"Are times of recession good for art?" Jennifer Dalton, Mixed media (two gumball machines filled with plastic capsules with custom foil-wrapped chocolate coins inside), 2008.
You could probably map your coordinates on the relatively small landscape of the Indian contemporary art industry by taking a careful note of the way news of the “bottom dropping out” of the art market makes you feel. Want to try it out? There is no shortage:
Financial crisis hits Indian art market: “In among the first signs of a cooling in the art market, a high-profile auction of contemporary paintings in Kolkata on Saturday earned Rs4.7 crore for its organizers Emami Chisel Art gallery, one-third of original estimates of what the auction would bring in. Around 50% of the 105 paintings on sale didn’t attract a single bidder. The response, said Emami Chisel Art’s director and a buyer, is a sign that the general environment of economic uncertainty has affected the art market, too.”
Sales drop by half in Christie’s Asian art sale in HK: “Half the lots in Christie’s evening sales of Asian contemporary and Chinese 20th century art went unsold on Sunday, reflecting the bleak global economic outlook and cooling Chinese art market. Bidding was lackluster with many collectors and dealers not drawn to valuations seen as overpriced given the current market conditions. Only 56 percent of 32 lots of Asian Contemporary art sold, while 46 percent of Chinese 20th Century artwork was sold.”
Christie’s HK Asian sales miss target, crisis weighs: “Auction house Christie’s sold $146 million worth of Asian artwork in its Hong Kong autumn sales concluded Wednesday, around 35 percent below its pre-sale estimate as the financial crisis shrunk demand for Asian art.”
So, how are you feeling? A sense of dread, mingled with regret about the purchase of that Innova a few months back? Perhaps you are an artist or dealer. Schadenfreude, evil glee? Perhaps you are an art critic or a cynic or an “underappreciated” genius. Total indifference? Perhaps you are normal. A sense of wounded national pride? Perhaps you learn too much about art from the weekly supplements in India’s major newspapers. Whoever you are: welcome. Now, let’s make use of one of the best cliches ever, that old chestnut that the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “opportunity,” or something like that. Let’s improve upon this opportunity to ask: does a down art market lead to better art? And vice versa?
Two perspectives on the question, courtesy of the Guardian:
The artist Bob and Roberta Smith (who, bizarrely, is one man, but that’s art for you) reckons the greatest threat to art today is “young artists thinking the only way to be successful is through financial gain. Art should be brutally uncommercial and totally uncompromising.” So just as repression is said to be good for art (see eastern Europe in the 20th century), maybe recession is too. Novelist Hilary Mantel is doubtful. “We satirists prefer to work in times of plenty,” she says, “because it’s then that the baseness of people’s desires shows itself. Nothing is so funny as consumers indulging themselves, although maybe the City bonus crowd are beyond satire. I’m afraid war and hardship show the better side of humanity, which is never quite so funny.”
She also dismisses the idea that artists are at their best when they are broke. “I think the virtue of starving in a garret is romantic nonsense, and am convinced I’d be a better writer if a generous benefactor regularly wrote me large cheques. ”
One theory is that the best art comes not during a period of recession, but in its prosperous aftermath. “The great artists of abstract expressionism, such as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, were young during the great depression, and that had a great influence in giving their work emotional depth,” says art critic Jonathan Jones. “Thomas Pynchon said in his novel V that, after the war, the depression went inside, and that is true of their work. They were producing art in a time of prosperity, but shaped by the depression. “
Along these lines there is a truly vituperative piece of polemic that I found myself nodding along with in the current Times Literary Supplement, by writer George Walden: “After the credit crunch - the arts crunch?” He excoriates what he sees as British arts boosterism and triumphalism, and the industry that has grown up around it. I couldn’t help but think about the Indian scene and how some of this may be gloomily relevant. A taste of the vitriol:
The background to the euphoria in the arts is important. Partly it reflects our economic success, much of it now exposed as hollow, partly a genuine quickening in cultural life, but mainly it was temperamental. For decades the puritanical British have been discovering sensuality in all its forms, and are mightily excited about it. Good things have come of this late maturation, and our loosening up would be an unqualified plus, were it not for our apparent conviction that in sex, food and the arts we are doing things no one has ever done before, at which the world will wonder five centuries from now.
No other construction can be put on Mr Purnell’s asinine comment, or on the Arts Council report that inspired it, whose author informed us that Britain was on the verge of producing “the greatest art yet created”. Contemporary art shows British boosterism at its most frenetic. What is sold as innovation to hedge funders, credulous widows or ageing critics pining for youthful credentials is in fact a prime instance of Britain’s endemic conservatism in art: it has taken us almost a century to get the Duchamp/Dada joke, and now that we’ve got it we massacre it in the retelling. Scuppering the claim that the popular work of today was based on yesterday’s most daring, esoteric art, the arch-modernist Clement Greenberg wrote: “Of course no such thing is true. What is meant is that when sufficient time has elapsed the new is looted for new twists, which are then watered down and served up as kitsch”. Greenberg’s observation holds good in much self-consciously “daring” British writing, theatre or opera production, as well as art. Hedge funders will now have the leisure to read him, contemplate their quirky video or tin of excrement, and take what solace they can.
It would require more space and a lot more knowledge than I possess to review, here, the state of the arts in Britain. The sad thing is that it is so rare to see it done honestly, by which I mean in non-boosterish fashion, by anyone in a position to do it. We are blessed with some keen-eyed critics, but ageism can be a problem. In a live-for-the-day economy, youth has its foot on the pedal, while older, more discerning critics can lack both independence of spirit (to be dismissed as a grump is professional death) and the means to exercise it. “F–k off money”, as the unattractive phrase goes, is not widely distributed among commentators on the arts. Frightened for their jobs, not a few bite the populist bullet to keep the broadcasting or reviewing mite coming.