how celebrity is changing the art world

From Leonardo DiCaprio to Pierce Brosnan, a new breed of celebrity collectors are using social media to change the way collecting art works.

by Philippa Snow
20 August 2015, 2:41am

Jean-Pierre Roy, Nachlass, 2015. The work Leonardo Dicaprio bought after seeing it on Instagram.

If you were thinking of utilising a celebrity to the boost the price of your already highly-covetable art to record breaking levels, you could do worse than the seventh James Bond, Pierce Brosnan; who found himself at the centre of an art-gossip furore last week after maybe-accidentally boosting the price of a sale with his double-oh-presence. "Mr. Brosnan," reported the New York Times, "snapped a selfie in front of a work he admired: the Lockheed Lounge, a space-age aluminium chaise longue by the industrial designer Marc Newson. Then he added the words 'let the bidding commence,' and posted it to the 164,000 followers on his Instagram feed... Later that week, Phillips broke the world auction record for a design object, selling Lockheed Lounge for £2.4 million, or about $3.7 million."

A similar story was duly connected after this, with the sale of a work by an up-and-coming artist named Jean-Pierre Roy to the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, reportedly engineered via Instagram. I confess, I was a little surprised to learn that DiCaprio even had an Instagram account; then surprised again to discover that the page was not, as I had first expected, filled with photographs of beautiful women — supine on the decks of various super-yachts — but rather, with pictures of endangered beasts. In women and in art, Leonardo champions singularity and rarity. In the animal kingdom, it would seem, his interest is in abundance. At any rate, as far as celebrity collectors go, DiCaprio is a bigger fish than Brosnan: an art-world fixture who fails at obscuring himself with his terrible beard and his auction paddle, and is "spotted," accordingly, at almost every event on the calendar. That he would be one of the first to pioneer a new and more private means of purchase, therefore, is logical; it is also, by dint of his fame and the platform's special modernity — suggestive of some future trend, and for this reason, of minor-to-moderate interest to a market-focused reader. Where Leo goes, we might surmise, the rest of the world's elite are sure to follow.

Jean-Pierre Roy has described his work as being "associated with science fiction and the post-apocalyptic...[with] sublime optical phenomena and massive cataclysmic events as they present situations where the viewer is placed into a moment, where the natural world has reorganised itself into a beautiful, terrifying, and unfamiliar system of forces." This is, I think, a perversely fitting blurb for this particular sale: Instagram is after all a platform which concerns itself with optical phenomena, both sublime and mundane — here, a mountaintop at sunset, and there a copy of Kinfolk magazine; a slice of sourdough avocado toast is juxtaposed with Beyoncé's perfect derrière, and so on — and certainly appears to have an air of the post-apocalyptic about it. Science-fiction? Absolutely. Dissemination; distraction; death — a master-slave relationship with one's personal data screen, be it large or small, is hardly a rare occurrence in the sci-fi genre. And so, this artwork by Roy made its logical way to the site, and from there, to the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio. After that, it made the artist £15,000 DiCaprio dollars.


The very system of celebrity is at once beautiful, terrifying and infinitely familiar; it, too, has successfully reconfigured the natural order of things, though it's hard to say which particular cataclysm created its present incarnation. Is Rino Barillari's camera its smoking gun? Warhol's canvas? Ryan Seacrest's brain? Consider the possibility that our latest "massive cataclysmic event" is the moment in which Pierce Brosnan so lustily — so publicly —fondled that Newson. "It's hard to make a direct correlation between Pierce Instagramming us and the world record, but certainly it made the lounger more desirable," the auction room's digital strategist told The Times. "It was a very exciting sale; we had phone bidders, people bidding online, and there was a lot of excitement around that piece in the auction room." In the hands of the famous, artworks turn into pieces of popular culture, which gives them, intrinsically, higher financial and emotional value: artworks of Michael Jackson by Gary Hume, by Marc Quinn and by Jeff Koons, for instance, are as religious statues, where Jackson's actual glove is a relic. When Leonardo DiCaprio is spotted "strolling the aisles at Art Basel Miami, hiding behind sunglasses in Chelsea, attending the opening of an Andy Warhol show at the Brant Foundation, and turning up at auctions dressed in jeans and a baseball cap pulled down low," he is bringing with him an attendant history. Strutting Leo, with his Oscars anguish and his frozen North Atlantic lips and eyebrows, is a human meme — a product destined for online circulation, like all other famous people, and like so much art these days.

Hollywood cipher-symbols are scarce, and you can find a hundred photographs of them online or in magazines, but you're almost always banned from actually touching them if you end up in the same room. In this way, as well as others, they're a little like the artworks they buy.

Ultimately, the sale is a demonstration of their collective Midas touch: David Geffen, the billionaire founder of DreamWorks, currently has the most valuable private collection of art in the world ("there's no collection that has a better representation of post-war American art [than Geffen's]," says the MOCA's Paul Schimmel); George Lucas, Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson and Dicaprio all appear in the top-ten. Brad Pitt has the seventh most valuable private art collection in the world, though this accolade was not enough to prevent Los Angeles' MOCA from rejecting his trustee board bid in 2013, amid fears that he "might be a little on the dumb side," according to an inside source ("he doesn't even," they added, "have a college degree"). Little wonder, then, that the art world falls at the feet of the ruling Hollywood class — online and offline; dumb or otherwise — or that they are the architects of art's future, in both commercial and creative terms.

J.G. Ballard recognised the fascinating status of the timeless A-List icon: he also described to a journalist at i-D in 1987, "an invisible loom of world commerce and information" which would one day encircle us all. Pierce Brosnan's veneers and DiCaprio's beard are totemic; crystal balls for the art and commerce of tomorrow. As observers, we simply content ourselves with learning the art of reading them.


Text Philippa Snow

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Leonardo DiCaprio
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