Written by: Haomin Li
The conception of my theory is only possible thanks to British Anthropologist Alfred Gell’s powerful writings on his incisive understanding of what art is. He insightfully holds the belief that art is whatever that is accepted by the art world.
My Theory in a Nutshell
Buying art is always the most direct and powerful way to influence the art market’s trend and to make one’s voice (in this case, taste) heard. Only by making transactions of art more accessible and affordable will true democratisation of the art world be achievable.
My Full Text:
Towards the end of my last article, I said rather firmly that the ‘final arbitrator of art’ should be its market: the ‘art loving people’. It seems that I have equalled the market with the art lovers, but is it the case in reality? Can the market really be equated to the art lovers? In the article for this week, I want to criticise my own argument from my last article so as to add nuance to it and to give rise to the theory I am going to propose today. With my still limited art historical and art theoretical knowledge, I would, nevertheless, like to endeavour to put forth a rather experimental Marxist theory that hopefully some day could be smoothly applied to the art market and the art world.
I want to begin this article by deconstructing the problematic concept of ‘affordability’ within the context of the art market. Who defines ‘affordability’ according to what kind of standard? Is ‘affordability’ applicable to everyone? A few more questions that I would like to interrogate myself with include: is the art world nowadays really democratised? Do we, as art lovers who may not be able to plunk down millions of pounds, really have a say in the art world? Do we get to decide what is ‘great art’ and what is not?
I was inspired to write this article when I received a daily newsletter from an international auction house. In the newsletter, it advertises that this one specific auction offers ‘affordable’ modern and contemporary art. Upon seeing the combination of ‘affordable’ and ‘art’, I was happily planning to bid in this auction (naturally for an art lover like me), until I found out that the lowest low estimate is actually at a couple thousand pounds. There is no way on Earth that I, a university student proudly coming from a working-class background, would find the couple thousand pounds ‘affordable’. It was then that I started to seriously think about the concept of ‘affordability’: who defines this concept, and according to whose standard? T. J. Clark is again on my mind. Just to refresh our mind: Clark argues that artists, when producing art for an open market, would have their potential consumer, or the imagined image thereof, in mind. Likewise, art dealers, galleries, auction houses also have a target consumer segment that they have in mind: the bourgeois and the elite, the so-called ‘art buying class’. What is extremely problematic is that these merchants of art in particular and the Capitalistic society in general outright assume that art lovers come from the bourgeois and elite art buying class (which cannot be more biased and more wrong). For these ‘art buying’ people, a couple thousand pounds is, of course, less than insignificant. Now, we can endeavour to answer the first questions posed in the beginning: the ‘market’ is definitely not representative of the ‘art loving people’ and there is currently no way in the cruel reality that the art market can be equated to art lovers. We can also answer that the concept of ‘affordability’ is nowadays co-defined by the elitist merchants of art and the elite buyers of art. This concept of ‘affordability’ is definitely not applicable to everyone; nay, it only applies to the extremely few.
However, in an ideal world, I firmly believe that the art market should equate the art loving population and that any art lover coming from any socioeconomic background, not just the bourgeois and the elite, deserves to buy pieces of art for themselves; any art lover deserves to own a lovely private art collection if they so wish to. Owning art should be an accessible option to every art lover, regardless of their class or financial capability. Art lovers without that much money to squander should be equally entitled to purchase art. In other words, we need to (re-)define ‘affordability’ in art. It is fortunate that we are currently seeing positive actions in the art world aiming to redefine ‘affordability’. Affordable Art Fair (AAF), for example, has been making incredible efforts to support both working-class art loving public and underpaid professional artists. AAF offers artworks that are set at very fair three-digit and even two-digit prices. The lowest prices at AAF at New York and at AAF at Hong Kong are only 100 USD and 1,000 HKD respectively (both less than 100 pounds). AAF at Battersea, London every autumn offers works that are even as inexpensive as 50 pounds. The art world needs more art fairs like AAF so that much more people can readily afford beautiful pieces of art to decorate their homes and to enrich their souls.
In St Andrews there is also a student-led organisation, New Fine Art Exchange (NFAE) that admirably contributes to the redefinition of ‘affordability’ in the art world. Collaborating with young talented emerging artists, NFAE offers truly affordable art (set at two-digit and three-digit prices) to people who want to own art pieces at a reasonable price. NFAE’s identity of a student-led organisation also appeals to university student community, a significant segment that contributes greatly to the art loving community. In many senses, NFAE is actively changing the art world and making it a better place for everyone.
Organisations like NFAE and AAF are doing something socially important; they are truly contributing to the democratisation of art by enabling and empowering people to purchase art with a much lower barrier of entry than the entry barrier set by the ‘big names’ in the Capitalistic art world. As more people from various less privileged backgrounds are now enabled to buy art, our voice (‘taste’ in this case) will be heard by the art world; consequently, as a largely open and free market, the art world will adjust its ‘taste’ in accordance with our taste. The dominant taste should be the taste of ours, of the art lovers, not that of the elites who may or may not truly love art.
Right now, the art world is not a democracy; it is an outrageous oligarchy controlled by the bourgeois and the elite, the money and the powerful. Right now, our voice is largely unheard. Right now, we, the majority of art lovers, are not able to determine what ‘art’ is, let alone what ‘great art’ is. Right now, we can only see art change from the sideline. Right now, we are barely a constituent part of the art world… Only with a fairer standard of ‘affordability’ will the people’s aesthetic taste be heard; only with the people’s taste heard will the art world truly become ours and change for the better.
Clark, T. J.. ‘On the Social History of Art’, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), 9-20;
Gell, Alfred. ‘Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps’, in Journal of Material Culture 1 no. 1 (March 1996), pp. 15-38.