Research scholar, art critic and a budding curator, Premjish Achari writes to me asking a very pertinent question regarding art and money. He formulates the question in the following fashion: With the advent of art boom in India, most of the art players including the conscience keepers of the scene, the critics, have developed a tendency to look at the price tag of a work of art than the work itself. Debates on aesthetics, the relevance of art as a socio-political tool and so on have taken a backseat as art today is treated as a commodity. My question is, is it going to be like this for a long time? Do we need to develop new strategies to understand this phenomenon or the theoretical tools developed by Marx, Frankfurt School or Frederick Jameson are still good enough to analyse this situation? If art becomes a commodity, what all does it become what all does it lose in the process of becoming a commodity?
Succinctly put by Premjish, these questions address a wide range of issues faced by the art scene/s all over the world. Premjish asks whether art is going to be a commodity forever or is it a passing phase? Interestingly, after the international market recession hit Indian shores and affected the art scene quite badly, the regular players ask the same question but in a different mood: Is this recession going to be a permanent feature or is it a passing phase? These questions show the two sides of the same coin. Art is a commodity, whether you like it or not and there is money in art. Only issue is, the money that has been poured into art/business, is slightly dried up now. So the concern is, is it going to be like this forever or is it going to change for the good? While Premjish’s concern is to de-link art from money and take it more as a vehicle of human sublimation and redemption, the other group’s concern is to link art back to its commodity status.
(Cave paintings from Bimbedka, Madhya Pradesh)
At the outset itself, let me put it quite straight- art has become a commodity and there is a business involved in art. Andy Warhol had once famously said that the best form of art is business. Perhaps Warhol was expressing the materialistic conditions of his times when the US was gaining undisputable position as the leader of the world economy. However, we also know that the art of art is hiding art. Today, this dictum is changed- today the art of art is splurging on it, if not by the artist, but by the buyers, collectors, dealers and so on. Any sociological enquiry would take us to the very basic fact that in the beginning art was not a commodity and over a period of time it became a commodity with monetary values attached to it. When did this transition exactly happen?
It is said that art came as an expression of human activities, sentiments and emotions including hunting, love and fear. Those people who lived in the jungles did not think of art as a form of commodity. They drew images on the cave walls or inscribed messages on the rocks, carved shapes in wood and so on. These activities should be seen as a part of human beings’ cognitive development vis-a-vis his environment. Then as settlements developed, these expressions got religious and ritualistic dimensions. This also shows a transition of this human activity (of making something that we call art today) from individualistic pursuits to collective engagements. When art became a tool of proto-religious practice some kind of organizational aspect came around it. Art became a part of the establishment (in whatever forms) and the artist became a man of ‘status’ patronised by the respective establishments. This helped in developing guilds with a master craftsman/artist at its head and innumerable apprentices under him.
The words, ‘patron’ and ‘patronage’ are very important in understanding the transformation of art from a human expression to commodity. Once artistic expression became a part of the establishment, the establishment heads automatically became the patrons of such ‘artists’. A new social relationship was developed between the artists and the patrons in the evolving socio-religious structures. This relationship gave some sort of permanency to artistic activities and even outside the religious practices, art came to have a relevance and reason at least for the artist who had pursued it. Sophistication of expression, derivation of visual linguistics and grammar, evolution of patters, symbolic logic of representation and so on evolved as a result of this process. And the patrons helped the artists to ‘codify’ their times visually and permanently for the sake of the posterity. The development of religions and their insistence on the notion of life after death (a visible life here and an invisible life beyond) might have induced a desire for ‘eternity’ (which could pass from this life to the other life) amongst the artists as well as the patrons.
The origin of commodification of art could be traced somewhere here in this historical interface of religion and social life. Both in the western and the eastern societies we see temples and religious centres, including the caves selected for spiritual recess, becoming the centres of art. In these sites art became a prime thing thanks to royal patronage. Art that was an integral part of the architecture became a visual symbol for the opulence of power and glory of the patron. Kings and emperors wanted to tell the world about their glory and ‘eternity’ through commissioning works of art. Though we see, artistic process is commodified (as it is paid by patrons), the very result of it (the works of art) was not commodified. Patronage for art became a very strong political, religious and social symbolism of power. A cursory glance at the history of the Medici family in Rome would tell how art patronage was an integral part of political, religious and social manoeuvrings.
(Cosimo di Medici)
In the post Renaissance period, with the waning of fiefdoms all over the world and the proliferation of industrialization and colonial incursions, guilds were shattered and the genius of the individual artist was recognized (artistic genius started evolving by the 14th century). But in the new socio-political scenario, artist was a loner and destitute though fired by genius was devoid of materialistic support. Stabilization of power brought economic profits for many kingdoms, fiefdoms, colonial governments and so on and they all now wanted to ‘promote’ the art and culture by patronizing the individual artist. This also was partially led by the idea of ‘eternity’ of the yester years. If you remember, most of the travelling artists of the colonial period did the same thinking that the local chieftains and royalties would commission them to do family portraits and related glories.
Stabilization power not only brought economic surplus but also it brought the abstract notions of tradition and culture. Conservation and preservation of certain values and the objects that embodied those values became an imperative for many of the patrons. This was the origin of museums. It started off as a house of curios and slowly developed into the museums that we know today. When something could be collected and preserved, or when something could be detached from its functional role and brought as an object for aesthetic contemplation, it assumed the value of a work of art. That means museumification of objects led to the idea of detaching the functional value of ‘art’ from its locations and turning it completely into an object of aesthetic contemplation. In that sense, works of art commissioned by the patrons from the individual artists became ‘alienated’ (in the Marxian sense) objects de-linked from their actual function of documenting a family history or locality for establishing ‘eternity’. This private commissioning of works for preservation, therefore alienated aesthetic contemplation seems to have given commodity status to a work of art.
(Louvre Museum, Paris)
Even in this situation, the preserve-able works of art were not commissioned for ‘exchange’. Any object becomes a commodity when it assumes the power of exchange for value. Hence, we should say that art became a commodity when the patrons started exchanging/bartering/ or even buying and selling works of art for the sake of preservation. That means there happened a further alienation; in this context the buyer does not commission a work of art, instead he ‘collects’ it for the sake of keeping or further exchanging. At the same time, these activities gave the buyer the assurance of ‘eternity’, ‘social status’ and so on. By this time, individual artists were also growing up as strong social presences. They were not just artisans and apprentices in guilds. They were individuals with clear cut political, religious and social affiliations. In that sense, these individual artists were expressing their ‘opinion’ through their aesthetical expressions. Those who acquired the works from these artists were in fact endorsing that view of the artist or finding those views akin to those held dear by the ‘buyers’ themselves.
Works of art got a pure sense of commodity with the advent of galleries, which in fact was a by product of the house of curios or museums. Galleries came to play a major role in art scene by 19th century, as places of aesthetic contemplation and places of buying and selling art. The patrons now could visit a gallery, look at a work of art at their own leisure. They were entertained by the gallerists. They could meet the artists, make friends with them, meet people of equal footing in the society and so on. Slowly galleries became hubs of art activities as artists find the galleries and easy option for finding patronage without moving around with their wares like hawkers. Though galleries came in as a by product of museum thinking, it did not have anything to do with museum as a philosophical discourse. Galleries were commercial places brought in by the changing social realities of the times.
However, pure commodiification of a work of art happened once the museums and galleries started developing a nexus between them and their practices. By the 20th century, galleries had taken a strong position in the chain of art production, dissemination and consumption. The more powerful a gallery became the more its presence felt in the scene. Slowly it led to the arbitration of taste and the birth of gallerists as taste makes or connoisseurs. The rich and powerful, who now became patrons of art for their own reasons (of which surplus money and profit take a major part) did not have much time to mingle with artists or their environments. Gallerists and other taste makers (critics and writers) decided the buying tendencies for them. It was a happy situation. Artists needed money and the new buying class mediated by the gallerists and art critics and other taste makers provided a good ambience for producing and buying art. Selling in the secondary market was yet to come.
Secondary market sales therefore art as a pure commodity which has a resale value and an appreciation unlike many other commodities (other than real estate) was the new phenomenon. When any commodity whose production is less compared to the demand, secondary market become operational. In the case of art, thanks to the auction houses, gallery-museum nexus, works of art came to have an investment potential. It is much nuanced a phenomenon than said. A work of art assumes investment values when it is treated as an abstract commodity with attributable values than real values. Attributable values are proportionate with history, culture, nationalism, status, politics, power, religion, biography, name, fame, fortune, myth and so on. Each buyer in the art market has a reason from a basket of reasons to pick up a work of art. The very same reason could be applicable for many others. Hence there is a demand against a short supply as works of art are not produced in assembly line (boom made it an assembly line production, which was the flipside of it). This disparity between demand and supply causes increase in the price, which indicates the investment value. And it is projected that in the pyramid of art hierarchy, an artist who has the potential to reach a museum (as a collectible), he is the one who is to be collected. This causes a flurry of activities in the secondary market. When he is in absolute short supply, people look for someone who works like ‘him’. This leads to a speculation that every artist is capable enough to reach ‘museum’.
This is what exactly happened during our boom time (2005- 2008); hopeless speculation and mindless buying. The market players including the gallerists (those who were taste makers of yester years just fell from that position to just hawkers), critics, writers and everyone was asked to do lip service for the secondary market activities. Everyone became a star because of the projected short supply and everyone’s fate to be in a museum. This situation is bound to change.
Coming to the other aspects of Premjish’s questions: Art cannot be now reversed from its commodity status. What could be changed is the speculation that says everyone is a great artist and bound to end up in museums. To clear the situation, we need to demarcate investors from art collectors. What is common in both the parties is their tendencies to offload works of art as and when they feel it. What is uncommon about them is their ways of purchasing and keeping a work of art. When an investor buys a work of art, he goes by the words of the ‘seller’ who masquerades as a consultant. A consultant, as she is a part of the machine called market, would tell the investor that X or Y is going to be a museum artist in the coming future. With the help of chart and data, she would prove that her arguments are fool proof. Hence the investor puts in money thinking only about the profit that he is going to make in the coming five years. The gap between buying and the five years wait gives him enough satisfaction as a ‘collector’ and as a ‘cultured’ person. But a collector is absolutely different in his ways of collecting. He would not go by a consultant’s words. He has his gut feelings about an artist and he is always a student of his collection. He may collect an artist who would never reach a museum, still he would be happy about his collection. He offloads some of the works from his collection when he grows tired of those works. He either makes use of the funds to buy new works or create room for other works to breath freely.
Art as a socio-political tool is an effective notion still. So long as a work of art is produced by a human being, who is not ‘programmed’ like a cyborg, he/she is going to express his responses to the social events and situations in his works of art. They become subtle or volatile registration of the same, whether he is bought by a collector or an investor. Real art writers and critics would find him at some stage even if he is living in a forest. Problem of our country, as far as art is concerned, is the lack of funding for independent projects. Artists become addicted to money matters and deviate from their chosen path when they are allured by the glitter and glamour of the art market. If there is funding, artists could do their work and be happy. In those countries where funding system is prevalent, artists write projects, apply for funds and do their works. Only those people who have intelligent projects get funding. In this world everyone cannot be a successful artist, if success is measured by monetary gains. Finally, art market is an irreversible phenomenon. We could use Marxist, Neo-Marxist and Jameson-ian theories to analyse and understand this phenomenon and implement them as corrective tools for larger common good. I am optimistic about that day when more and more artists turn towards sustainable art projects. I am sure there would be a day when artist would step out of their studios and do agriculture or retreat from this maddening world and like the sages of our golden times become the conscience our society.