Never read a book about an irritating subject before going to bed...

If you do, you won't sleep!

That's what happened to me last night. I opened up a book about Contemporary Art I had received for Christmas and settled comfortably in bed to read it. Now, Contemporary Art is a subject close to my heart. Since I've retired, all I do is paint (and write, of course) and go to museums and (sometimes) galleries and art fairs.

Well, let me tell you, this is a REAL GOOD book, written by a remarkable, highly respected economist, DON THOMPSON who's taught at the London School of Economics, the Harvard Business School etc and who's published nine books. The essay is aptly entitled "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark". The title refers to the price a New York banker paid for Damien Hirst's decaying, stuffed carcass of a shark. More generally, the book surveys the desolate contemporary art scene, diplomatically calling it "the curious economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses".

Curious indeed! As Professor Thompson brilliantly explains it, it's all a matter of "branding", i.e. marketing. In Contemporary Art, you're nobody until someone's branded you. And those who do the branding are very few: a couple of auction houses (Sotheby's and Christie's), ten superstar dealers in New York and another ten in London (Paris, Zurich, Rome, Berlin are all peripheral art cities), a handful of museums ( the Tate in London, MOMA and Guggenheim in New York and a few more but most don't count). Art critics? Art consultants? They don't appear in prominent roles but I haven't finished the book. So, if needed, I'll get back to you with more details in a later blog.

What I wanted to say was how upset I got. And it only got worse the more I thought about it through the night. Because the implications of Thompson's message are clear: in our century, Art is no longer Art. It's not a matter of esthetics, of emotions, of beauty. It's not a matter of draughtmanship, talent for composition, sense of colour, poetic sensibility. Forget all that.

Art is marketing pure and simple.

It's a matter of investment. The new rich don't have the time to educate themselves: they treat art the way they treat any other investment, leaving it to the specialists, i.e. the art dealers. Why do they need specialists? Because the specialists make them feel secure, as Professor Thompson says. That is a very acute observation. Nobody wants to risk money on an emerging artist that has perhaps one chance in a million to grow some day into a "branded artist"...

That's sad for all of us who love art for art's sake, who go to a museum and enjoy looking at a Caravaggio or a Monet...

OK, but wait, hasn't it always been this way? Now, the art game is just more visible because the billionaire class is so much larger as a result of globalization. Now you have Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Brazilian billionaires. It used to be that art collectors were mostly American - that was back at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. America was the place where the money was being made, and Americans bought whatever contemporary art they could find on the market. In those days, that meant buying the Impressionists - which, by the way, made the staid Victorian-style European bourgeoisie laugh derisively, but not for long when the prices of Impressionist paintings started to soar.

Should we therefore be careful not to laugh derisively at Contemporary Art? We don't want to replicate the errors of the said staid European bourgeoisie, do we?

But is the situation really the same? Isn't Contemporary Art - and here I refer to "conceptual art" which is the art selling at the highests prices - something different, so different from art forms that were fashionable in the past that some have defined it as "anti-art"?

Consider this. By their own saying, conceptual artists claim they have broken with every art tradition. Their works are often made industrially, not by themselves but by their assistants, and they are made on an industrial scale, with several or more replicas and too large to fit in any human habitat, or too unpleasant to be decorative.

Marcel Duchamp is the founding father, and his bidet the flagship of contemporary art: there are five of his bidets around the world (you can find one in every major art museum), and none of them the original which actually got lost when the American collector who had bought it moved it from New York to California back in 1919, I think, or thereabouts. That happened 90 years ago. By the way, would you like to have a bidet in your living room?

Moreover the title of a piece of art is as important or more important than the piece itself. In short, it is art because the artist says so. And it sells on the market as long as the artist saying this is a branded artist. So if you or I say it, it won't cut ice with anybody.

As Professor Thompson put it, the key is in the branding. It's a guarantee of safety for your art investment. But for how long can the game of branding go on when what is branded is not art but anti-art? Obviously a very long time because the modern marketing machinery is real powerful. And as I was saying above, it all started quite a long time ago, some 90 years, if you accept that Marcel Duchamp was the pioneer conceptual artist. But History teaches that even the most elite brands can disappear or come under pressure from new fashions and give way to new brands...A few years ago, we saw Mercedes cars being slowly displaced first by BMWs and more recently by Audis. In this case, it has taken some 90 years for Mercedes to lose its preeminence...

What will displace Contemporary Art?
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