Is Art Priceless in a Bad Economy?

In early May, Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” became the most expensive painting sold at an auction for $106.5 million.  Even during a poor economy, the art market appears to be pushing forward.  The New York Times hosted a discussion titled Can Art be ‘Priceless’ in Rocky Times? featuring Denis Dutton, Eileen Kinsella, Donald Kuspit, and Kathryn Graddy.

Denis Dutton is a philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, Arts & Letters Daily editor and author.  Dutton: “Paintings and sculptures remain the locus of yet another kind of value. A painting is in principle the singular physical product of an individual artist’s hand and mind. Its complex textures and color gradations will likely make it impossible to trust the accuracy of any reproduction.”  A piece of art becomes an unique object that is difficult to reproduce.  For some artists, commissions can become difficult to please a collector.  Each painting becomes it’s own being and can’t be reproduced.  However, it’s up to the artist’s personal preference.

Eileen Kinsella is an ARTnews contributor and ARTnewsletter editor.  Kinsella: “The reasoning is that the quality of the work will make the buyer confident in his acquisition, no matter what is going on elsewhere in the art market or in the broader economy.”  As a result, a small group of rich elite are willing to buy a small number of blue chip objects.  Is the resurgence in the art market only at the top?

Donald Kuspit is art history and philosophy professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook and author.  Kuspit: “The name is the high-priced, desirable, one-of-a-kind commodity, not the work, which has a certain incidental relationship to it. This has to do with the celebrity culture: artists have been absorbed into its spectacle. Their creativity has been appropriated by it, making every celebrity seem like a great artist in the making, and every artist a celebrity in the making, aspiring to make spectacular art.”  Does an artist have to become a celebrity now in order for their art to become the hottest commodity on the market?  Bravo currently has a reality television show titled Work of Art that contestants compete in art challenges to avoid elimination.  Sounds like a normal day in an artist’s life.

Kathryn Graddy is an associate professor of economics at Brandeis University.  Graddy: “While many people may be in economic distress, the very top echelon of wealthy individuals are doing just fine, and it is this very top fraction of the distribution that drives this end of the art market.”  I believe this drive also effects what is shown in galleries.  Money is the fuel that keeps the art market alive.

Graddy: “Nonetheless, these fortunate buyers of cultural assets should recognize their moral obligation to make their purchases available at least at times for the public to enjoy.”  Ms. Graddy brings up a valid and brilliant point.  Part of a collector’s legacy should include sharing art that might have been otherwise hidden.  This creates and fosters an atmosphere of improved creative consciousness.

All this talk about art auctions making a comeback but what about the emerging and mid-career art markets?  Are fellow artists feeling an increase in their bank account?  It will take time to see if the “trickle down” effect makes it to living artists.  However, art is priceless to investors and artists alike.

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