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An Art Market on Steroids

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September 2008
An Art Market on Steroids

By AJAY VISHWANATHAN

I winced as the ball of paper shot across the room from my bat and struck a painting. The painting tilted precariously to its side and paused tantalizingly for a few seconds. The next moment, it came crashing down on to a water-filled flower vase, which promptly drenched the canvas that came unhinged from the shattered frame. My friend and I were mere boys then, and to the displeasure of my friend’s father, had been playing cricket in his living room. Although the painting was wet and worthless, I wasn’t thrown out, I am happy to recall. I was saved from my friend’s father’s wrath for a simple reason — the painting was not a Raza or a Husain.

Today, kids playing in living rooms have to be more careful not to dislodge paintings, as the art hanging on walls is likely costlier than the price of the entire house we used to play in! The $400-million Indian art market reflects the growing — and often impetuous — art mania that is gripping the upwardly mobile in the country.

There seems to be something hackneyed about dabbling merely in gold, stocks or real estate, especially when there has always been that absurd relationship between a restrained economy and rising art value. Gone are those pre-Internet days, when Indian art had no gallery network or market, when the only artists who sold were those who were eccentric enough to elevate themselves from obscurity. Add to that a splurging middle class with surging salaries, a new-found attention from international auctioneers, a growing number of opportunistic art curators and online galleries, and a rich population of nostalgic Non-Resident Indians with their appetite for taking back to their living rooms pieces of their homeland.

Collectively, all this has created a perfect storm that has stirred up buying forces like never before. On the plus side, these forces are helping old classics get recognition and allowing talented young artists to find their footing on lucrative international floors. However, the same forces have flooded the market with so much greed that the Indian art bazaar has begun to reek of hype, mass-production and manipulation.

Tyeb Mehta, the great Indian artist and Padma Bhushan awardee, called the mania “meaningless.” Mehta, often referred to as the least commercial Indian artist, must be appalled at the prices being commanded nowadays for the works of some new-age painters and for the mediocre creations of even some notable artists.

The Economic Times, India’s leading financial daily, called the art in India “a craft powered by resource from the Internet and technical skills culled from artists who post their works.” The Internet aids mass production by letting people quickly access successful artwork. This spawns “inspired” creations that are either duplicates or wannabes. Noting that Indian art is “entering a new matrix of expression”, The Hindu comments, “No longer confined to the canvas or the original forms, art is being copied, cloned, remixed and recycled as never before.” Artist Ashok Gulati, known for his works that reflect the beauty of water bodies and undersea life forms, rues that the Internet is weaning creativity from craft, “Artists are more like laborers today working for a mega industry.”

The Daily News & Analysis, a Mumbai-based newspaper, observed recently that the Indian art market “has suddenly gone on steroids.” It noted that “newcomers, barely out of college, were quoting (or were made to quote) absurd prices. In the absence of a proper art appreciation culture — critics, curators and the like — a small but powerful clique of operators [have] emerged. There are also rumors, unconfirmed, of artworks being sold from gallery to auction to gallery to boost up prices.” As a consequence, the auctioning houses sell fledgling artwork at highly favorable prices, and appraise the big-name executions, which are fewer in number, at insanely high values, even when the work is average. The hype around the artwork creates euphoria that blurs buyer rationale and a taste for real worth.

Hyping up to sell at a premium is not uncommon in this part of the world. Forbes Magazine calls it “Pump and Dump” in the art business, and cites Liang Changsheng, art director of Beijing’s Contemporary Artwork Auction firm, who called the business an “idiot’s game.” “First get critics to write about [the artist]. Then organize exhibitions to introduce his work,” he says, “then you can put the work in auction with an establishing price and buy it back yourself in order to set an example for the public. Of course, it would be better if some other bidders join in.”

The oil for the hype machine comes from buyer ignorance, which remains the scourge of Indian artwork. Also, the artist, galleries, and the auction houses play the selling game in such collusion that, as Minal Vazirani, co-founder of the Saffronart auction house, points out, it smacks of a conflict of interest and makes it difficult to gauge the real value of the art.

India’s art world has become so deluged in self-serving economics that it is now awash with mediocrity. The need to exploit the situation and keep up with the competition has prompted several artists to jettison their leisurely creativity and churn out substandard quickies, as if on an assembly line. Once an artist clinches his winning recipe, he is forced to work with no margin for creative risks and no room to broaden his repertoire. He often sees the stifling of his genius that stagnates on a beaten path. And so, he is driven, not by a genuine creative impetus, but rather by the next walloping sale of his creations.

The booming price of art has also engendered mediocrity in the buyer market, with patrons placing more merit on resale value rather than on aesthetics.               

   

I love Indian artwork on my walls, too; in fact I have an M. F. Husain in my living room. It is a reprint, which I feel is monetarily quite worthless because I bought it during my graduate days in Michigan at a university art sale for $20. But I love it since it is created by someone I respect as an artist, and depicts a lovely Indian village scene.

Art patrons should get back to buying creations because they understand its depth and seek pleasure in its perfection, not because they can impress their colleagues and neighbors, not because of speculative gains. There is nothing wrong, of course, in a studied purchase of art as an investment, but frenzied buying merely to get into the game breeds also-rans with indifferent, and often copycat, artwork.   

For the moment, let me get back to my bat and paper ball; I have nothing to worry about in my house since the only pieces I have are a reprint Husain and homemade Vishwanathans.

[Please take bio lines from last month’s “Dhoni: Courage Under Fire” article]


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