Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Looking Beyond the Hype: Is the contemporary art market a fraud?

Looking Beyond the Hype: Is the contemporary art market a fraud?

There has been a hailstorm of questions concerning the art market since the global financial bust. As the art market continues to have ups and downs some art collectors, art dealers, as well as the general public have demanded answers concerning the integrity of the art market as a whole. The focus of the criticism has been placed on the ethical practices of some art dealers and collectors. Needless to say, people are starting to examine the art market closer than they ever had before. At the source there is a great deal of hype to be found.

Many of the questions are common-- some were asked before the recent art world financial meltdown. Were prices inflated? Were novice art collectors duped? Did some art dealers sell ‘lemon art’ knowing that the investment would only ride as long as the art market continued to advance in a positive direction? Did top art collectors foster a market of excessive prices for their own gain? Are some artists to blame? Is the general public to blame? Who is responsible? The questions build up as individuals reflect on the art market as we know it-- frustration creates an environment of outrage.

This atmosphere of doubt offers the perfect time for individuals to make powerful statements concerning their position within the art market. People desire answers-- in this burdened financial climate a strong answer can easily become a battle cry. However, there is also room for the age old ‘my art is better than your art’ rhetoric that tends to creep out of the woodwork whenever the art market is in peril-- and I think it is safe to say that the art market is not out of the woods yet. Needless to say, I think we should all focus on what is really being said when someone speaks of the recent art market crises-- especially if they are throwing up a finger of blame. An underlining ploy can often rise to the surface when words are examined next to the position of who is saying them.

A perfect example of this can be found in a past article in The Independent (UK). The Independent article stated that David Nahmad-- an influential Monaco-based art dealer -- had lashed out against the contemporary art market. Nahmad suggested that contemporary art is a “fraud“. In the article Nahmad suggests that a handful of art collectors have artificially increased the value for certain artists work and that art dealers willfully duped novice art collectors into buying high priced art knowing that the art would be of little value after an art market bust-- which ended up happening.

David Nahmad was not foolish for lashing out. After all, he is aware that others support his view. Those who support Nahmad’s opinion feel that the recent collapse of the art market is “proof” that contemporary art is of little value. Needless to say, most of those critics have a vested interest in the same aspect of the art market that Nahmad deals in. In that sense, Nahmad’s statement is business as usual. In a sense, Nahmad is reacting to hype with hype.

The key point of David Nahmad’s criticism can be summed up with one of his statements, that being, “I would never advise my clients to buy contemporary art.”. Nahmad’s criticism aside-- it should be noted that he deals in modern art and feels that art has not advanced since Francis Bacon. In other words, one could say that his criticism against the contemporary art market is simply a ploy to support his own market.

Thus, one could say that by questioning the integrity of the contemporary art market-- a market Nahmad opposes in the first place --he is also placing his own integrity into question. In other words, the worms tend to rise up if you cut open the surface of a dead beaten horse. In that sense, Nahmad failed to provide a solidified answer to the art market crises as much as he has played on the fears, paranoia, and anger that is already present.

In any business fear, paranoia, and anger will arise if the foundation of its respected market starts to crumble. Concerning the art market as a whole-- this fear has driven many to compare key figures within the business of art to organized criminals. I have no doubt that David Nahmad played on those fears when making his statements to The Independent-- he won’t be the last to proclaim that the contemporary aspect of the art market is fraudulent-- while proclaiming that his own niche in the art market is the “real deal". True, some of Nahmad's underlining criticism is warranted. That said, his intentions-- as a whole-- should be examined based on the scope of his words as they apply to his business ventures.

With that in mind, I think it is unfair to suggest that art dealers can be compared to mafia lords as some critics have done. After all, unlike a mafia boss an art dealer makes offers that you can refuse. So in that respect, some of the responsibility falls on novice art collectors themselves for having bought into a market that continued to soar without restraint. Buyers in any market can control the market by their choice to purchase or decline, true? Surely David Nahmad would agree with that. Buying on hype alone is not an investment. Keeping up with Charles Saatchi is not an investment. Sometimes a fool needs to be called a fool. A market based on folly is bound to fail.

Not everyone agrees with the criticism of David Nahmad. A columnist for The Art Newspaper, Louisa Buck, responded to Nahmad‘s statements. She said, “There is no doubt that the likes of Rothko, Picasso and Matisse are magisterial figures, but the art world has moved on and to dismiss everything after Bacon is utter nonsense.”. I have to agree with Buck’s statement-- especially since it is obvious that David Nahmad played on the art market crises of the time in order to support the aspect of the market he deals in. That said, I do agree that overpricing-- and inflated prices in general --have been a problem in the art market. I truly hope that art dealers have learned from that or else the cycle of poor business choices will continue.

I don’t think it was fair for David Nahmad to suggest that it has only happened in recent years nor do I think it is fair for him to suggest that contemporary art is the only aspect of the art market that has involved inflated pricing. One could say that hype pricing, if you will, has been going on for several decades now and has involved works of art by living artists as well as artists who have long passed. In that sense, every aspect of the art market needs to be examined-- including the aspect of the art market that David Nahmad holds dear.

In other words, there is no single villain in this scenario. In many ways we all played a role-- from the artist, to the dealer, to the art collector, to the viewing public who lined up to see the art with their own eyes, all the way to the humble art blogger writing about what he or she observed. We were all caught in the hype that energized the art market just before it crashed. In many ways this decadence-- this vehicle of hype-- reflects the same turmoil that has resulted in our faltering economy. Thus, we should question ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that the art market should be looked at with a scope. I do think that some artists, dealers, and collectors use unethical means to establish themselves within the public conscience. I say that because I feel that art that is honored should be honored due to merit instead of hype or artificially spurred public interest.

Art appreciation should not be dictated or established by these means in my opinion. We should be wary of media hype-- especially where art is concerned. After all, we are talking about art-- something that defines our culture and who we are as a people-- not a new line of car or some other updated consumer good that only has value in the here and now.

It is true that mass publicity can establish an artist beyond the level of acclaim that he or she would have otherwise-- we observed that recently with the artist Shepard Fairey due to his association with a public relations firm that had worked with the Obama campaign. It was not by accident that his ’Hope’ poster ended up being a mainstream news phenomenon. Thus, it is no accident that his artwork is now worth far more than it originally had been.

True, the media hype surrounding Fairey was brilliant from a business standpoint-- but I would like to think that art, including the art market itself, is based more on merit than a carefully planned media campaign established to create buzz for an artist. If anything, that is the problem with the art market at this time-- it is a problem that can be found in every aspect of our society.

That said, I do think that novice art collectors as well as the general public need to take a deeper look at exactly what they are praising-- and if their praise stems from a media bombardment which tells us what is 'good' art or 'bad' art. People need to ask if the artwork they view and purchase is truly groundbreaking, if it truly speaks, if it is authentic, and if it can stand alone without a media bombardment of praise. Only then, in my opinion, will the art market-- and any market for that matter-- have a degree of authenticity and true integrity.

Is the Contemporary art market a fraud? I don't think so. However, I do think there is room for change. What are your thoughts?

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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