Writing exclusively for our Printed Publication: CoBo Perspectives, Mark Rappolt serves his take on the role of collectors in the art world. We present here the extended version of his contribution to the topic of Over Powered Collectors: Myths and Realities.
Text: Mark Rappolt
Image: Courtesy of Mark Rappolt.
Art and money are ancient bedfellows. For a large part, art, as we use the term today, has always been about a transaction between an artist and a patron, from the pyramids of Egypt to the pillars of Ashoka, to the churches of the Renaissance, the proclivities of fascists or communists, through to the puppies of Koons. Unpick the material culture of any city or society (in museums of elsewhere) and you’ll find that much of it has evolved from the private passions of their wealthy or powerful citizens (or aristocrats of one sort or another), and that those passions are often related to the trends, fads and fashions of the times. Economic capital and free-market capitalism has certainly been a fashion of our times. Like all economic systems, the art market has its own more-or-less complex ebbs and flows: a darling today can be a pariah tomorrow; and vice versa. But economics is merely one of many ways by which to value a work of art.
Is the Jenny Saville that is valued at $12.5 million by one person have an equivalent worth to the people I hang out with at the local bar? Most probably not. Does that mean that the person with the millions has better taste? No. (Although there’s no denying that one of the lures of contemporary art collecting is the myth that it grants you admission to an aristocracy of taste.) In general, we’re dealing with relative values determined by myriad factors, both personal and universal. For every salon, a salon des refusés. There is no ‘proper’ system, just alternate points of view.
Look at the popular press today and, as well as the market reports, you’ll find that art can be judged as important as it relates to questioning issues of social and economic equality (what some might call an activist trend), to raising issues of gender or cultural identity (or appropriation), to reappraising history and its interpretation, or by moral judgements about the biography or personal behavior of the artist who created the work in the first place. Being relative, these values alter in importance over time. The history of art (as any type of history) is always written and rewritten according to the values of the present not the past. Artists are discovered, forgotten and rediscovered throughout. When F.N. Souza moved to London in 1949 he had to earn extra income working as a journalist while the ‘artworld’ ignored anything he produced. Now he’s the most valuable (in market terms) Indian artist of the twentieth century. The German–American Anni Albers was once asked, by no less a figure than Oskar Kokoschka, why she bothered to paint at all. Now (a quarter of a century after her death), she’s the subject of Tate retrospectives and marketed by one of those ‘top’ international galleries.
Technology may have made things faster, more global and more visible, but artists were saying exactly that during the 1960s (here’s the British artist Joe Tilson in 1966: ‘I’m conscious of being in a situation where communication between, for instance, New York and London and the rest of London is very speedy. One seems to travel more than painters did 20 years ago’). Perhaps one of the delusions about contemporary art (a categorisation that by now is almost half a century old) lies in a belief in its essential novelty or progressive development; science, mathematics and logic (not to mention Hinduism or Buddhism) teach us that nothing is absolutely new. That nothing comes from nothing.
Still, whichever kind of value once believes in, the production and consumption of art is essentially linked to supply and demand. And (like cryptocurrencies) an essential dose of faith, trust and belief as well. The way in which we value something is a choice not a given. If you see market judgements as wrongheaded then the choice is not necessarily to adapt the system, but rather to insist on something else instead, to assert and promote those values in which you do believe. If the power of certain collectors is like water, then it can dry up, evaporate or simply trickle away. Embrace the desert of the real.