The Artistic Monopoly
By RENEE WANG
Imagine standing in a crowded auction where hundreds of investors, collectors and dealers are busy making calls to buy the painting of a renowned artist. Curious, you take a glimpse, and on display is a full white canvas, sold for 15 million dollars.
In recent years, art has traversed to prioritize the artist’s meaning and “genius” over skill. Paintings, like Kazimir Malevich’s White on White, exchanged and showcased in popular exhibitions, and praised by critics and collectors, was the kind of art that sold for millions. But why did a completely white canvas sell for that much? Maybe it’s the texture? Or something people just can’t see?
In reality, there is a specific reason for its price. Today, elites who buy paintings care more about the price and reputation of the artist rather than the artwork itself.
It should be noted that the value of art was always determined by a certain group of people, comprising of investors, elites, and dealers. They are the ones that get the final say in the cost, even if the cost did not always correlate to what the artist believes. Street artist Banksy is known to paint murals on property illegally since 1990, and because of his early and very controversial works he gained a reputation for himself from his unknown identity. One of his most notable works, “Kissing Coppers,” was taken by the owner of the building and sold for half a million dollars. Except soon in 2013, street artist Banksy sold his work for $60 in the New York Streets, that would sell for more than $100,000. Pertaining to this idea, it is possible that replicas can be sold from a dealer for thousands just the same. It goes to show that if an artist has a reputation and value, people will buy their art.
In fact, in a bbc Documentary, “What Makes Art Valuable,” a wealthy collector stated how art is a status symbol—a piece to show off to others within their circle. By never declaring any love for the medium of art, it reveals that elite art collectors do not particularly understand the meaning the artist is conveying. As a result, the misconception of artists who can’t afford specific living expenses or the “starving” artists grew, causing many artists to believe only a handful of people “get it.”
For example, realistic paintings do not sell as high as abstract art because people believe it displays “unoriginality.” Abstract art sells for millions, not because people understand it, but because they think it is a unique and good investment for buyers in general. The meaning of abstract art is not always clear and can be reshaped to something people find attractive or “deep.”
Additionally, the art you see sold on the street can be just as good as those found in a gallery, maybe even better. If you compare a painting in a gallery and another at your local store, you probably are more inclined to assume the gallery art is just better than the store one. It is common for the human mindset to believe the artwork is in a gallery because it is good. The presentation and professionalism play a big role and largely impacts someone’s perception in value.
And because the value of abstract art has increased over the past few years, artists continue with that distinct style because it is what works: fueling a never-ending cycle of these art standards.
Nowadays, the art industry has become more of a business field rather than the creative field it used to be. Successful artists are portrayed as those who can market themselves as worthy of their price and if they have a good dealer, they can generally gather some reputation. In a sense, there is no difference between an average salesman and an artist.
Nonetheless, good marketing cannot guarantee that an art piece will continue to sell, because what the collectors are really eyeing are the pieces by artists who have passed. Particularly art by Picasso and even artists many years old sell for significant values because the supply is minimum.
In the end, there will be some art that might not be as great as people believe it to be that will sell for millions of dollars. Likewise, paintings like Malevich’s White on White also might be more profound than some thought. Overall, a painting’s value shows that a painting’s value will always settle on the person’s perspective of whether it is worth buying for 10 million dollars or just 10 dollars.