Money talks: In art, now, the cart pulls the horse

Gallerists never talk about money. Not in public anyway. In their swanky showrooms these days, prices aren’t even mentioned on the exhibition list. Backroom deals are the business.

The rituals of today’s art trade often suggest to the naive art-lover the maxim “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it”. The implication is obvious: artwork ownership belongs to those with the bucks.

It’s a sad state of affairs but, culturally, also a dangerous one and the rapid international growth industry of “art fairs” is the upside (for those in the money) or the downside (for genuine creativity).

A late bloomer after the Joburg Art Fair started eight years ago (the next one’s in September), Cape Town has just had its third art fair this year. Entertainingly enough, a kind of salon de refusés style “alternative” one was plotted at the same time – That Art Fair.

Also on during the jam-packed arty days were the Guild Design expo and the talk shop and show of the Design Indaba. And, because this is the way of art things nowadays, a glamour ball was held in association with the yet-to-be-opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art. The smell of money was in the air everywhere.

Quite a few people have been getting worried about this Faustian contract between art and money.

Last week, eminent artist Hans Haacke, a man who, at the age of 78, has a passionate belief in the power of art, told Nicholas Wroe of London’s Guardian: “I like to believe that, when my generation put their feet on the ground, collectors bought works because they wanted to be associated with the art. Now it appears a great number of collectors treat it as an investment. That is disgusting. They have art advisers in the same way as they have financial advisers.”

If you looked closely during the Cape Town Art Fair – which just ran its white-tented, air-conditioned course in the V&A Waterfront amid parked billionaire yachts – you would have spotted those “advisers” in their tight, tailored black suits. In between air kissing and sips of Wade Bales big-glass wines, there was very little art talk of significance.

It was somewhat less of a hide-and-seek at the other one, the That Art Fair, held in a recently constructed yet unused parkade, slap-bang in Salt River’s motley community, corner café at the ready.

Here niftily dressed Neo Matloga and Pebofatso Mokoena, young Jo’burg artists, were on hand to write out, there and then, an invoice for whoever wanted to pay for some of their crafty etchings. Real deals, for the love of art, at a fair price.

In the other art world, where glitzy catalogues and large walls are de rigueur, and arthouse auction news and hype are strategically fed into the media before and after cocktail parties, “fair price” would be interpreted as that, once the well-advised buyer gets the timing right, the artwork could again be sold for a substantial profit.

Art, Haacke suggests, has become the new currency of the rich. Collecting has taken on a new meaning. One doesn’t even have to be cynical – or a romantic fuddy-duddy – to spot the ridiculous stuff that goes for art in this paradigm.

The American gallerist and commentator Steven Zevitas last year posted an insightful warning about art fairs and what’s happening. Money, he says, is starting to determine what art is – good or bad – and how it functions in society.

“If you were to walk through the aisles of any one of the dozens of art fairs that now take place globally on an almost weekly basis, you would get the sense that the art world is a happier place than Disney World. Big art, big artists, big dealers and big money play their roles in a hypnotic and well-rehearsed production, and toothy smiles abound.

“Yet this intoxicating spectacle is just the most public manifestation of a problem in the art world that has become increasingly obvious over the past decade: more and more, the cart is pulling the horse. The horse in question is, of course, aesthetic production and the individuals and institutions that assiduously guard its sanctity. The cart is, at least on the surface, money.”

You can be sure no one at the Cape Town Art Fair or the other one is going to talk about the money they took in.

One of the ironies of this art fair was the attendance of the charming RoseLee Goldberg as official guest. Well known for her work in performance art, it did strike a few observers that her field of art expertise is exactly the kind that cannot be sold. Is there a hidden lesson here?

Keep the powerful accountable

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Melvyn Minnaar
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