Portraits as Art Market Currency Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com
Welcome to part 2 of my series on the concept of portraits as an art market currency. Before I continue, I would like to explain exactly what I mean by an art market currency for those that are perhaps slightly perplexed by the concept. Obviously, fine art is never going to replace paper money as the dominant form of currency. My research focuses less on the actual use of currency as a medium of exchange, and more on the concept of currency as an indicator and a benchmark. It is important to understand that my concept of an art market currency is merely a theoretical concept – the analysis of which I believe can provide valuable information and knowledge for investors and collectors.
In the currency world, the US dollar is used as a benchmark (world reserve currency) for all other currencies because of the political and military strength of the US, as well as the very strong gold reserves that the US held when the Bretton Woods system was introduced after World War II. Although the art market doesn’t have an official genre, period or style that acts as a benchmark for the rest of the market, the popularity and visibility of the contemporary art market means that it tends to be used as a de-facto barometer for the state of the art market. Unfortunately, the contemporary sector of the art market would have to be the worst sector to use as an indicator for the health of the entire art market. As we all know, the contemporary sector of the art market is a highly volatile and unstable market that is constantly at the mercy of cultural and social trends – and is often assigned a value that has very little to do with the actual art object. So, if the contemporary art market is not a suitable indicator of the status of the art market, is there a category of art that is? This is just one of the questions that I hope to answer with this series of posts.
Let me throw a scenario your way that will hopefully help make the reasoning behind the concept of portraits as an art market currency much clearer. If I were to give someone who knew nothing about art 100 works of art consisting of: 20 cubist paintings, 20 conceptual works, 20 figurative landscape paintings, 20 religious icons and 20 figurative portrait paintings – and asked that person to look at each category separately and rank the works in each category according to how much they thought each work was worth based purely on the physical characteristics of the art object (without knowing anything about who the artist is, when they were painted, who the portraits are of, the location of the landscapes etc.) – which category do you think they would find the easiest to rank? I think that conceptual art would be the hardest, because with conceptual art the main component of the work is the concept, not the art object. Because abstract art is so nonrepresentational, it is extremely difficult to assess unless the purpose or motivation of the artist is known, which rules out the cubist paintings as the easiest to rank. Religious icons could be compared to portraits – however, the symbolic nature of religious icons means that their value is closely tied to the cultural, religious, social and art historical context in which they were created, which makes valuing such works difficult for experts, and virtually impossible for anyone who does not have a thorough knowledge of the genre. Figurative landscape paintings would seem like a good candidate for the most easy to rank because of the representational nature of such works, the general familiarity people have with the way nature should be depicted, and also because the skill and talent of the artist are so easy to determine from the way the picture is presented. What lets the figurative landscape paintings down is the lack of consistency in terms of setting, location, season, angle etc. which means making a comparison between two landscape paintings is likely to be very difficult. Finally, we come to portraiture. There are several factors that make the physical characteristics of portraits so easy to compare and rank, including:
– the consistency of the subject (human face)
– the universal nature of the face
– the common goal of figurative portrait painters (to accurately depict the human face)
– the ease with which virtually anyone can determine how skilled or talented the artist is at accurately depicting the human face
In my opinion the physical characteristics of figurative portraiture are the most comparable and easily ranked of all the genres and types of fine art. I cannot think of another genre or type of fine art that has such consistent characteristics and is so universally decipherable. The fact that the physical characteristics of figurative portraits are so comparable across the whole genre, and so easy to rank, means that they are also easier to value when compared to other genres. It is the characteristics of figurative portraiture that I have discussed above which give figurative portraiture an edge over other genres when it comes to the concept of fine art as currency.
Stay tuned for part 3……….
**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications