In a seminar held in Kochi recently, a heated debate was initiated logically and ‘naturally’ by the keynote speaker, Prof.Ajayakumar on the topic of ‘art market’. Though the topic was not straight away placed for debate, before anything could be done to control the outcome, it was cascaded into a flood of observations, recounting of personal experiences regarding market, a total rejection of the very idea of market and the insistence on an ideal space for producing and consuming art and the need for finding an alternative market. Two people, namely artist Lakshmanan and Prof.C.B.Sudhakaran, from the audience categorically said that if you were in the market, you should be prepared to live up to its rules. ‘If not better do your art and revel in the very idea of ‘creation for self expression and satisfaction.’ Though such assertion sounded fatalistic and overtly capitalistic, everyone could feel the sense of freedom such a statement could impart through its acceptance. I was personally asked by some audience members whether I had accepted market as a reality or not. ‘All for it’ was my answer; yes, I accept market but the rider to go with it is the ethical practices that a market could uphold. If I put it in other words it has to be in the form of a question unto myself and to all; do such ethical practices exist in the market? This small essay is an attempt to narrate the arguments that I had placed before the audience in this matter of art market and also to vivify certain points that I thought were not pushed across well.
First of all, (the general) market and art market cannot be equated or discussed using the same parameters or methods. What makes them be the part of the same family is their adherence to the idea of market where commodities are transacted for monitory benefits. There are two ways of creating a market and the resultant profit making: one, a need of the consuming populace is identified and later a product is introduced in the market to satisfy that demand/need. Two, a need for the consuming populace is artificially created and later a product is introduced in the market to satisfy that ‘created’ demand/need. The most interesting aspect in both these is their interdependence; they have this very special ability to mutually reproduce the future markets. The fulfillment of an existing demand/need creates another need not just because of human desire but the introduction of a product to satisfy any demand automatically creates another space with an imaginary need where the artificially created demand would fit in perfectly. I could explain it with an example of a kitchen-equipment. You need cooking gas for cooking (for what else it could be!). So you have a gas connection and a gas stove with multiple burners. Suddenly you find your ventilation system is poor and the kitchen gets hot air and smoke. Or you are told so by the companies that make electric chimneys. They tell you the adverse health implications and how the new chimney could save you from all those troubles. So you have an electric chimney fitted above your stove and before long you find that the whole kitchen design is inadequate to function in a modern way. So you have either get the kitchen redesigned or you breakdown the whole house and redesign the house in order to fit a new kitchen inside it! This is a chain reaction. (You make a house with a car porch. As you have a car porch now you buy a car. As you work from a different city your car remain parked in the porch for almost major part of the month till you come back and take your family for a drive that lasts a few hours).
Art market is entirely different from the market that we have seen just above. First of all art market is not a general need based one as in the case of cooking gas. While every house needs a cooking gas module, it is not necessary to have a work of art in every house (though that is the ultimate aim of the artists who seriously deliberate on alternative art markets). That means, while the general market rests its claims on human needs and desires, the logic of art market rests totally on desires, not on needs. However, when the desire takes a different turn other than satisfying the aesthetical needs (including keeping the home atmosphere sophisticated, cultured and peer-reviewed(!)) and arrives at somewhere near profit making, then it too becomes a need based one. In this case, we could say beyond any doubts that art market is one of the ultimate by-products of the general market, which unfortunately does not reproduce the general markets the way other products do. Even the behavior of a work of art in the art market is completely different from the behavior of a use-based product in the general market. The former behaves in an elitist manner while the latter has the possibility of behaving both in an elitist fashion and a pedestrian one for the end users of the latter are often coming from different strata of the society. The end users of the former (means, art market) come from an exclusive class that has created its own desire for acquiring a work of art. That’s why even if a work of art is temporarily lodged in the collection of a dealer and has gone into the collection of a collector, the provenance of it mentions only its final abode, not its temporary lodgings. Art product needs a mansion, not an inn.
We have seen here how art market is different from the general market. The natural question that could be asked here is this; why these two markets behave differently. According to my studies, this difference manifests because of two to three reasons. The first and foremost reason is art’s speculative value itself. The second reason is the logic of consumption of an art buyer and third reason could be the possible elevation of the end user/consumer/buyer into an elite or executive club, which could be translated into the elevation in the social hierarchy which may not be otherwise assured by mere consumption of costly food, clothes, vacations, foreign trips, acquisition of properties, vehicles etc. Let me explain it one by one. In a general market, any product has certain parameters within which we assess our need/desire quotient, which includes ingredients that have gone into its making, its positive results on consumption, the social value that gets add to the consumer, expiry date and the price. If the parameters of the product and the consumer are matched then there is nothing to stop the consumption. That means, general consumption of a product is triggered within controlled atmosphere and its eventualities could be determined beforehand. In the case of art market, the parameters that make a product worthy of a potential buyer’s attention is not controlled and not even triggered by the mutually identifiable and agreeable norms. There is an absolute abstraction about the price and quality of the works. This is where the speculative price comes in. However, even speculation needs some kind of identifiable parameters and they lie in the name and fame of the artist, the vintage quality of the work of art, the previous track record of it (or of the similar products) in the market. While the chances of rigging of prices of a general product in the general market are very less (unless it is a war situation or ironically in a very speculative situation as in the recent case of a speculation/rumor on the price of salt in the northern part of India where people panicked and started stocking salt on exorbitant prices), if a few people involved in the art market decide to rig the price of any work of art, they could do it within minutes. History of art market tells us that spurious products of an artist (with suspected authenticity and certificate etc) never fail the speculative prices of the artist on a long term basis (though temporary aspersion could be casted against such artists and their works as in the case of M.F.Husain, Souza and Jamini Roy).
For the time being, let us forget the dealers of art who play in the secondary market and cause all the price riggings. This is for the convenience of explaining the second point that I have placed in the paragraph above. The point is the ‘logic of consumption’ of a buyer/collector of a work of art. Why does he or she decide to buy a work of art? Let’s say that he/she does not have any interest in art as an investment point. First of all such people come to the art market with the money they have earmarked for the ‘purchase of culture’ from their general budget or profit. That means, such buyers are those people who have satisfied all other desires or have given primacy to the desire for collecting art. That is the result of complete satisfaction or a choice towards satisfaction. So what do they purchase when they buy works of art? A careful look at their attitude towards this purchase reveals that what they buy is not only beauty and the values related to aesthetics but also a ‘share’ in the culture of their country or the countries that they love to call theirs. So this is as good as possessing a piece of prime property in a beautiful city or having a special membership in an elite club or even having a passport of a country that hardly gives out passports to rarest of rare citizens (may be a platinum passport of a country where rest of the lot have only work permits and ration cards!). This is like sharing the richness, heritage, cultural primacy and even antiquity of a country. The logic is this; while one could assess any other item with tangible quality, with a price accordingly, art is something that in its essence carries an intangible value, which is called culture. That’s why while the really ‘cultured’ ones make their vacations to art fairs, biennales and museums while the common mortals throng beaches and hills.
Through the acquisition of art people partake in the wealth of a country’s culture and while having a country’s culture on their walls they generate a speculative value to their own collection, which in turn would add value to the speculative market elsewhere whether they are interested to put their fingers into it for profit or not. Often devoted collectors rarely go out into the auction market for they find it condescending to their status for items from a collection are often find their ways to auction houses only when the estate falls to wrong hands or it faces bankruptcy or the estate has disinterested heirs. In this sense, these solid collections behave like gold reserve in the central banks which assures value to the currency notes; the art collections with solid estates become gold reserves that help increasing the speculative values the works that come to the auction houses. This is the only place where we could see the logic of general market comes closer to the logic of art market as both general market and art market needs currency with a reserved value. That’s why Paul Helguvera while describing the contemporary art market/art scene as a pyramid where the artists are just workers and the museum director/s become gods, envisions another scenario of a work of art reaching the highest price possible and entering in one of the biggest collections or top museum collections and turns ‘dead’. A dead piece of work is the work that has surpassed all the values that currency notes can fetch and become a reserve asset, like a dead grandfather’s photograph that gives a strong sense of grounding to a living business family.
The third category of people in the art market is the one that is constituted by the people who have earned enough or well enough to satisfy all their other desires and partake in culture. But they are different from the second category that creates ‘dead works’ and makes them assets of assurance for the other markets. The third category of the people has money but lacks in class. So acquisition of works of art becomes the logic of elevating themselves into the executive club. The third category behaves almost like the second category that partakes in the country’s culture but they differ from the second in identifying their desire not as partaking in the country’s culture but partaking in the country’s cultural elite. This is a way of climbing up the social rungs but they never want to make their assets dead though they would turn assurance for the rest of the market. In their enthusiasm to participate in the desire to reproduce wealth through speculation they too get into the games of secondary as well as auction markets. This aspect of the third category makes them less of cultural elite and underlines them as cultural aspirants with an added taste for wealth. While the aesthetical partaking in history and culture is replaced by the taste for wealth, the third category demotes itself from being and becoming the second category. Even if they vouch for the indebtedness that they feel for the aesthetical fineness of a work of art, when it comes to wealth creation they would push it into the market without any prick of conscience. This cusp set in fact contributes a lot to the existence of the art market therefore we cannot just write them off.
As we understand that these are the factors that lead and govern the art market, it is fair to think that a work of art as a product cannot survive or assure its perpetuation without a market for itself. The crass logic of the general market is that of withdrawing a product that had once been patronized by many consumers but no longer in the choice of that consumer segment. In the case of mass production and general consumer market, a producer does not suffer much due to this loyalty shifting and even he could fill up the lacuna caused by withdrawing a product through the introduction of a new product designed to cater the new demands of that particular consumer segment. Hence, so much of ethical fallacy cannot be attributed here because none suffers through the withdrawal of a product. But in the case of art market, the sudden withdrawal of artists and art works from the market causes a great collapse in many fronts. Losing of patronage causes the pedestrian-ization of art and artists, and it takes many years for the artist to find patrons once again in the market, in the meanwhile he/she would have completely lost out to the external factors of life. Losing of patronage also causes the rupture in mutual faith that has been the operative lubricant between many components in the art scene including gallerists, dealers, investors and collectors. Art as an organic expression of human life even if a lot of technology is involved in the making of art these days, collapse of its sustaining systems would cause a series of invisible damage to a country’s cultural fabric which would reflect in all the fronts of life. That’s why I insist that there should be ethical practices in the art market for it is more prone to ethical fallacies that the general market.
To conclude the essay, let me just put some light on the idea of alternative market. What is an alternative market? As the word suggests, alternative market is a market that stands beside in parallel with the existing dominant market. Second question is whether the two words, alternative and market go hand in hand or not? Alternative can be possible in the case of product but how market can be different in its governing rules? In a shop that sells alternative clothes, foods and medicine could be patronized but can that market be patronized for in the newly created situation only the products are different but the market remains the same. May be pricing is the only adjustment point and a difference in assurance on quality and durability. Similarly, those who argue for an alternative art market, in my views, in fact are asking for a market with different art products or rather the same products with differently marked prices, quality assurances and different avenues. In fact if you look at it realistically we could see that the art fairs, biennales, art expos, book fairs and so on have become alternative markets in their own rights. When the consumer flow thinned in the usual markets, the stake holders created new avenues where the consumers/clients/patrons could converge in ‘ideal’ places and spaces where they could check, test, taste, evaluate, haggle on and strike business deals and collect without the pressures and regularities (ordinariness) of the traditional art and publishing markets. Against this backdrop how are we going to realize the demand for alternative art markets? As I said before, it is not the market that is going to change but the products, their appearance, their value, their cultural and economic implications and above all the new avenues for such newly created market operations. Still the question remains, who could be the consumers/patrons/clients of such newly created alternative markets? I think I need another essay to delve into that question.