Art of darkness

India Art Fair is an occasion to celebrate art, artists, and the art market, not a time for negativity, and definitely not for reading Georgina Adam’s terrifying book, Dark Side of the Boom. It’s as engrossing as a thriller, and about as blood-curdling. Adam, an art writer for FT and The Art Newspaper, has shadowed the global art market closely — and here she spills it all, blood, gore and entrails. 

Today’s art market is as much a focus of global attention as it is of fluctuations and trends, of supply and demand. For years, stories and rumours have done the rounds of all that is bizarre or absurd — from massive factories where artists produce art on a gigantic scale with the help of scores of assistants, to contemporary artists signing their artworks then declining ownership because the value they received no longer meets their current expectations. Artists, galleries, dealers, investors, collectors, they’re all bound by a relationship that can, by turns, be abusive and exploitative. Ownership, copyright, re-use, the legal tangle over ownership of creative content, all these, however fascinating, are a portent of the times and likely to lead to massive legal entanglements. Despite her disclaimer that the excesses she writes about touch only a minuscule part of the market, its value and muscle has a far deeper impact. 

Take the case of photographer Patrick Cariou whose images of Rastafarians became the reference for painter Richard Prince and were sold by Larry Gagosian at high prices. Cariou sued Prince, the case went to court, at the heart of which lay the argument whether Prince’s works were “transformative” enough, and whether Caribou’s work lay in the domain of “fair use”. The appeal court ruled that while some works were transformative, others were not, but the terms themselves remained undefined following an out of court settlement between the two. Imagine an Indian artist using stills from popular cinema without consent or payment but with acknowledgement, and making sense of the infringement of legal proprieties and ownerships. Such appropriation in the West is increasingly flooding courts. “Editions” too are no longer sacrosanct, with one court ruling that a change of size and material is enough to merit a fresh edition, no matter how it impacts the price of the previous ones. 

Visitors at the India Art Fair 2018 in Delhi
 Adam’s investigations into the Chinese art market are particularly pertinent for India, where the art boom is still to take off. From massive art storage units, to “malls” that double up as museums and retail outlets, from “museums’ being used by China’s retail majors to gain discounts for realty projects to prop up the Chinese government’s thrust for using art as a soft power, its voracious appetite for expensive works and its associations with luxury and fashion, have created a balloon that might burst any time. Think of Li Yiqian, who bought a $36 million Ming dynasty “chicken cup”, only to pose with it for photographers while sipping tea from it, and then going on to acquire a Modigliani painting for an astonishing $170 million, and how it is part of the demand among Chinese billionaires for more art — most of it contemporary and fuelled, as it is in America, by price rather than merit. 

I’ve yet to read the portion on forgeries, the creators of fake art, the global machinery that peddles it, and its scale, all of which could do lasting damage to the art market. Some of its pitfalls are becoming visible in India, though on a much smaller scale. But as values rise, its excesses could impact India as much as they have China and the West. Here’s a cautionary tale one might take heed of, though suspecting that, in the end, greed will triumph.

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Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated

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