If you are an art collector, and frequently visit contemporary art galleries in search of a new piece that speaks to you and that you just have to have, then you are supporting the artists – in the true sense of the word.
“Art demands sacrifice” – the well-known Russian idiom (“Искусство требует жертвы”) seems rather well placed here. This sacrifice is very real – regardless of century, country of origin, or any other environmental factors. It is material, physical, emotional and financial. (Should we keep going?) It’s not even limited to fine art but extends to music, dance, fashion, theatre and literature.
My favourite example when it comes to this particular area of concern is Vincent Van Gogh. Everybody knows Vincent. Ask anyone who Van Gogh is, and they’ll at least be able to tell you that he was an artist who chopped of his ear! Despite his amazing productivity, he sold one painting in his lifetime.
But what is current market price of Van Gogh? Well, last year his L’Allée des Alyscamps (1888) was sold at Sotherby’s auction to a private Asian collector for $66.3 million! That was six times its 2003 price, highest price paid for a Van Gogh since 1998, and the largest price ever paid for a landscape. Mind-boggling.
The thing that bothers me is that while this is sensationalism to us today, it did not manage to actually benefit Van Gogh himself in any way. It is the vicious circle of art market: immensely competitive, where it often takes an artist a lifetime to achieve recognition, only to see their value increase after death. We’ll read in books about their struggles, the breakthroughs they made as a result and the pressures put on them, and then admire their work in museums which by then have paid millions to acquire them. Remember the new Caravaggio discovered in the French attic? The value was estimated at 120 million euros, compared to Rembrandt’s 80 million – because Caravaggio left about 60 works compared to Rembrandt’s 600. So the trick, then, is to create just a few amazing masterpieces and wait until you die to reap the rewards!
This highlights the vulnerability of artists in their lifetime as well as the volatile and often unpredictable market value of art. Artists may make nothing in their lifetime, or they might actually be able to support themselves. Their work may end up in world class museums, or they might be altogether forgotten. They may even re-emerge by association as an exciting offshoot of someone else’s life. Their work may become a high commodity, with millionaire art lovers investing big money and preciously guarding it. That’s the paradox of art.
I recently purchased a bronze sculpture from a local Australian artist: Zygmunt Libucha. It was love at first sight, and after months of payments the precious artwork was mine. To me, paying for that piece acknowledged a living artist whose skill and vision came together to reach something in me on a very personal level. His words were, “Thank you for your interest in my work.” Because to an artist having someone seek out their work above others is a testament not just to their craft and artistry but, above all, their relevance.
Is the work worth the money? At the end of the day art is worth whatever a buyer is willing to pay for it. While this is a pretty obscure concept, it is the only one relevant in a material world. It is the concept by which art is valued for insurance purposes. It is also the only objective way of valuing something subjective. My wish, though, that whatever the value of the piece, it becomes of some benefit to the artists themselves. After all, if we don’t support the art we love, it will simply cease to exist.