Sunday, June 24, 2012

United Art Fair: What Art Collectors Want

(A Souza work from 1961)

The story is from our art market booming years. A young art collector invited me to her home. Security men at the gate looked at me with suspicious eyes as I did not match anywhere with the glamour of their employer. Armed by my proximity with that girl I fought back those hateful gazes and entered that multi floor home where she showed me her collection of art. I was admiring the collection with my curious pair of eyes and a mouth partly opened for sipping a cool glass of fruit juice and remained so for my inexplicable wonderment at the fabulous collection that she had on her walls. She led me through floors after floors where I witnessed the works of Indian masters. The guava juice in my glass tasted several times better when I stood before a Souza nude ogling at the voluptuousness of her body (not of the collector).

Suddenly I felt something strange. A brush stroke was not falling in place. A colour blotch has too much of thickness. A line was finding its way out of its desired course. I looked at the signature. Then at the signatures in all the paintings. They were all done by different people who had carefully followed the style of the masters. Even their signatures resembled the inimitable calligraphy of the masters. I turned at the beautiful art collector who was standing next to me more amused by collection than anybody else in the world. A few minutes before, I too was experiencing the same excitement. Now shocked out of it by the fake signatures I decided to confront her. I asked her why she collected all these ‘imitation’ classics. She told me that she liked them. I queried her regarding the names of these artists. “I don’t care,” said she with a smile dangling in her lips. “I commission them to do these and they do,” she added. What do you do with these works? I wondered. “I live with them and then sell them to other people who like masters’ works but really don’t want to go through the rigour of actual collecting.”

(Scream by Edward Munch)

Before I go into the analysis of this anecdote and explain what makes art collecting so exciting with diversified collectors’ attitudes let me recount one more anecdote; of course from the same boom times. A friend took me to a mall like building in Mumbai. He told me that he wanted to assist his friend’s parents to select a work of art. The building did not look like a gallery but its three storeys had all kinds of art wares and interestingly the building was brimming with people, and the sales were going in full steam. While my friend’s friends’ parents rambled through their kind of art I decided to take a self conducted tour through the display in the shop. The first floor was full of Ganesha idols made out of all conceivable sizes, materials and mediums. The second floor had all paintings; and many looked like copies of masters both Indian and western. A couple came in and went through a series of nudes and they were looking one for their bed room. Sexciting works, I told myself. They finally selected one, a very seductive one three by two feet in size, and asked for the prize to the assistant in a dapper suit. Rs.80,000/- sir, he said. The couple looked at each other and they tallied the money with the kind of pleasures that they are going derive with this painting in their bedroom wall, and finally decided to go for it.

These two anecdotes taught me a lot about art collecting in India. If you look at the percentage of art buying/collecting in India, one could clearly say that the above mentioned kind of collecting overshadows the collecting of ‘art’ from the galleries and other art vending agencies. This also clearly tells us that art collection is not all about art investment. It has got a lot of emotional values attached to it. And remember emotional values are always relative and subjective. One cannot look down upon a person who goes for a Souza look alike than an original Souza. He may be shelling out half the amount of the original but what he holds with him is a sense of Souza; a sort of high related to the idea of having a Souza. It obviously says that he is not ‘investing’ in Souza. He knows for sure that this cannot be passed off as Souza in the secondary market as it is signed by someone else. Also he knows for sure that the signed artist is not made big by anybody so that one day he could be cashed in on just through his signature. So shall we say that this art collector or the couple who bought a nude for Rs.80,000/- (while we all know that a young contemporary art could be collected for half the amount happily) are fools? My answer is a clear ‘NO’.

(One for the bedroom?)

When you invest emotional values with a work of art, money becomes immaterial. Fundamentally there is no difference between a person who pays a bomb for a Tyeb Mehta or an Edward Munch in an auction and the person who buys a souza look alike as both the parties are driven by the same emotional high. For both the parties having that work becomes more important at that point of time than anything else. Millions of dollars/rupees/pounds spent on it become absolutely nothing for them because they know that they are not going to ‘off load’ them soon. While the one who buys a Souza look alike keeps that work in his farmhouse or hotel or even in his living room, the one who explode money into thin air for a Munch might not even wanting the world know who he is. Perhaps, this work would go into a safe deposit locker and will be permanently kept away from the public view. Art collecting is all about passion, emotion and the high that it gives to one in secrecy and silence. It is a spiritual experience.

However, when you invest in art, your emotional attachment with a work of art gets thinner than a silk thread. It is strong and beautiful but you could snap it by pulling hard on it. When you invest in art you are sure that you are going to make money. So you study the art seriously and go by the academic notions of it. Here what I mean by academy is the coterie that develops values around a particular artist and his works. This becomes pure business relationship; the gallery knows that it sells to a seller and the seller knows that he sells it to another seller. It could reach to museums or a good collector who is driven by emotions. That’s where the trajectory of a work of art ends, which it had started at the studio of an artist. Some people buy houses for sheer investment value and they sell them off when they feel they can have profit out of it. But they don’t sell one building which they call it home because they are emotionally attached to it. There are architects who make buildings live in them for some time with a lot of passion and affection and when they get the right client they sell it to him. Real art collectors could be likened with these architects who make their homes, live in it and feel it completely and find the right person to hand it over.

(Mr.Bean as Monalisa)

There is a strange phenomenon going on in Indian art scene. During the boom time the art players did not create art collectors who invested emotional value in art. Instead we developed a set of people who were keen to invest and make profit. If I trace the paths of domestic investors’ arrival in Indian contemporary art market, it would start somewhere in late 1990s. A new rich class was formed thanks to the economic boom in online industry including journalism and business out sourcing. This new rich class, especially the young crowd, after satisfying their materialistic needs such as real estate and vehicle, was asked to invest in art because the consultants told that that the abstract value of art would always appreciate the price. The young investors were asked to put money in paper works by young contemporaries, and on resale they were asked to put the profit in canvases. This was how a new generation of artists got established in the Indian art market who became celebrities during the real boom years between 2006-08.

None of these investors were art lovers per se. They all loved art because it brought them profit. They did not develop an emotional relationship with art. Investment brought money, glamour, proximity with peer group, high end circles and finally with artists. The perpetual parties and carnivals gave them a kick and they enjoyed it to the hilt. Works of art found their grave in the packaging crates itself. Open any warehouse in India, you would find at least ten crates of contemporary art lying their unclaimed by anybody. It happened because art was treated like share market bond papers. A Chartered Accountant could handle your investment in share market. Nobody carries his bonds and flaunts it. Art was only a reason for them. That’s why when a young art dealer walks up to me and tells, look I want that work of art, I want to live with it. Had I been given a revolver I would have shot her down at that moment itself.

(Denzel Washington in Training Day)

Interestingly, in the whole process once again the artists became victims. If you look at the scene, even during these grim days of economic recession you see there are several artists who are not listed as ‘A,B,C’ category artists and who cherish no hope to reach anywhere near to the A-listers, thrive in their creative works (though they choose to be suppliers to certain demands. In that case who was not one during the boom years?) and life because there are art collectors who want to buy look alike and live with them peacefully. They thrive because there are people who would shell out a lakh for a woman with wet clothes showing off her body contours to a pair of horny couple on a bed. Nobody told the art collectors that there are artists who are educated and do intelligent art. None told them that they could create emotional attachment with the young artists and their works. None told them that they could promote them consistently by becoming their permanent patrons.

United Art Fair is going to be a platform where we could tell our Indian art collectors that look here are a variety of artists with intelligent and diversified practices. Pick and choose them, trust in their art and see them growing in the coming years. Invest in them if you want, but primarily invest your emotions into the works of art that they create. Don’t go by the rule books. If you are feeling to buy a Ganesha buy it, if you are feeling to buy a nude painting buy it, if you want to buy a contemporary work buy it but never feel that you are going to triple the profit in the next few days. See the same artist in the coming years, see him/her growing and travel with him/her and their works. You patrons, you have always been the pillars of world culture. Without patrons no art had thrived in any history. Here is the biggest opportunity for you to become the patrons of Indian visual art culture. United Art Fair is not monopolized by ten galleries who imagine that they could dictate the taste of 118 crore people in India. What a foolishness that could be! United Art Fair is for you, dear patrons. If you have love for art, United Art Fair is the right place. You feel like listening to your beloved sufficing her life and relationship to you in three words: ‘I love you.’ 


Very Deadly Kali said...

You can become an art investor in a day but
it takes years of 'education' to develop an eye to become art collector. In western countries, art education begins at school level and art appreciation is taught in all universities. So by the time one finishes schooling, one has developed individual taste for art. Thus everyone tries to ascertain his/her identity through art, music, fashion etc.s/he collects.

I totally agree with you when you say art boom in India was misconceived by falls perception.
This boom instead of creating genuine collectors and connoisseurs it only created speculators of art.

Art education in any form be it fairs, public art projects, museum shows anything that will engage the masses will create a taste for art and thereby art collectors.

I feel nothing wrong with collectors who buy kitsch, it is also a kind of taste. Fact is it is more accessible to masses than contemporary art scene.

To create a taste for contemporary art practice we have to create more platforms to reach out to people. If it begins at younger age it is still better.

harshda s nirgun said...

my experience on this starts from my house itself,after spending 5 years in art school continuously from starting, of course there are encounters with questions from parents, building friends and relatives who are curious to know what exactly is this that we cannot recognize the visuals or they just try hard but could not linkup.. its from them, till buyers in mall and some of outside know people.. Also i would like to start from small scale as far as its concern of letting know art to people in right direction by artist itself when encountered with questions -" what is this for e.g. apple stands for in your painting?" or like "i thought its like this but if u say its this way it may be or will be, oh! of course u know more then me" if this is the situation of viewers getting in, then its also a responsibility of a artist to respond them in a right way because there are the people who are interested of take into considerations your work but cannot mingle. there should be a play of both in this case artist as well to make stand his work with right recognition and also viewers or els. Also the problem for some of my art college friends is that they cannot properly speak on their work that makes a good exploration go from hand. So one should look on both side of coins for Indian contemporary art to take rightly, that should be from art school itself.

Tathi Premchand said...

in 2005, art boom come it just blind boom, that its not true ppl buying anything just like war is coming like they are buy food, coming yr sure art boom will come but it with open eyes ready and johny ML may one reason for it

Very Deadly Kali said...

* oops! not falls but false ;-)

also want to add when I say begin at young age I would strongly recommend syllabus for cultural studies at school level giving general history of art music theater, film, performance art etc., basically history of any cultural practice in India.