Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The ‘Art Market’ is now a familiar term to most people, and means something quite different from simply the buying and selling of works of art, and the efforts of professional artists to earn a living. Artists nowadays - albeit very few of them - have the chance to become media celebrities: and if you ask the layman which artists she is most familiar with, it will very likely be those. The fact that many of them are conceptual artists, far from putting people off - as it once did - adds to their stature and their popular allure. There can be no doubt that art has become both fashionable and accessible, not only with private galleries and collectors with the requisite disposable income, but also - in terms of its implied content - to the public at large.

However, behind this recent increase of interest in fine art there is an overriding economic incentive. Art, here, is above all a business. Of course, business has always been the bottom line with private galleries, whose proprietors invariably - with a few exceptions - deal in whatever is perceived to have ‘value’ in monetary terms, if not in terms of artistic content. The private gallery is usually obliged to show artists whose work ticks one of these boxes - the economic one - and perhaps both, if that is deemed viable. Very few private galleries will mount exhibitions that do not generate, directly or indirectly, now or in the future, some financial gain. This is understandable, as no business can survive without profit. The question is - and it is a big question - what constitutes ‘value’ in fine art.

For private galleries this issue has always been fairly complex, since their outlook is, as noted, primarily commercial and does of necessity involve the notion of varied ‘taste’. For public galleries and collections, it used to be a lot simpler. The very idea of a ‘public’ collection implies a democratic view of what art ought to be. Crucially, in the modernist era, this view was not decided by the majority, but by those specialists in the art world - artists, critics, and curators - in whom the general public had a degree of confidence: one might even say ‘faith’. By and large people would accept their view as informed judgement, and would endeavour to understand even the most ‘difficult’ work accordingly.

But with the passing of modernism into post-modernism, the philosophical ground of that informed judgement has been put into question - along with every received notion from the previous era - in favour of a plurality of tastes, opinions, cultures, identities, life-experiences, and creative methods. The prevailing climate of postmodernism also proclaimed the demise of the artist as hero, the end of élitism and the avant-garde, and the democratisation of art. However, the impact of all this upon the art market was to blur the edges of what constitutes art and taste to such an extent that it became ripe for manipulation by clever financial entrepreneurs: enter Charles Saatchi, and his equivalents, to the field of art.

Another consequence of this cultural paradigm shift was to blur the distinction between the market and public spheres. This blurring has, of course, not only affected art but almost every aspect of culture and society. The public sphere now has to compete on a daily basis with the private, and the effects are often manifested in bizarre hybrids - as in health, public services, education, etc. The average person is often confused as to whether he or she is a citizen or a consumer unit; an entity ostensibly entitled to every conceivable individual right and freedom, but perhaps denied the most essential needs.

This hybridity can be seen quite clearly in the art-world. The modestly financed artist-hero has vanished, only to be replaced by the wealthy artist-celebrity. Art criticism follows or complements the trends, affectations, and manipulations of the art market, as do public galleries. Many artists affect an anti-establishment pose, while profiting from their output in either credence or capital. In all of this, whatever it is that makes art ‘art’ seems to have been neglected, overlooked, or hyped out of all recognition, in both the private and pubic spheres.

But it is still there. It is not by default absent in the work of those who have achieved fame, but certainly not universally present. And the same is true for artists of lesser renown. Whatever it is that makes art valuable remains forever beyond the brazen economy of the art market. The real X factor is such that it would probably never be recognised by the eponymous television show. And, it is completely unmarketable.


Copyright © 2016 Brian Grassom

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