The Value Of Art Today
Research paper questioning the fiscal and personal value of art today.
Many could argue that the value of art is weighed by a common idea that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ Although this romantic notion is a fine one in the discussion of ones personal weight of value to art, it doesn’t do well to exemplify the value of art in the world today. In order to discuss the current climate of art we need to look at the parameters ruling our society, in particular, capitalism. From a capitalist view of the world everything has its worth, more often then not its own fiscal worth. The capitalist oeuvre of the art world has largely guided the monetary value of art to skyrocket within recent years. The new heights that art has escalated to in this climate have made a new type of artist and a new type of art, the brand.
Branding is a new phenomenon in the art world where the discussion of work, where it is shown, who its done, and represented by is all intrinsic under its definition, or type of brand. An example is the White Cube Gallery in London, branded for showing controversial contemporary art. Its owner and dealer Jay Jopling is branded as a contemporary art dealer, his clients include Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Mark Quinn. All these artists are branded under controversial contemporary artists, and their work, the same.
Although ‘branded artist’ is a relatively new concept in being an accepted term in the art world, I must point out it is not necessarily a new phenomenon. If we look at the idea of ‘brand’ as a product confined by its own design principle, motto or concept of which is innate purely to that name, we can see that artists throughout time have worked under their own brand. However, the difference in the contemporary example of art brand is in its broader interaction within the economic realm. A branded artist is not just one whose work is recognizable to their design concepts, but often will be publicized in the same way, will often be seen in the same ‘branded’ galleries, and often be represented by the same ‘branded’ art dealers. This repetition of publicity creates buyer confidence, as one is led to trust the work because of its associations.
I suppose the best way to begin to interpret the reason for the shift from artist to brand is to look at who created this sphere, the dealers. Today artists without dealers are almost sure to be unknown, and this is because it is the dealers who decide who is important in the art world, and it is the dealers that bring in the high prices and give the artists their name, so to speak. “A collector will pay a lot of money for a piece of work because they trust their dealer in the same way they trust their investment advisor”(Thompson 2008, 38).
The history of the branded dealer started at the end of the nineteenth century with Joseph Henry Duveen. Duveen was a man that demanded high prices for the artists he represented, defending them by saying: ‘When you pay high for the priceless you acquire it cheaply’ (Thompson 2008, 32-33). Duveen’s ideals were adopted time and time again by a host of famous dealers throughout the 20th century, each adopting new ways of branding their artists, and collections. Dealers are artists in their own trade. They know how to market a product to entice their clientele and thus to push for the astronomical prices that are gained, and not only that, they know how to brand an artist.
The 21st century example of branded dealer is none other than Larry Gagosian, agent for super rich, and renowned art collector Charles Saatchi. Gagosian manages more gallery space than any other dealer in the world. He represents a long list of branded artists, from Richard Serra and Jeff Koons to Damien Hirst, as well as managing the estates of Andy Warhol, and Willem DeKooning. With such representational value it is easy to see why buyers would trust the viability of art put up for sale by him. Therefore, high prices are gained for artists he represents, and Gagosian naturally achieves high prices.
I propose that the idea of branding started with the anti-art movement put in place by the Dadaists in the early part of the twentieth century. Through the exhibition of his ‘ready-made’ series Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp posed the question in the art world ‘what is art?’ A perfect example is his piece Fountain, which caused uproar in the arts world with its first conceptualization. Fountain, was a urinal that Duchamp had bought, turned upside down and signed with the pseudonym R. Mutt. What he was doing was creating a context (art) to something otherwise of no intrinsic value. Its value was created by its pure association to the artist himself, therefore branding it art under the heading of Duchamp.
Another key player to this phenomenon was Andy Warhol. Famous for pushing the boundaries of what is required of an artist to make art, he expanded on Duchamp’s idea of ‘what is art?’ posing the question of ‘what is the role of the artist?’ and predominantly stopped producing art autonomously altogether. Warhol hired in a group of ‘technicians’ to work and create his ideas in ‘The Factory’ (his studio). As the works were all cohesive to his style, and essentially his Warhol brand, his works were more often then not, bought, irrelevant of whether he produced the work solely himself or not.
I use both these examples, as they seem to me to best influence the idea of art as brand today, two key players being Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. They are perfect models of branded artists; they have taken the ideas first seen by Duchamp and Warhol, absorbed them and then taken them that much further. Both, like Warhol, use technicians to create their artworks, and both have used objects as art under their branding like Duchamp. Additionally, their marked disassociation from the process of creating the work itself suggest an unambiguous relationship to it, leading one to imagine that the monetary gain perceivable to them as artists is at least one of, if not the most important drive they have to continue ‘creating’.
In order to exemplify the recent boom in art value, it is best to start with the year that showed both the highest peak in art sales and marked the beginning of one of the greatest downturns, 2008. It was an impressive year in art sales; the most notable was Damien Hirst’s auction at Sotheby’s London on September 15th, which proved to be a major triumph in the art markets history. Not only that but it proved that the branded artist could be more powerful than the art institutions themselves.
Hirst put up for auction 250 of his works into a two-day show, ensuring he would be the soul beneficiary of all profits. “By cutting his dealers, Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian out of the equation, Hirst mounted a bold attack on the conventions of the art business, declaring that he did not need the support of these powerful brokers. He could go it alone”(Horowitz 2011, xiii). It put the art world in an uproar not only because his obvious vanity was being flouted, but also perhaps because many wondered why they hadn’t thought of it themselves. At a presale estimate of $122 to $176 million the total spectacle raked in a total of $201 million and gained Hirst’s brand a plethora of media attention.
This achievement, although impressive, was thwarted by the events that took place on the same day, that of the global financial breakdown. On September 15th American investment bank Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch announced the selling to Bank of America and The American International Group- the largest insurance provider, announced its’ failing, resulting in an $85 billion bailout by the US Federal Reserve. Despite it marking a potential change to future art sales, 2008 brought in a staggering $1.349 Billion in art auctions alone. To exemplify the steep downturn a minor $485 million was gained the following year.
This does not however mean that the value of art has decreased, it simply means the buyer confidence has shifted. In a booming economy the super rich want what’s hot, in a failing one they want what can be banked on, and one thing they can bank on is those classed as the great masters, whose names and works will always be of value, for example, Picasso and Warhol. Indeed recent sales have not reflected a ‘pinching of purses’, on the contrary, huge sums are still being made but on works that are harder to come by, and the rich are still getting richer. Over the past fifteen years the number of wealthy collectors has multiplied twenty times. The art they seek is often donated to museums, hung or stored, never to be seen again, therefore both museums and private collectors face a last chance scenario every time a major work comes up for sale (Thompson 2008, 58), an example is Picasso’s painting Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which last year achieved $106.5 million, which is the most ever paid for a painting at auction, and in February Warhol’s Self Portrait sold for $17.5 million.
Although the fall of contemporary art sales in 2008 saw the world betting safely on Picassos and Warhols, 2011 has seen some confidence coming back into the auction house as contemporary names like Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Damien Hirst have resurfaced. In early February of this year Sotheby’s and Christies hosted contemporary art sales that sought high prices for some works by contemporary artists, whom have been a ‘bit off the radar’ due to a lack in buyer confidence in contemporary art from the 2008 economic meltdown. $11 to $14.2 million was sought for Francis Bacon’s scarlet colored Three Studies For a Portrait (Sold for $37 Million), eight works by Damien Hirst were priced to sell collectively for $1.8 million (with 5 unsold total profits were $2.69 Million) and Jeff Koons’ Winter Bears expected to reach in excess of $4 Million (Sold for $4.78 Million) (Crow 2011, 14).
These sales seem to mark a change in the buying patterns in the auction houses towards that of 2008 acquisitions. However, “one can guess, but there’s no telling the whims and fancy of art buyers. In February 2010 Giocometti’s Walking Man I bronze sold at Sotheby’s for $104.3 million. However this year five went up for auction but three went unsold.” (Crow 2011, 1) So maybe the monetary value of art will always waiver but what of the value of art to society?
In the 1990’s the value of art was focused on economic benefits, such as tourism and job creation. Later it shifted to looking at the value of art to communities and individuals. Perhaps it was borne from the election of Tony Blair as UK prime minister. He expressed strong beliefs in the importance of art to culture. Blair removed admission costs to galleries and museums in order to democratize access and increased the total spends on culture by 73%. (Böhm 2007, 75-98)
This is a significant point to make on a real current issue, that of cuts being made to arts under the new conservative coalition government. Indeed, the UK arts industry is the only part of the economy that has withstood wars and recessions time and time again. Only tiny amounts are spent on the arts in any event – just 0.07% of the public purse – and for every pound invested at least £2 comes back into UK coffers. (Wintour 2010, 1)
Last year the British Museum launched the arts manifesto ‘Culture Capital’, an alliance of arts leaders including National Theatre artistic director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, and Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. The launch was accompanied by the brandishing of a variety of placards bearing the slogan “You Can Bank on Culture” designed by the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Using Liverpool as an example, in 2008 when it was European capital of culture £800m was generated for the local economy and 27% more visitors were attracted than in previous years. (Higgins 2010, 6) Irrelevant of the government’s view of the actual value of the arts to the economy it is clear that truly as a society Britain can “Bank on Culture.”
The incline and decline of prices at the whim of buyers, sellers and markets exemplifies a value that is ‘un-bankable’ in its capricious nature. This could mean that future value should be measured under different parameters than the amount of money made by these celebrity artists. After all, of the approximately 80,000 artists living in both London and New York City an insignificant 75 are superstar artists with a seven-figure income (Thompson 2007, 26), so the value of art must be in other parts of the art institutions than just the auction rooms and galleries.
Art is also of value to the artists, ignoring the monetary value; art is beneficial to their mental health. A study done by the Research Center for Arts and Culture, Teachers College Columbia University, of aging artists in New York City, showed “evidence of positive personal growth, creativity, self-efficacy, autonomy, independence, effective coping strategies, sense of purpose, self-acceptance and self-worth…” (Jeffri 2011, 19-43). Of the ageing professional artists studied 83% ranked their self esteem as good to excellent, 66% felt confident about their ability to handle personal problems, and 95% said that both negative and positive feelings contributed to their work as artists. There was also strong evidence to suggest a tie to other artists in their communities and indeed a tendency to widen this network within their personal pursuits as artists. (Jeffri 2011, 19-43) An important point when loneliness and isolation is one of the greatest concerns for our elderly. Just this February “a group of charities launched a campaign to combat loneliness among older people, which it claims is as big a threat to health as smoking or obesity.” (Age UK)
This undeniably exemplifies another level to the question of ‘value of art’. It’s easy in the capitalist sphere we live in today to forget arts aesthetic and tactile value for that of its potential monetary worth. Often ignored in regards to the discussion of the arts, and to some degree the value of it, is the value to the artists themselves to create art. Perhaps having art in our lives, irrelevant of our respected talent, is the true value of art. Encompassing the value of the freedom to express oneself creatively.
An example of a group of artists that have not forgotten the individual creative value of art is the fairly new art movement (est. 1999), of ‘Stuckism’. The Stuckists have a manifesto that was borne from the rise of, and staunchly against the idea of art as brand. In fact Hirst’s own work is even mentioned in its manifesto, in point number 9: “The Stuckist is not a career artist but rather an amateur (amare, Latin, to love) who takes risks on the canvas rather than hiding behind ready-made objects (e.g. a dead sheep)…” (Stuckism) They are a group of artists that focus not a need for its members to have a specific style or intention, as many historical art groups hold, no, it focuses on the pure production of art itself. On the creation by the artist and the value it brings not only to the individual but also to those he or she CHOOSES to share it with. Art then becomes void of judgement in quality and therefore is art in its purest form, that of self-expression.
It’s undeniable that market prices of art, and therefore fiscal value has increased within recent years, but to see the true value of art we need to look at the artists outside the small and select group of branded ‘celebrity artists.’ Perhaps we should take a page out of the Stuckism manifesto, and look to those aging artists in New York City. For if markets fail, all the Picassos are bought, and the super rich start solely investing in property, art will always increase in value with the increase of those exposed to it, artists and viewers alike.
Age UK, ‘Drive shows dangers of loneliness’, in Age UK. February 2011, viewed on 29 March 2011,
Böhm, S and Land, C, 2007. No measure for culture? Value in the new economy. Capital & Class, (97), 75-98.
Crow, K, 2011. London Auctions Brim with Comeback Kids. Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition, 247(29), 14.
Crow, K, 2011. In London, New Stars and New Bidders. Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition, 257(35), 1.
Higgins, C, 2010. Cash for culture can boost UK economy, says arts alliance. Guardian, 26 March. 6.
Jeffri, J. , Heckathorn, D. , and Spiller, M, 2011. Painting your life: A study of aging visual artists in new york city. Poetics, 39(1), 19-43.
Stuckism, ‘The Stuckists Manifesto’, in Stuckism, Art, Stuckist Manifesto. March 2011, viewed on 29 March 2011, <http://www.stuckism.com/stuckistmanifesto.html#manifest>
Thompson, D, 2008. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. 1st ed. London: Aurum Press Ltd..
Wintour, P and Brown, M, 2010. Culture department braces itself for redundancies of up to 50%. Guardian, 20 July. 1.