The Spectacle of the Art Market Part 3 –

The Spectacle of the Art Market Part 3 –

Natalya Goncharova's Linen

I am sure that many of you would agree that it has become the norm for people to approach fine art as consumers instead of as scholars or connoisseurs. If you were to ask me whether there is anything wrong with this I would say that there definitely is. Don’t get me wrong, I am obviously a strong supporter of the art market, but also recognise the need for a balance between the commercial and the cultural. Without that balance the art market becomes unstable and the art world becomes too closely connected to the art market. Whether you realise it or not, the art market requires a certain level of “infiltration” by scholars and connoisseurs. It is the scholars and connoisseurs who add value to works of art by generating information and knowledge that make works of art historically and culturally more significant. It is this information that is generated by scholars and connoisseurs that we should be using to justify the dollar value of a work of art because this information is usually based on intrinsic characteristics of the work of art that cannot be disassociated from the work of art or become obsolete, and therefore encourage more stable long term values. The contemporary art market, on the other hand, often relies on factors that have very little to do with the work of art its self such as social status, economic status, popular trends and financial gain. These factors can become obsolete very quickly which usually means that the dollar value that these factors generated also disappears causing the sort of correction that we have just experienced.

In February of 2008 Nicholas Penny, the curator of the British National Gallery, made a statement that he was going to put an end to the gallery’s blockbuster exhibition days. According to an article in the Guardian Newspaper, Penny said “The responsibility of a major gallery is to show people something they haven’t seen before. A major national institution should be one that proves a constant attraction to the public. What is important is encouraging historical and visual curiosity in the general public.” Ralph T. Coe, the former director of the Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., a former president of the American Association of Art Museum Directors and a former chairman of the Museum Committee of the National Endowment for the Arts, put the problem in even simpler terms when he said: “One of the saddest things museum connoisseurs like me have had to observe is the substitution of entertainment values for the intrinsic values incarnate in great works of art that alone can confer aesthetic authenticity.” This problem of the substitution of entertainment values (the spectacle) for intrinsic values that the cultural sector is experiencing is also a big problem for the art market as I have shown above. We need to stop the spectacularisation of the contemporary art market if we want to have a more culturally and historically significant period of art production. I believe that we need to be asking the following question on a far more regular basis: in one hundred years time will this work be able to be exhibited in a museum, and will people consider the work to be culturally significant and be historically important?

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications

4 Responses

  1. You make a terrific point. However, at the same time you are alienating collectors who wish to build a collection of works solely because they enjoy looking at them. By asking the aforementioned question about historical significance I fear you are maintaining a common attitude that many find elitist. I am a director of a gallery that maintains a collection of more commercially successful artists, and many of my collecters buy for the reasons that you stated were less valuable than those of scholars.

    At what point hasn’t consumerism driven the contemporary art market? Even the greatest masters who are revered by art history were creating commissioned works for the wealthy and not necessarily for themselves. Albrecht Durer traveled all of Europe peddling his engravings using stealthy sales tactics to influence his contemporary market.

    I really appreciated your perspective on this matter, but I think it’s dangerous to try to predict the museum worthiness and historical significance of a piece/ artist before history actually runs its course. I happen to think the most accurate value should be somewhere between the consumer driven market and the academics and scholars.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  2. On this issue I side with Nicholas Penny, the curator of the British National Gallery and Ralph T. Coe, the former director of the Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum.

    Our culture has completely devolved into an entertainment consuming behemoth. Sadly, the most powerful and influential lasting effect of modernity has been that “new and shocking” is better. To be percieved as “derivative” is considered a death knell for an artist. To quote anything from any time prior in art history is now unthinkable.

    We have entire generations of viewers who are completely ignorant of what has come before in art history and in a great many cases, history of any kind. The highest value is what is “new” , how foolish. King Solomon reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun.

    If major galleries and museums no longer host “blockbuster” exhibits which typically aim to place art within its cultural and historical context as well as weave threads of connections through subsequent art movements and finally to our own time how will people ever regain an appreciation and understanding of the genius of the human spirit as expressed through the visual arts down through the ages and into our own day?

    There are plenty of commercial galleries where collectors can buy what delights their eye for their own personal edification without needing to concern themselves with the potential historical value of the pieces.

    Museums should never abandon their most crucial mission of bringing to the public the vast riches of human achievement in the visual arts and through information and education fostering greater understanding of art’s role in the greater scheme of human history and life.

  3. Your argument presumes that “scholars” are 1) correct and 2) objective.

    Historically, a lot of innovative art has been shunned by established critics and scholars. (Take a look at who was elected to the prestigious French academy of fine arts 100 years ago It’s the academic artists, not the Impressionists.)

    Today, even scholars aren’t free of the marketplace. One art consultant remarked to me that she could tell, just by looking at a museum exhibit of contemporary art, which dealers the curator was friends with.

    Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the study of art history is almost entirely theory these days. Connoisseurship is considered old-fashioned and un-intellectual, and the only people who study it anymore are the auction house experts. (Indeed, auction house education programs are among the very few places where anyone can study connoisseurship.)

  4. I certainly agree that not all scholars are correct or objective but they are certainly more objective than most art market professionals. Regardless of whether or not a scholar is objective or correct, there is a need for more art to be set in a museum context where the financial value is not the primary motivation. The true scholars and the public can decide whether or not the scholars and curators are right but first they need to be given the chance.

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