When considering the consumption of fine art, it becomes evident almost immediately that art is a commodity, something defined as a useful or valuable item which can be bought or sold. Contemporary art auctioned off at Sotheby’s between 2003 and 2007 had a 600% increase from £218 million’s worth sold in 2003, to £1.3 billion sold in 2007. Art Piece Database put the average rise in Contemporary Art between the years of 2003-2008 at 800%. The site also reveals an increase in value between 2006-2007 at 55% for contemporary art, but only a 7.6% spike for Old Masters work. Logic might dictate that when there is less of something, its price increases. However, as this Artnet graphic makes clear, the demand for Contemporary Art more recently still far outweighs the demand for the Old Masters.
If contemporary art is indeed the in-demand market for moving money in the cultural sphere, what is the cause?
Art objects are not exchangeable one for the other like other commodities. Art economics is based on the scarcity of unique objects. There is a general price point and many different outlets in which art is now sold. Auction houses, commercial galleries, art dealers and online vendors have taken up the mantle of distributing art through new channels, finding new sorts of clientele as they advertise and gain notoriety. A consumer society is one in which individuals are confronted with and surrounded by an enormous assortment of goods, and in which the characteristics of those good constantly change. And the concept of commodity cultures is intricately allied with the idea that we all construct our own identities.
These identities are changing in the art world. In today’s media-fueled capitalistic environment, artists are often considered as celebrities, skyrocketing in value as they morph into someone recognisable in the public eye. Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian are a few arty names that attend celebrity events, rubbing elbows and making big name collaborations happen. Thus, the question is easily presented, are we buying art or are we buying branded products?
I argue that, today, it depends, but canvases are often purchased for the name of their creator, not their particular excellence of composition. Look at the signature, ask where a work was purchased and who sold it. Any certain gallery works its own marketing scheme, an art dealer will have their unique ring of elite pals and buyers, and the auction houses have ways to make sure their loyal clients are satisfied and rewarded. However, there are certain enterprises that have taken artistic branding and commodification to an intense new level.
In 2010, the Spanish fashion label Zara began selling Basquiat’s imagery on T-shirts, quickly after profiting from a collection of Keith Haring printed shirts. Uniqlo, a Japanese maker of casualwear, followed suit, tossing in an Andy Warhol design or two and really working some clichés. In truth, the choice of Basquiat isn’t all that surprising, given his particular influence on the world of Hip Hop (the Gym Class Heroes lyrics, “Now watch me rock the spot like Basquiat, minus the heroin and make my face popular like Andy did to Marilyn” seem particularly poignant under this light). Yet to me, this is some of the most importance evidence concerning art’s utter objectification. Particular popular artists, or at least their estates, have fallen victim to massive-scale reproduction in the arena of fashion. Yes, t-shirts do promote the artist and their works, but change the representation of their status. Prominent works are now churned out at cheap prices on cheap cotton for the unwitting public, and, in my mind, consequently become undervalued for their importance in Art History. I think Keith Haring deserves more than to be tossed out with the rest of last season’s “festival wear”, and I see a big enough difference between accessible and dumbed-down arts.
There is much more to say on this topic; I’m offering but a brief glance into celebrity and fashion influences on contemporary art commodification. Some would argue that art is not a commodity. And I’d like to agree, because I don’t want it to be. Snaps for all those still making art for art’s sake out there. But look at the figures, see in which trendy directions big money flows of late. Reproduction is complicated; a worthy way of paying homage, but also a way of devaluing pieces despite all the best financial intentions. Standards of authenticity and originality are not so much under question here, but motivations which drive purchases of many artworks and pieces of apparel today, those are the true source of my dilemma. After all, isn’t art meant to inspire, not just help us fit in?