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August Issue 2004

A Few Words from Down Under
Big Art Sale - 30% Off All Originals!

by Judith McGrath

Had a frightening epiphany the other day. An article in the weekend press talked about how art dealers, not informed collectors or independent critics, are manipulating the prestige of certain artists and defining the investment value of their work. I know what you're thinking, "Duh" and you're right, I know the facts. What scared me was how readily I accept them, and how easily we all accept how promoting an artist as a celebrity or marketing the art object as the next best must-have new thing is what visual art has become these days.

Since the first humanoid with opposable thumbs left a handprint on a rock wall, the form and function of art has been dictated by either priests, princes or generous patrons. Through the ages, those with power or prestige defined artistic worth, which was based on how well it reflected their ideology. Artists were observant, developed skills and learned to sit up so they wouldn't have to beg. We saw the raise of art historians who explained the cultural value of art in its time, next came theorists who defined the intellectual value of the concept behind an art practice, then art critics debated the aesthetic value of the object as art. Somewhere along the line, when power and prestige passed to those with a higher credit rating then credibility, the shift began. Now we have the sales department giving us a dollar value. Art no longer serves an ideology, culture, intellect or aesthetic; instead it panders to trend followers who believe they can buy good taste.

A few weeks back I was in a gallery perusing an excellent exhibition when a fresh pressed thirty-something man came bounding through the door looking to buy something for his new flat. It had to be of a certain colour, specific size, particular price, and a good investment. I wasn't sure if he was buying a pair of pants or a painting! But that's just one end of the spectrum. At the other end, dealers are spruiking inane or indecipherable installations by incompetent artists to large public and private collectors as the latest, greatest new work that will define this point in time, and increase their asset value.

Dealers defend their practices saying times have changed, it's a new millennium, a different world, and they are here to serve both the artist and the client. But if the dealers are supplying art to a society hooked on instant satisfaction, retail therapy and extreme make overs then I guess nothing really has changed - except that today it's the art market, not the art work, that reflects life. Like a child raised on fast food, art has blown out and is only about the bottom line. That we accept this is indeed frightening!

Patrons who once respected the power of an artist's muse have been replaced by purchasers who respect the power of the dollar. Meanwhile artistic output has replaced creative input. No one asks why Soanso Smith gets his work in The Suchansuch Collection or why Watzer Name can get sky-high prices for her work when their talents are mediocre. No one cares that So and Wat have been on the art scene for only a couple of years. No one questions if he'll trade his murky palette in for a clean pallet out by the gold fields to make big bucks driving a Haul Pack. No one is sure she won't discover motherhood more creatively fulfilling then making videos of a gently swaying bubble in a spirit level. It doesn't matter what happens next month if they are the flavour of this month.

I know many art practitioners who have something valid to say about life, the universe and everything, articulating their ideas and emotions very well in the visual medium. Political commentary, cultural constructs, subtle changes in social norms, and references to art itself are just some of their reasons for making art. They document life's communal journey and their personal development via their work. But somehow they don't get top dollar for their efforts or a look in by serious collectors. Fortunately for the future of fine art, these artists continue to produce good work. Unfortunately in the present, if they lack a day job or a gainfully employed spouse, in order to continue practicing their art they must sell. The dealer informs them what's popular and they are tempted to provide it, and that's the first step toward compromise. The starving artist produces half-hearted efforts that will sell when it is presented to the buyer wrapped in obscure language, where the only identifiable words are 'everybody' and 'investment' and hints of an 'exclusive club'. Some see this as a triple win situation with artist, dealer and buyer happy. But it's a short-term victory with the artist and dealer losing credibility while the buyer is stuck with something he never really liked, has gone out of style and can't be sold.

Promotion and marketing is an artform in its own right but please limit it to cars and diet drinks and the latest electronic gadget. By all means allow consumers their right to consume so they can be those whom the legendary Joneses must strive to keep up with. All I ask is the modern dealer in all things of value stay away from the visual arts. They just don't understand its worth. Very frightening indeed!

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).

A collection of her articles which have appeared in Carolina Arts can be found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).

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Carolina Arts is published monthly by Shoestring Publishing Company, a subsidiary of PSMG, Inc. Copyright© 2004 by PSMG, Inc., which published Charleston Arts from July 1987 - Dec. 1994 and South Carolina Arts from Jan. 1995 - Dec. 1996. It also publishes Carolina Arts Online, Copyright© 2004 by PSMG, Inc. All rights reserved by PSMG, Inc. or by the authors of articles. Reproduction or use without written permission is strictly prohibited. Carolina Arts is available throughout North & South Carolina.