Friday, October 1, 2010

Inflated Pricing of Art Places Young Artists in the Danger Zone

Inflated Pricing of Art Places Young Artists in the Danger Zone

 The issue of inflated pricing of artwork has become a hot topic in recent years-- especially after the crises that bottomed out the art market not long ago. Art dealers have received the blunt of criticism concerning price inflation. However, I suggest that artists are to blame as well-- specifically living artists who have some control over their market. After all, the artist and art dealer relationship is a business partnership-- prices only rise if an artists sits back and allows unrealistic pricing to increase. That said, it is obvious that inflated pricing has hurt the validity of the mainstream art market as a whole-- and has harmed the careers of young artists within the market itself.

The harm that inflated pricing has done to the mainstream art market is clear. In recent years artists have lashed out against the practice of over-pricing. Surprisingly, some of the most vocal artists opposed to this form of inflation have gained great wealth within the mainstream art market. For example, Pop Artist Gerald Laing has stated that the commercialization of the artistic process is “revolting”.

In 2008 Laing lashed out at the mainstream art market by proclaiming that the majority of major art dealers value the deals that they make over the quality of art sold. In other words, Laing felt that the blunt of art dealers were attaching high prices to artwork that they knew were of low quality and relevance simply because of the name involved with the creation of the artwork.

Gerald Laing’s criticism of the mainstream art market did not stop there. He went on to suggest that art collectors had been swindled and that the major auction houses of the world had adopted the unethical practice of inflating prices that major art dealers had instigated. Laing obviously felt that artists had been shelling out artwork with little substance at the urge of their art dealers. He sarcastically suggested that major art dealers were displaying more creativity than most artists by convincing art collectors to pay millions for mediocre artwork.

Damien Hirst has also lashed out against the mainstream art market over the issue of inflated pricing. Hirst’s criticism is unique due to his position as both a top selling artist as well as an influential-- and extremely wealthy-- art collector. In 2009 Damien Hirst stated that he would not buy in the current market until prices were more favorable. At the time he suggested that prices would drop before the art market-- or the economy for that matter-- is stable. He also suggested that artists and art dealers who embrace reasonable pricing would come into their own-- meaning that great profit could be made by those who avoid the trend of over-pricing.

Hirst offered advice to emerging artists while offering criticism to art dealers worldwide. He suggested that emerging artists should not create art with the idea of financial gain and that the only thing that matters is if the work is “good or not” instead of how much the art is priced or how much it cost to create. One can assume that Hirst feels that the prior strength of the art market-- a strength that made him a very wealthy artist as well as art collector-- may have held some artists back as the pursuit of wealth overtook the pursuit of creating works that last outside of the art market bubble. The irony being that Damien Hirst has become-- in the eyes of some art critics and the public-- the symbol of the extravagance that has reduced the art market to its current condition.

In my opinion, the people hurt most by the practice of inflated art pricing happens to be emerging artists. Individuals who focus on the mainstream art market knew that it was not a good idea for major art dealers to price the artwork of emerging artists so high. In the recent past it was not uncommon to observe the artwork of an artists fresh to the mainstream gallery scene priced at $20,000 or more-- and I can recall observing an artist who was not even on the art world radar, so to speak, having photographs sold for $100,000.

As for the example above-- I can remember the images, but for the life of me I could not tell you the name of the artist. I highly suspect that said artist is not having mainstream art exhibits today. People were talking more about the price than the art itself! The problem with that pricing structure-- at least as far as the career of the young artist is concerned-- is that once a work of art is sold for a solid figure the artist finds himself or herself locked within that price bracket in the eyes of collectors and others who invest in art. There is little room for downward pricing within the mainstream art market if one desires to remain valid within the market itself.

In other words, a relatively unknown artist-- in the hands of an influential art dealer who has mastered the art of hype-- may potentially have artwork sold for $20,000 a pop. However, once a few pieces are sold it is expected by unwritten art market standards that said artist will continue to have work sold at that price or higher. Unfortunately, it is common for these one or two hit wonders to stumble into trouble within a short frame of time-- especially when art collectors and curators realize that said young artists will not be the next Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin.

After falling victim to inflated pricing the young art star may find it difficult to profit from the mainstream art world again. Furthermore, a star in the mainstream art world can fade quickly. It is not as easy as being an author or musician who ends up having distributed books or albums placed in a bargain box before releasing another bestseller or hit. In most cases a visual artist within the mainstream art market can only move forward in pricing-- a step back can cast doubt among art collectors and others who invest in art. Thus, some emerging artists face trip lines before their careers take off due to over-pricing.

It is for this reason that inflated pricing of art places young visual artists in the danger zone. Sadly, many place themselves in that situation. After all, emerging artists do have some influence over how their art is priced upon gaining gallery representation. Unfortunately, many young artists are so over-whelmed by the excitement of their achievement that they place profit over longevity within the art market.

The fact remains that many artists young to the art market would still be selling had their artwork sold for a few thousand instead of $20,000 or more. That said, more gallery doors would still be open had mainstream art dealers embraced reasonable pricing instead of trying to propel emerging artists to the status of artists who have been in the market for a decade or longer. I’d go as far as to say that outright greed has harmed more people within the mainstream art world than censorship ever has.

The problem is huge for reasons other than just pricing alone. The plague of inflated art pricing has conditioned people-- in general-- to accept high priced art as having more significance than simple investment. The mentality today is that art that is priced highly is often assumed to have historical as well as cultural relevance-- when in reality the artwork has been driven by an artists or art dealers quest for wealth and ability to entice a sale. I for one think that it is a sad time for art when art history and visual culture is dictated by dollar signs and business transactions. However, I suppose one could question recent art history as a whole as far as that goes.

In closing, I realize that the idea of a ‘realistic price’ for art is hard to determine. That said, examples of inflated pricing are obvious if one is bold enough to look past the hype. When so many emerging artists have seen their careers within the mainstream art world cut short it is obvious that over-pricing is a factor-- and that both art dealers and artists are to blame for the blunt of these struggles. I have little sympathy for emerging artists who place themselves in that danger zone-- and art dealers should know better.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


  1. How do you go about pricing art? Especially in today's world when a majority of over priced or even fairly priced art is really bad and lacking in content. How do you get the Gallery/Dealer to push art that is speaking on the conscience of society when society is afraid to look at itself. Honestly it seems that in order to be seen, let alone make any money from your art these days, you are asked and expected to regurgitate the same things we've all seen time and time again.

  2. I've been in this art game for many years.
    Supply and demand.
    Quality and charisma.
    These determine price. Value is different question.
    Art is a word with many definitions and anything made with intent can rightfully be called art.
    How can one discuss prices of art with no specific definition of the word?
    How much does art cost?
    How much does a car cost?
    1925 Bugattii.........$268,000
    2011 Corvette...start at $50,000.
    1925 Model T Ford....$15,000.
    Duchamp showed us that it is no more than a name game.
    The artist who wishes high prices must have a product that sells
    at high prices, just as any manifester, creator, builder, or maker of any object must.
    Simply calling something art does not increase it's value.

  3. Anonymous, the art world has safe zones just like any industry-- O my! I said the ‘I’ word. Certain topics are rarely allowed visual dialogue within a mainstream gallery setting. That is one reason why we have this mythos of all artists being involved with one extreme or the other when political or societal lines are drawn, so to speak. Part of that is due to fear-- and the blunt of it is due to political or societal ideology that is common among typical art dealers. In my opinion, the ideas conveyed in an art exhibit should not be based on an personal or political agenda alone.

    In other words, I’m not certain of how to push galleries and art dealers to push art that speaks to the public as a whole when it is obvious that bias is the rule of the day in what is shown and the ideas that are catered to. That mentality, if you will, has muted the impact of visual art as a whole in the mind of the public.

    Rand, there is something to be said for supply and demand-- that is very true. I’m not so sure that charisma should play a role… that is if you mean the traits of an artists personality. I say that because I don’t think age or gender should matter either. The personality traits, age, or gender of an artist should not decrease the value of a powerful work of art.

    I’m not convinced that the mainstream art market is a name game as far as what ends up being sold is concerned. After all, I think we have all seen examples of artists who have yet to make a name for themselves earn as much as established artists. It is common to see a young emerging artist propelled to the same level of established artists only for them to end up in obscurity almost as quickly as they arrived. An old colleague of mine would suggest that young artists-- with careers based on hype-- end up in obscurity because they did not “pay their dues”.

    It is never wise to start at the top-- the fall is very far. Artists need to focus on establishing a solid market for their art-- and art dealers need to give artists time within the market to become the hot sellers they want them to be. Not everyone is destined to be as successful as Damien Hirst or other artists who have found fortune via means of creating art.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that both artists and art dealers need a reality check. I hate to break it down this simple-- you might pay a $1.50 for a bottle of Pepsi, but I doubt you would pay the same price for a bottle of soda that you have never heard of even if that brand is of the same level of quality.

    Pepsi is a proven product-- it is established. People who like Pepsi like it because it is Pepsi. No, I’m not suggesting that art is a mere product-- however, as you hinted at, when artwork enters the mainstream art market it takes on some of the same aspects. Becoming an established project takes time-- not throwing huge price tags around in order to give a false sense of value.

    I hope that I’m making sense-- I’ve not had much sleep and I’m only on my second cup of coffee.

  4. Charisma of the piece. In music it is especially obvious. A one hit wonder is what it is called. The Beatles of course, made hundreds, and there is talent.
    Of dozens of art displays there is possibly that one artist whose work just stands apart and above for some reason. People are drawn to look and they want it. No promo or sales pitch can ever get this result.
    Art is still nothing more than something produced with intent.
    When an object gets called ART with that special twang that means holy, enlightening, radiating something special, that is the next meaning of the word.
    Rather than a world where art has languished and galleries disappeared we now have a world where art is everywhere, reproduced instantly and constantly. The painter must find a place to be unique among millions of images and that is very tough.
    What we want to be discussing is the rarefied idea of fine art. A very special kind of research and development whose product has little intent of becoming merchandise.
    Basquiat and Kincade have found this unique niche, like their products or not. They might be the last of famous painters. Otherwise, the gallery oil painter just might be so anachronistic as to be done for.