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The Emporer’s New Artworks?

April 5, 2011

I’m fairly sure that illustration and contemporary art are (generally) located at opposite ends of the visual arts spectrum. Perhaps this is why I have long been fascinated, and somewhat bemused, by the workings of the contemporary art world. In an attempt to remedy this situation I even took a course in contemporary art history at university. But although I enjoyed the course, got good marks, and came to a far greater appreciation of contemporary art, at the end I was still baffled by why certain artworks are deemed to be multi-million dollar masterpieces, while other thought-provoking, aesthetically appealing and technically masterful works languished largely unloved and uncollected. Sure, sometimes the “masterpieces” involved great concepts, but often the wallflower artworks involved wonderful concepts too. I had a suspicion that marketing was the key factor here, but strangely the economics of the contemporary art world was rarely mentioned in my university course.

I’ve been waiting a few years,* but Don Thompson’s The $12 million stuffed shark: the curious economics of contemporary art and auction houses has finally provided me with an explanation of the alchemical processes by which contemporary art and artists gain traction on the global contemporary art market, and as a result gain status with critics, curators and art historians.

The most important factor appears to be branding. It works something like this. An artist who creates interesting, edgy perhaps controversial works and most importantly who has a flair for self-promotion is likely to get noticed by a respected collector, gallerist or art dealer on the look out for the next big thing. Once an artist is known to be sought after by a collector or dealer with a reputation for picking quality art that increases in value, status is conferred upon the artist’s brand and prices rocket upwards. Scarcity matters little as demand is so high that if the artist can churn out enough work, (possibly using underlings), the market will soak it all up willingly, even at exorbitant prices. In fact creating lots of work creates more publicity, which all helps the brand, thereby pushing prices even higher. If anyone dares question the meaningfulness or quality of a piece, it simply adds an extra dollop of media-generating controversy. It is the expensive works that receive attention from critics, curators, (and also university art history courses). As Thompson puts it “Expensive work becomes meaningful in part because it is expensive. Critics write essays interpreting the work of Jeff Koons or Tracey Emin – and many articles about Damien Hirst – but never admit that the reason the work has meaning is because so much money has been paid for it.” (p. 196). Thus ultimately, it tends to be the masters of controversy and self-promotion whose artworks are celebrated as contemporary masterpieces. They may indeed be masterpieces, but without masterful branding they most likely never would have been recognised as such.

Of course Thompson’s account is far more comprehensive and finely nuanced than my nutshell summary above, and in the book his theories are exemplified with fascinating art world anecdotes. So, if you’re interested, I would highly recommend that you read the book for a full account of the mind-boggling parallel universe that is the contemporary art market.

*Thompson’s book was released in 2008, but I’ve only stumbled across it at my local library a few weeks ago.

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