet x 163. That's 16 stories high. But as such structures are hard to find in the wild, a freight train will have to do. At 50'7" by 9'6" by 10'11" (inside dimensions), a standard boxcar has a cubic capacity of 5,238 cubic feet.
4,384,548 cubic feet of rice / 5,238 cubic feet per car = 837 boxcars. Yes, 837. This would form a train almost 8 miles long and take more than twenty minutes to roll by if you were unfortunate enough to get stuck at a railroad crossing.
The world needs rice. The world needs art. The balance, that's the question.
If you're curious to know how many people that would feed, head over to Freerice.com to find out. Maybe give a grain or two.
* Not Newman. He left for the great canvas in the sky on 7/4/1970.