What nebulous factors decide the price of an artist’s work?

In May 2015, Pablo Picasso’s 1955 painting Les Femmes d’Alge (Version ‘O’) made headlines when it fetched $179.4-million dollars at Christie’s in New York in under eight minutes. In the same year, South African artist Irma Stern’s The Arab in Black sold for $1.3-million after it was found being used as a kitchen notice board in London.

So, what makes some art so expensive?

When we talk about the value of art, people’s minds usually jump to the artists themselves: Who were they? What were they known for? Are they still alive?

Beyond the visual appeal and provenance of an artwork, a valuable artwork has social value attached to it, be it negative or positive. Art is a reflection of the times. This year, the local art industry is ablaze with auction houses and galleries showcasing work that serves as a probe into the social and political landscape.

This month, Aspire Art Auction’s sale includes works of social and cultural value by exiled artists Dumile Feni and Louis Maqhubela, as well as a first for South Africa — a photograph of Marina Abramovic, who is described as the grandmother of performance art.

For those who are not familiar with Abramovic, she is the artist who whipped herself, sliced her stomach with razor blades and allowed viewers to threaten her with loaded weapons.

The story behind Feni’s Children under Apartheid (1987) is an interesting one. The charcoal drawing of dreary figures peering through thick prison bars was originally commissioned by the United Nations for a campaign to create awareness about child abuse in the United States and first exhibited in New York City.

Feni, whose work depicted the apartheid regime as oppressive and degrading, went into exile in the late 1960s, first to London and then to New York.

If an artist’s work is valued by their struggle alone, then Feni was a virtuoso bar none.

Justice Albie Sachs visited Feni in London during his exile and was appalled by the artist’s poor living conditions. “Dumile had a difficult life. I visited him in the basement where he lived. He slept on a mattress in a half-dark room with breathtaking black and white sketches of naked musicians against the bleak walls. He made beautiful clay models but could not scrape together the money to cast them in bronze.”

He used the UN commission to draw attention to the social conditions of the disenfranchised in South Africa. After being exhibited in the US, Children under Apartheid fell off the radar, but now has finally returned to South Africa. It is estimated to fetch between R800 000 and R1.2-million. Feni’s repatriated work forms part of Aspire’s curatorial title “Neglected Traditions”, the work of South African artists whose life under apartheid led them to cultural, social and economic exclusion.

Cape Town-born artist Peter Clarke is well known for his depictions of South Africans’ social and political experiences. Even though Clarke’s paintings appear to convey a more pastoral existence, it speaks of his family’s experience as coloured people dealing with forced removal and the Group Areas Act in the 1960s. His Figures on a Path is estimated to fetch between R300 000 and R500 000.

Although the general value of art to society has long been granted, the specific contributory factors are nearly impossible to pin numerical value to, and this is evident in the secondary art market.

Marilyn Martin, curator and former director of the Iziko South African National Museum, questions the integrity of the “neglected” label. “There will always be neglected traditions and artists — fashion changes and the market is fickle; this applies to all artists, not only those we pigeon-hole as ‘neglected’.”

Maggie Laubser’s Landscape with Huts Tree Figure Cow and a Bird is set to fetch for more than double that of Figures on a Path, with an estimated value of between R1-million and R1.5-million. The artwork, set in the same period as Clarke’s artwork, exemplifies the disparity between the “value” of black artist’s work versus that of their white counterparts.

To understand this disparity, we have to acknowledge the complex and often unpredictable context in which this art exists, as well as develop some of our thinking about how these values operate.

Martin goes on to state that “Maqhubela and Clarke have had major retrospectives, with publications devoted to their work. They are indeed valued and have been for a long time.”

If this is true, then how could their works sell for a fraction of what an Irma Stern, or a Maggie Laubser goes for at auction?

Laubser’s rural scenes are breathtaking, and her ground-breaking expressionistic style contributed greatly to the artistic landscape genre in South Africa. From a purely aesthetic perspective, Laubser’s Landscape with Hut is worth its weight in gold. But, in a strictly societal context, it does little to instantiate the narratives of its time the way Figures on a Path speaks of displacement, forced removal and the woes of ethnic minorities under apartheid.

How does one place a rand value on an issue that affected so many people and is still so relevant today? How can we then compare one artist’s depiction of pain to another artist’s landscape, when their lived realities were so different but equally true?

In The Economics of Aesthetics and Record Prices for Art since 1701, Christophe Spaenjers writes: “The paradox of the art market is that objects created for personal and contemplative aesthetic enjoyment are connected to the broader social fabric through an economic transaction.’’

Yes, the social value of a work of art is in part a philosophical assertion that cannot be measured in numbers, but it is something we battle with when the only way we really know how to appreciate something is by knowing how much it costs.

And although not everyone can or will cherish the effect that artists such as Feni, Clarke and George Pemba have had socially and historically, their value and influence should be acknowledged, and not just by sticking on a hefty auction price tag.

With regards to “fixing” the disparities in the art world, the South African art market has made progress. One of Maqhubela’s rare drawings from the mid-1960s recently sold for R300 000, way above the estimate. On this note, Martin agrees. “Much has been done by many over decades. Such work needs to continue and will never be completed. We are all responsible for what happens.”

This article was independently written and sponsored by Mary Corrigall Art Consultancy in partnership with Aspire Art Auction

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