The financialization of the art world and the cannibalization of creativity

Kovach Imre* and Murray Hunter

For most people, the art world is an area of sophistication, finesse, and creativity, which takes a high moral ground in today's society. It s acknowledged that art is one of the highest social achievements of people within society, placing the discipline of art on a cultural plane that is viewed as being pure and uncorrupted.

Art is therefore seen as one of the most highly valued artifacts of society, sitting magnificently in art galleries, museums, and collections around the world, which are unquestionably considered to be one of the pinnacles of human prowess.

Maybe this was true in the past, but the authors believe that this has all changed because art today is considered a valid asset class, just as real estate, stocks, bonds, and precious metals are. The leading auction houses and art galleries of the world have commoditized the art market. Institutions which traditionally had nothing to do with art, like banks and transnational corporations have set up art funds purely for investment purposes.

The art world has attracted a number of business opportunists who have set up funds to dabble in art trading. These dealers have very little appreciation of art as art and see it only as a means to make profits. Thus the art market is adopting the characteristics of any other tradable commodity market. The trading of art around the world today is in excess of USD66 Billion, and growing exponentially, as more and more institutions are becoming involved.

As stock markets are losing their values during 2015, the prices of art are rising rapidly.

Contemporary art today is seen by many as one of the best means of wealth preservation.

Ultra-wealthy collectors can't get enough new art and are putting pressure of galleries to produce more art of the right names, which are like brands in this market. For the right kind of art, this means that post WWII and contemporary art has multiplier effects which has never been so high. Collectors are going into a frenzy over these rapid rises in values, driving the market even higher.

It is undeniable that the contemporary art market is on a high. Some say this is a bubble, while others say that it is not, as the ultra-rich are sheltered from the ups and downs of national markets and economies.

The best contemporary artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, who are two of the highest priced, are owners and directors of 'art factories'. The typical creation of an artist within these art factories is usually done without the artist ever touching the art piece. The artist develops the concepts and represents it to his team of technologists, assistants, and art manufacturing experts. Most often a computer model is pre-made of the planned piece. The concept for many pieces are represented not by sketches or drawings by the artists, but by an object he selects from a store or any other place he finds them. Jeff Koons for example, likes to find souvenir items from gift and toy shops and style these pieces into extravagant art pieces using the latest technology. Thus the tiny toy becomes a 2.5 metre shinny stainless steel object which can be sold for tens of millions of dollars.  

Such art factories are extremely reliable in their production and can consistently turn out art products which are branded by the name of the artist. Therefore art galleries and collectors vie for such pieces even though their prices are astronomical.

Today even lesser known artists maintain factory style production for their galleries and collectors. Their pieces are even booked in advance in massive quantities.

There is an even newer trend that tries to exploit the expected multiplier with the works of very young artists. These young artists are drawn into full scale professional art production by galleries, right after they complete their MFA, possibly even before their first solo exhibition. These artists are thereby coached by the galleries, who very actively participate with the artist's work in developing concepts, and arranging manufacturing, etc. The desired end can be reached with continuing rising prices and increasing profits for the galleries; a cycle of profit making.

Collectors happily buy in, possibility in the first and second rounds, expecting double triple or quadruple multipliers in subsequent sales of the pieces, which no other commodity market can generate.

In addition, the art of such emerging artists is often bought in bulk. One hundred, two hundred or even three hundred pieces at a time, with the hope of massive profits on the successful 'branding' of these young artists.

In such climate of art production, art is created as a commodity, where the production is completely finance driven for the sole purpose of creating profit.

Art is no longer bought for appreciation but rather bought for resale.

The definition of good art is that it is saleable and the definition of a good artist is that he/she is marketable. In the finance art world today, those artists are considered the best.

This of course completely distorts the valuation of art and takes away the whole purpose of the creation of art, replacing it with financial aspirations.

Today's art is finance driven. The creation of artistic style equals the creation of a brand, i.e., brand Andy Warhol. Such finance driven art over the last few decades has shown truly incredible growth with a new asset class that produces more profit than any other known asset class today.

However this new financial high has created a morel abyss. The new buyers of contemporary art who come from the business world are based in completely different skill sets to the art world. So consequently, they have brought with them completely new techniques of management and money making to the art world, used in other fields like real estate, and commodity trading, etc.

These practices in many cases are not on the 'up and up'. They can be construed as being incompatible with cultural activities.

These unscrupulous methods used like bullying or coercing artists into one-sided contracts, using legal and other administrative devices which the artist cannot cope with, or out-right cheating of artists, are not in the interests of young artists. Some very ugly cases are coming to light about how the so called collectors are treating the artists.

The old time appreciation and respect that existed between collectors and artists is a thing of the past.

Many of the new comers to the art market are there only for the money and not the appreciation of art. These go getters think that it OK to do anything and everything in their power to get the booty. This causes unnecessary hardship on the creative artists who are coerced and pressured into very disadvantaged contracts, or are cheated out of the possession of their own artwork, and/or its copyright, the collateral products, multiples of their artwork, and don't receive any financial rewards.

Today a number of cases are coming into light, showing the dark-side of the financialized art world.

However, there is an effect with influences the core of our culture and the immune system of our society. Artists as a rule ever since they emerged from the shamans and healers of the old age have always been investigating the nature of the world, been the seekers of truth, and the philosophers of life. As such they often represented the highest form of intellect and culture in society like the famous Sufi poet Rumi, who was also a religious leader.

Artists always attempted to go beyond the bounds of normal art to unbound the secrets of the world, depict the true meaning of life, and ponder on the true purpose of existence. Many Chinese calligraphers were Daoist sages who practiced meditation, yoga, and perfected the art of living a long and virile life, including lifestyle as a whole, gastronomy, and even sexual practices.

In Europe, Durer, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Parmigiano, and many others were involved in alchemy, mysticism, scientific research, and medicine. In general we can say, they had open creative minds which very few people had in their respective societies at the time. Even though they received payments for their art, their art was not a financial commodity.

The Turkish calligraphers were not just artists, but wise-men, who were often teachers and advisors to the Sultans, and we know of several Sultans, like Sultan Abdulmecid who were excellent calligraphers. In China, calligraphy was considered the highest art and the core of wisdom. Calligraphers were often teachers of Chinese Emperors, who respected calligraphers, often asked for their wisdom and advice, and many of them like Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty, were excellent calligraphers and painters in their own right. The emperors of the Toba Turk Wei Dynasty in China customarily had to have a profession which was usually that of the sculptor. The greatest Zen teachers of Japan communicated the unspeakable through their calligraphy to their disciples. Their calligraphies and painting like that of Hakuin are among the most highly valued treasures of Japanese culture.

The same cannot be said of an MFA graduate who is coached and instructed by a gallery for the sole purpose of making saleable art for a profit. It is significant that many of the new galleries led by ex-curators are becoming integrally involved in creating artwork which is way beyond the role of a gallery. They give curatorial guidance to the artists which in many cases gives the upper hand to the curators, where the artist becomes a mere executor of the curator's concepts.

It is telling that artists themselves cannot apply to the Venice Biennale, where only curators who bring their artists can.

The curators know art and artists, and also know the buyers. Hence they are the key figures, the active agents of the financialization of art.

What does this all mean?

Putting it simply, the financialization of the last segment of society that had the potential to produce creative free thinkers, who are not directed by profit making financial intentions, is being wiped out in front of eyes.

Why does this matter?

This matters because only free thinking people can be the 'compass' of society. Artists through the ages have always made comments upon the ideas, aspirations, and events going on around them. This is being lost where the last bastion of intellectual freedom will have been commercialized by the ultra wealthy and sectional institutions within our society. The creative people who have the potential of free thinking is now controlled by financial interests, as soon as they have any professional success.

What will this lead us to?

We are all going to be passengers on a boat with perfect technologies, perfect crews, and perfect stewardship leading us. However in this perfect world there will be nobody who can question the bearing and direction that the boat will travel.

(*)Kovach Imre is an independent spiritual teacher, thinker, calligrapher, painter, and sculptor.

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Prof. Murray Hunter

Innovator and entrepreneur
Notable author, thinker and prof.
Hat Yai University, Thailand
Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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