ALTHOUGH I CANNOT DRAW TO SAVE MY LIFE, I do find art therapeutic. Viewing a picture evokes varied emotions and sometimes the process has even helped me in looking at commonplace objects differently. In short, I have always believed that art is indeed a celebration of life itself. As the years have rolled by the celebratory mood normally engendered by a work of art has given way to cynicism particularly when I find it difficult to fathom what a particular work of art has tried to convey. Sometimes, I have even wondered if contemporary art has enfeebled the intelligence of its onlookers.
A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY OF VISITING the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The piece of art that I encountered at the entrance was a text inscribed on the wall in bold. (See picture below).
The creator of the above work is Lawrence Weiner, a 72-year old American artist who is said to be a pioneer of what is termed as “conceptual art”. In 1968, he formulated his Declaration of Intent which read as follows :
The artist may construct the piece; the piece may be fabricated; the piece may not be built; Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist; the decision as to the condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership. ( emphasis mine).
As I understood his dictum, it was entirely left to the viewer to judge what his work was. Fair enough. But it is not easy as it seems because what may be entirely meaningless to the viewer, may be priceless for others – in particular for the key players in the art world.
AS I MOVED INTO THE VARIOUS ROOMS OF LACMA, LOOKING at various paintings, I couldn’t help staring with disbelief a painting by Mark Rothko which was part of a series of monochromes of browns, maroons, reds and blacks. Although the painting contained only blobs of colour brushed across the canvas, I was wondering whether it reflected what is generally claimed as “the deep mysticism” of the artist. I was not permitted to take a picture of the painting in question, but it should surprise you that on May 15, 2007, the painting titled “The White Center” by Rothko was sold for U.S. $ 72.8 million to an anonymous buyer at Sotheby’s auction in New York. (See picture below):
Robert Cottrell, in an engaging article titled “The Money of Colour” published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Intelligent Life said ” ..if you come across the White Center in a junk shop rather than at Sotheby’s you would need an expert’s eye to recognize it, unprompted, as a work of genius.” He goes on to say that ” ….great art does indeed have intrinsic value – but critical value rather than utilitarian value. This is conferred by artists, dealers, critics, collectors and curators who make up what Olav Velthius, a Dutch economist, calls, “a political economy of taste”, and what the rest of us call “the art world.”……….There is an element of the emperor’s new clothes involved in assigning prices to art works with no obvious utilitarian value, especially new artworks – but this is something everyone in the art world understands.” Cottrell quotes a New York art dealer who states matter of factly: ” When we trade with each other, we’re assuming that we, as a group, can determine the value of something that has no value-it is purely an agreement between conscious entities.” The risk in modern art is of consecrating something absurd as a masterpiece. The reward is in discovering an object, however improbable ( a pickled shark for example), that turns out to have staying power – and proves to be a work of genius after all………At the very top end of the art market, both taste and money are highly international. The more readily capital can flow around the world, the more of it can compete for the top art objects, wherever they are……Inequality of wealth may be at least as important to the health of the art market as general prosperity, because only very rich people have the money to chase prices sky-high.” Small wonder that the biggest buyer of art in the world is Saud bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani the former ruler of the State of Qatar. Tom Wolfe aptly said that contemporary art world is a “statusphere”
MORE RECENTLY, ON MAY 11, 2015, a Picasso painting “Les Femmes d’ Alger” was sold at the Christie’s auction in New York to an anonymous buyer for U.S. $ 179.4 million. (See picture below):
Reflecting on the auction, John Gapper, in the Financial Times of May 14, 2015 wrote: “The financial value of any work of art remains as unknowable and intangible as the Mona Lisa smile…The only way to prove that you are the kind of person who is both cultured and wealthy enough to own a major Picasso is to buy one. Auction houses prosper by holding it in front of you briefly, while offering it to sell it to your rival…” Apparently, art sales in 2014 had touched USD 51 Billion. Gapper says that the Picasso painting in question is an extraordinary work of art but whether it is an exceptional investment is another question. Other than the major players in the art world, in modern times, it was the renowned economist J.M. Keynes who popularised the idea of investing in art (he was incidentally married to a painter) and there are many who have followed suit. In India, Gurucharan Das was an early bird to pick up several paintings for Proctor and Gamble and globally Deutsche Bank has established its reputation as a major institutional investor in art.
WHEN I WAS ASKED TO SET UP A BRANCH IN NEW DELHI in the late nineties for the institution where I worked, after much persuasion, I was sanctioned a princely amount of Rs 3 lacs for purchase of paintings out of the total office interiors budget of Rs 75 lacs. I picked up a few paintings from the Dhoomimal art gallery at Connaught Place and also sourced a few paintings from local artists directly. The CEO had asked me to search for paintings that depicted Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, since the organisation was a financial institution but I found none. Some of the paintings were indeed abstract but pleasing to look at – and I had taken the precaution of asking the artists in question to write down for me what the paintings meant since my superiors would demand to understand the stuff that would adorn the office walls !! After the paintings were hung, thankfully no one approached me for an explanation.
NOW HAVE A LOOK AT ARTIST TRACEY EMIN‘s installation “My Bed” (1979) which is now part of the Charles Saatchi collection. (See below):
Ms Emin competes with Lady Gaga for shock value. She is said to be the doyen of “confessional art”. To quote her own words, “my problem is that I can’t keep a secret” and she admits that she is “a raving expressionist.” When you consider that Ms Emin has a first class degree from Maidstone College of Art and an M.A. from the Royal College of Art besides having collections in MoMA, Pompidou and Tate Galleries, you cannot help wondering about the state of art education and indeed if “anything goes” in the name of art. In his engaging work “What Are You Looking At: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 years of Modern Art” by Will Gompertz, a former Board Director of the Tate Gallery, writes : “Tracey Emin’s unmade bed “made her”. She became notorious, a love to hate character for the media, which she manipulated expertly, becoming very famous and very rich along the way. She took her chance. Hers was a generation that wasn’t going to wait for something to turn up. They’d make it happen..“
DESPITE THE ODDITIES IN ART THAT I HAVE ATTEMPTED to outline above, one must keep one’s eyes open – there is no reason why glorious works of art should not emerge in this angst-ridden world of ours. After all, despite all claims to the contrary, there is some truth still in the dictum ars longa vita brevis – art is long, life short.