It seems intuitive, when describing what art is, to focus on the pure aesthetics of the object in question. Today, however, there seem be two classes of ‘art’: art with a more obscure creator; and art by an artist known all over the world, valued at stratospheric prices.
Take Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as an (albeit rather exaggerated) example. Around six million people visit the masterpiece each year, viewing it for an average of just 15 seconds. No first visit to Paris would be complete without it. It has been valued, for insurance purposes, at $720 million.
This separate category of art has become, in essence, an investment commodity. With names like Picasso, Lichtenstein or even Hirst, artwork can be purchased in the certain knowledge that its value will increase over time.
With this market characteristic, little appreciation or expert knowledge of art is actually needed to invest in it. So long as you know a few big names, and have the bank balance, you can invest in artwork worth huge amounts, sit tight and reap the returns.
All this may sound rather cold and calculating, but this is the consequence this attitude is having on the art world. It threatens the personal value of art, by reducing the work of famous artists to another investment commodity – now, complete with commercial litigation against those who break the news to the investors that they may make a loss.
Foundations and organisations which specialise in certifying art as genuine are increasingly facing litigation from furious owners, who believe their piece to be genuine, but are told otherwise.
Early in 2012, the Andy Warhol Foundation dissolved its authentication board after spending $7m on a lawsuit against a London collector. In 2011, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation did the same, rather than ‘jeopardise [its] health and well-being’ said Jack Cowart, its director. Nowadays forgers favour 20th-century abstract and expressionist styles. Jackson Pollock is easier to mimic than Titian – the Pollock-Krasner Foundation stopped authenticating works in 1996.
Ironically, without authenticity (and rarity), art is worth less – so investors may be weakening their own market. One effect is that work by living artists may increase in value, as they can personally authenticate their work.
Most suits fail, but with extortionate legal costs, fear (and liability insurance) is mounting. Already this is causing the top end of the art market to suffer, compounding the problem and thereby making forgery easier.
There is a sad irony to this – rare, famous art is being stifled by commercial litigation, when in fact, art should be freedom of expression incarnate.
With thanks to Wikipedia, About.com and artnews.com for photos.