Nailing It to the Door: The New Zealand Art Market and the Problem of Commodification
Not so long ago, a visual arts student in Auckland produced wooden sculptures of electrical plugs and other household goods. He gave the sculptures price tags which exactly matched the prices of the actual items.
His tutor told him off for devaluing his own art. No one, he was told, would take him seriously as an artist if he was going to give it away for so cheap. Never mind the prices were part of the art (and this has happened once or twice before); never mind that the artworks could be read as questioning the use-values and exchange-values of overlooked tools, and of art itself.
Don’t question the value of art, boy; uphold it. Make products and make money and keep your mouth shut and nobody gets hurt.
“The culture of capitalism has reduced paintings, as it reduces
everything which is alive, to market commodities, and to
advertisements for other commodities.”
- John Berger, art critic and novelist, UK
“…an artist first gains a foothold in the market by accessing
exhibition space at a dealer gallery. As a rule and by virtue of this,
the artist will automatically gain a degree of credibility.”
- Warwick Henderson, veteran art dealer, NZ
I was surprised to find I liked Warwick Henderson’s book, Behind the Canvas: An Insider’s Guide to the New Zealand Art Market. It was so matter-of-fact: people like art and so they buy it (if they can afford it – that big but silent “if”). Sometimes they also hope to make money off it.
Here in Aotearoa, buying art is a mum-and-dad investment. Cosier than Mighty River shares, it is an owner-occupier investment, like buying a home. The resale value is only one of many possible reasons for choosing one property over another.
Behind the Canvas treats artworks as commodities. It can be easy, relaxing – quite a relief actually – to think of artworks solely as products, sometimes lovely, sometimes thought-provoking, like books or movies or one-off pieces of designer fashion once owned by a movie star. Unless you’re wanting to leverage your artwork’s financial value by taking out loans against it, the most important questions when buying seem to be: 1. whether you can live with the work, and 2. whether it will give you the particular kind of social respect and cultural capital – fairy dust – you’re looking for. At this point, the pieces you own are advertising you.
The closest that Behind the Canvas comes to art theory is talking about “x-factor” in an artwork, which apparently a novice collector can’t identify but expert dealers can. I for one would certainly take the advice – or at least, the information – of an art dealer over that of a random great uncle, were I buying art. But I would also try to remember that the livelihood of my guide – their ability to pay for their nice airy gallery at their prominent address, their ability to keep up appearances of hushed luxury – depends on their selling me something. They might pretend that sales don’t matter, but that’s part of the sales pitch. (Call it, après sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, “interest in disinterestedness”. One could add “the dealer” to US museum commentator Paul Werner’s Museum, Inc list: “The curator, the connoisseur, the aesthete, all end up sounding like Proust’s Swann, a brilliant sensitive man who doesn’t have a clue why he’s drawn to the flowers between Odette’s breasts”.) At least one New Zealand gallery has a sales script and a sales steps system, reported on weekly by staff. Step 1: successfully obtaining a visitor’s email address, step 2: getting a reply to an email, step 5: sales nirvana.
It’s tough for galleries out there. They’re genuinely working hard. Apparently 25 dealers have gone out of business in Auckland in the last seven years. Does this affect the survivors’ perception of the “x-factor”? Presumably, when dealers are judging whether or not an artist is worthy of a dollop of credibility in the form of exhibition space, they aren’t just asking themselves “is this good art?”, but also: “will this sell?”
[Cue 19th Century Punch-like cartoon, of a man and his crinolined wife:
Husband: Could those be the same question? Is good art the same as art that sells?
Wife: Don’t be silly, darling; good art is art that sells for a lot, and then resells for more at auction.]
Ha, ha. But seriously, folks. What happens to artists who create good art which won’t sell? I’m not saying that such undiscovered treasures are two a penny, but there are trends. And there are difficult personalities. And, as Henderson points out, there are buyers with smaller and smaller apartments and artists who make big works (perhaps they should try Alan Gibbs?). These factors have nothing to do with the quality of the painting or sculpting or multi-mediating, but they will presumably impact on a dealer’s decision about whether to open the peeling gates to the artist or not.
If we keep thinking of art as just a commodity, then this conundrum about good artist/no sales goes away. Because clearly, the artist should just adapt their product to suit the market. If, in a painting, “a Maori chief looks pretty angry and nasty, people won't pay as much for that as they would for a happier chief," says [auction house head] Dunbar Sloane Snr. “It's funny how little things like that make a big difference. If I try and sell a picture of a graveyard, it's bloody hard going. People just don't want to hang a graveyard in their house.”
Tips for new artist-players: #1. Don’t paint graveyards. #2. If you’re going to paint a Goldie forgery, make it one of the non-threatening ones.
You know what else goes away if art is just a commodity? The need for free public galleries. The justification for public support of the arts – apart from as a leg-up to a potential export. The need to question the judgement of the Minister for the Arts when he complains that “there is too much gloomy art in New Zealand. There is not enough light and frivolity.” The need to care that all the fine art we see in approximately 99% of the country’s dealer and public galleries has been approved, somewhere along the line, by at least one rich white person.
Tip #3. Don’t paint poor people (unless they’re exotic and picturesque).
Ah the relief. That’s several weights off my shoulders.
As carefree as that vision of disappearing worries might be, alas, art is not just commodities. Most artworks are commodities, but they’re also more than that. Art is supposed to do magic things. That magic might be whisking the individual viewer away on a transcendental experience in the form of aesthetic ecstasy or absorption (the Romantic, conservative explanation). Or it might be offering societal critique, a different way of approaching the world (the progressive explanation), or revealing some insight into the artist’s psychology (some collectors hope for this, particularly if the artist is a sexy bit of rough). Or… [insert your own definition here, about the art techniques, about anything, have fun making it watertight!] .
Hamish Keith knows that art is more than commodity. Sometimes I learn from reading the old rascal and sometimes I don’t, and this time he’s got me gleefully annoyed with his foreword to Behind the Canvas and its pompous bestowing of honour and importance upon the virtuous art market. “The art market entirely underpins the visual arts,” he declares. “It is the point where artists and their public meet and engage. Without it, the visual arts would simply struggle, fade or bloom, unseen.”
It seems, then, that art has to be for sale to be seen. That market: such a supporter, such a martyr, to the arts. Thank God for money and Adam Smith and buyers. Without them, the art market wouldn’t exist and therefore neither would visible art. And that would be a tragedy because, as per above, art is more than just commodities.
Oh wait. The art market “underpins” the visual arts in that it has them pinned down like butterflies on a dartboard.
The issue with art is not that it is commodity, and not that it is supposed to be magic, but that in practice it is supposed to be both product and magic at the same time. It is magic contained within a market system. “…[A]rt has given up the job of enlightenment and gone into the titbit business,” wrote Guardian art critic Waldemar Januszczak in the 1980s, “providing consumers with tasty morsels of spirituality, a rare and expensive commodity in a materialistic world, as recent art prices show…. The madly flaying young artists are trying to tell us that there isn’t enough spirituality in our materialistic world. Their dealers, seeing the gap in the market, are supplying it, to those that can afford it.” They’re supplying buyers not only tasty morsels of spirituality but also a petit air of cultural enlightenment (particularly if buying a work made by an artist whose ethnicity is not your own), a frisson of daring. Sales nirvana = nirvana sold.
There are of course extremely good artists producing exciting work within the dealer system, which is to taste for particular buyers, buyers who might even buy graveyards. There are even exceptions who make it into the public system without dealing with dealers at all – people like performance artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila. (Not that the public system is a paragon of squeaky virtue. Museum, Inc again: “the American art museum shores up its authority by, while, and in order to demonstrate that the values of free enterprise are coterminous with the values of art.”) It would be nice if there could be more exceptions like ‘Uhila; if more art could be non-product, if more artists without dealer-bestowed credibility were recognised, if we could have more forums where artists and their non-buying admirers could “meet and engage” – and not just non-market forums as auxiliaries to the dealer system, where artists are hoping to get noticed by the gatekeepers.
Or is my real issue not the fact that artworks are products per se, but that they are products beyond the financial grasp of most people? Unlike music or literature – which are iterable, ie multiple copies of each artwork can be sold and distributed, and therefore each copy is sold for less than a unique object would be – all of the art dealers’ target audiences are people with a lot of money. Oh sure, you can build a collection on a postal worker’s salary, but postmen not the target audience, they’re not who the art system has in mind when it decides on its exhibitions for the year. Music companies and book publishers are doorkeepers who’ve found their doors demolished by digital production and the internet. In fine arts, is it time that the artificial scarcity of limited edition prints made way for time-based art on YouTube?
An artist: someone who sweats blood into an artwork and tries to sell it to make a crust. They get excited when rich collectors show up at their shows. They are cynically knowing about the game, they hate it, they love it, they always come back to it. Do they have any other choice?
An artwork: the embodiment of an artist’s deepest thoughts, their best visual ideas or [insert your definition here]. For sale to the highest bidder.
Everybody: the target audience for all artworks, as supposed by public gallery visitors.
An art collector: the actual, unspoken target audience for all artworks, as supposed by art dealers (and by many who avoid all galleries). Most are intelligent and well-informed, and presumably many are lovely people. But these characteristics are not the main reasons why they’re respected, why their decisions about what to hang in their study or put in the portfolio influences what’s on public gallery walls and in storerooms.
Socialist art critic John Berger is a dude. He’s my new hero. He hates the “false religiosity” surrounding artworks, which is “usually linked with cash value but always invoked in the name of culture and civilisation”. You can see him 40 years ago on Youtube, his open-necked ‘70s attire and curly locks at odds with his aristocratic lisp.
His book called Permanent Red now seems all retro-revolutionary:
I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or between art and state property – unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop further.
So grand, so bold. (I would say that art always being property is problematic.) Anyway, just like that, with one sweep of his hand, Berger dismisses the entire art industry, not only buyers and sellers, but scholarly hangers-on also:
Thus today I would find the function of regular art criticism – a function which, whatever the critic’s opinions, serves to uphold the art market – impossible to accept.
To be sure, Berger’s own retrospective festival came with “a 96 page, fully illustrated season catalogue”, so I guess, just like the rest of us, he’s not a complete purist. But I still find him more convincing than the ponderous Arthur C. Danto who claims that “it is difficult to agree with cultural critics who suppose that economic considerations must inevitably affect the way we look at art.” You’re wrong, Arthur C., so wrong. If I can afford a piece of art, I’m going to be looking at it acquisitively. Because, you know, it’s a product.
You know who else is wrong? Alan Gibbs. It’s understandable why so many artists accepted his commissions and his filthy money – yes, I mean you, Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor – but all those who put out (to pasture) at the art farm are helping Gibbs launder his 1980s corporate raiding loot. Gibbs is hoping to be remembered less for liquidating whole companies of people and more for buying the Biggest Artworks in the World; less for asset stripping and more for asset augmentation.
Like a personalised number plate, Gibbs’ artworks are a status symbol. If all car number plates read “wanker”, Gibbs has a personalised number plate that “you can see from the moon,” according to an envious Michael Hill, jeweller. What a pity NASA’s already got dibs on the biggest swinging dick in space.
You can’t ignore the dealers if they represent the artists you want to buy and pin to your wall. Maybe Keri Hulme’s favourite artists don’t have dealers: in response to a review of Behind the Canvas, she wrote:
You know, those of us who buy works of art we absolutely love- totally ignore all this crap? We find the artists, we buy from them. End of story.
(So she finally finished another one!)
Ooo I can hear your complaints and your exceptions ringing in my ears: What about graffiti and street art, what about Wellington’s Letting Space and Otara’s Fresh Gallery? What about crowdfunding, what about public funding? I can hear you reasonably pointing out that artists have aspirations like the rest of the middle class – am I saying they all have to live in an attic, and indeed, not leave it even if they’re offered enough money for their art to do so? Do I think I’m the first person to have thought of these criticisms? And most loudly of all: yes, but what are the alternatives? Who would I prefer as the taste-makers then, huh?
To which I say: let’s make the exceptions the rules, plural (each exception inevitably comes with its own hierarchy, rebellion always turns into its own conventions – ask the Impressionists); this website is supported by Creative New Zealand, so public funding’s totally fab; have you thought of going into advertising; no; and well, you’re the creatives, people. Take it to Mr John “Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop further” Berger – prove him wrong, and come up with some imaginative alternatives. Or do you agree with Hamish Keith that no art market = no visible art?
A friend wondered the other day: what would it mean to show art in a Māori space? What might the design of such a space be like, and how would people interact with it? Māori art is currently shown in non-Māori spaces - how would non-Māori art be presented in Māori spaces?
 I can recommend Museum Inc to anyone wanting to read verbal pyrotechnics. [Back]
 But don’t tell me art is more than a commodity because it is useless and therefore separate from design. Au contraire, that’s a sales pitch for its status as a high-value product. Yes, even though one might wilfully misunderstand and argue that an artwork’s form still follows function: painting = wall-hider, diamonds and platinum = billionaire status symbol, you can separate “useless” art from “functional” design - but art remains a commodity. Pacific art traditions, I’ve been told, do not have this art-design status anxiety, this separation of the two – and yet art is still revered. Go figure. Perhaps it’s because of, rather than in spite of, an arguably looser relationship between art and commodity? [Back]