Thursday, April 04, 2013

How is art not luxury?

The last few days of the current fiscal saw Indian art worth Rs 100 crore being auctioned at three separate venues over a few hours each, yet it failed to form part of what the cognoscenti consider the $6 billion luxury industry (minus real-estate). It's not art alone that's outside the purview of what is considered luxury, with the unorganised sector, which includes wedding trousseaus consisting of expensive jewellery and saris, firmly outside its branded firmament. Elsewhere, they might even call it bespoke, but here it remains, like art, under the radar of the luxury brand fraternity.
When paintings by an artist sell for several lakhs apiece, when a V S Gaitonde gatecrashes into the big league at Rs 5.5 crore, when a gallery mounts an exhibition with a value anywhere between Rs 25-50 crore, what's not luxury about it? True, art is about creativity, but in each piece being unique and with the peer value it carries, it forms part of the universe of luxury. Yet, luxury real-estate developers who are at pains to advertise tie-ups with the house of Armani, Versace and the like for furnishings and furniture, or Philippe Starck for lights, have not even begun to consider art as part of their portfolios. It might be argued that art is about individual taste, but so is sofa fabric - yet you don't see anyone at variance about that.
Which is why, at a recent luxury conference in the capital, watches and suits formed part of the inventory of talking points, but art remained firmly - strangely? - out of it. And yet, whether the size of the Indian art market was worth Rs 1,500 crore in 2008 (and, arguably, anywhere between Rs 500-1,000 crore currently) it remains larger than several other segments of the luxury industry. How many Rs 2 crore-plus yachts, for instance, are being sold in India? That answer, given Mumbai's tacky dinghies anchored off its Gateway of India, is only rather obvious. But if the number of high-end luxury homes is increasing, art, without a doubt, is going to ramp up too, whether it's considered luxury or not by the industry.
It does, however, need to shed some of its glorious uncertainties. While the value of jewellery, or automobile technology, can be explained to an extent, and designers can talk objectively about the creativity in fashion, or a pair of shoes, it's more difficult to calculate in a painting, or sculpture, where the value lies only in terms of the artist's context - and, of course, rarity, even though with terms like "mass luxury", a prolific artist is no longer to be disdained.
With the exception of the most passionate collectors, it remains evident that the serious pursuit of art begins only when consumers of luxury goods have sampled, sequentially, the purchase of a car, property (including at least a second home), expensive branded jewellery, the ownership in whole or part of a jet or a yacht, while stumbling through foreign holidays, fashion, accessories and the like. Art enters their life when boredom begins to peck at their routine shopping impulses.
Sadly, neither the art fraternity, nor the luxury industry, have done anything to help move Indian art up that pecking order. With 2013 having started off better for Indian art than most previous ones at least as far as the market is concerned, it seems set to be staging a comeback. What value it will add to the luxury market though remains under a cloud and yet to be seen.
-Kishore Sing in Business Standard
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