Sufferin' art

After the grotesque drama of the past few years, there's more talk of art (as opposed to prices) these daysJamal Mecklai - Business Standard

Over the past couple of years, the volatility of prices of contemporary Indian art made even the most exotic commodities look tame. I realised this when I saw that a 2006 Subodh Gupta painting, part of his Untitled series of paintings of kitchen utensils, sold on Saffron Art last week for $209,000; significantly, there were only two bidders for the work, suggesting also that may not have been a market clearing price. What is amazing is that a similar work — from the same 2006 series, almost identical content, identical in size — had sold for over $1.4 million at Saffron’s June 2008 auction. Its price has fallen by more than 85 per cent from just over a year ago!

For comparison, the Dow fell by 46 per cent from June 2008, and, incidentally, has already recovered more than half of its decline; the BSE fell by 53 per cent, and has recovered all and more of its losses.

Granted that paintings are not commodities or stocks, although the art “market” certainly resembled a financial market over the last few years. But it is clear — and widely acknowledged — that the prices of Subodh’s work (and of several others) had, by 2008, been pumped up by spectacular speculation, lubricated by the lugubrious prose (sorry, couldn’t resist that) of a handful of “critics”, who, like the credit rating agencies in the financial crisis, were the handmaidens, politely speaking, of the small group of players — art dealers, businessmen, traders and even some art galleries — that burst on the scene about five or six years ago and drove the bubble to such grotesque heights.

Long before the madness — say, around 1999-2000 — contemporary Indian art had come into its own and was evolving a unique balance where even mid-range artists could make a good living selling their work at prices that were affordable to a growing band of middle-income buyers. There were, maybe, a few thousand people involved — artists, gallery owners, a sprinkling of academics, old-time collectors and new buyers.

However, by around 2003, the steadily rising prices — 15 to 30 per cent a year — began to attract hordes of cash-rich culture-poor people, many of them recently enriched by the globalisation of our economy, and, particularly, our financial markets. By 2005, things had gotten crazy. There were artists and art dealers and art buyers under every rock. Nobody talked about art any more — the only thing that mattered was price.

To be fair, the parties did get a lot better, but it was increasingly unreal and you could feel the end coming. Prices accelerated further and by the time the music stopped — thank you, Chuck Prince — there must have been a couple of hundred thousand people involved in the contemporary Indian art market.

Most of these are gone. Probably half were just there for the money. They didn’t know (or even care) about the artist or the work. Tell me what will go up fastest. Shockingly, I got a mail yesterday from someone still asking that question.

Another 25 or 30 per cent were probably attracted by the hype — the parties, the tamasha, and the coolness of buying art. Most of these are also gone, although some were hooked and remain.

Which means that at the end of the day — or, better yet, the start of the new day — the art community is probably a bit more than twice as large as it was ten years ago. About the size it would have been without the hoopla, and without the terrible consequences for many artists, art dealers, and, perhaps worst of all, art students, who bought the hype and lost their souls.

Of course, there are dozens — hundreds — of artists who continue to produce work for themselves, rather than for the market. Some of them participated in and enjoyed the tamasha; some were more circumspect socially. But their art continues to mature and the prices of their work, too, remain on the steady 15-30 per cent a year growth path, which had prevailed before the insanity.

To be sure, many of the market darlings have also evolved — Subodh certainly has — and appear to have ridden the grotesque drama of the past few years to good effect. All drama takes us to a better place, provided we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

The drama isn’t fully over — I’m sure there are a few more shoes to drop. But the good news is that there’s more talk of art (as opposed to prices) these days, and the parties are starting up again.

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