Is it art?

There may be no cash, but beauty is creeping back in to the art world, says Damian Reilly.
Is it art?
By Damian Reilly
Thu 01 Apr 2010 04:00 AM

It was hard, wandering around Art Dubai or the opening of painter Sacha Jafri's new Universe of the Child exhibition at DIFC in March, not to keep being struck by how less deliberately bad art is getting. These days, artists seem to be making a concerted attempt to delight the people who might lay eyes on their work.

Anyone used to looking at art over the last decade or so will recognise this is a massive departure. Today there seems to be less of the paint poured onto a canvas from a great height, or bricks scattered about on the floor masquerading as an artistic interpretation of the struggle of a young single mother in a ghetto, selling for a million dollars. Artists now actually seem to be trying to employ a little skill in what they do.

Good art is the silver lining of the great global recession. We all know great conflict breeds great creativity, but does it follow that times of too much, of gluttony, of bankers being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for merely turning up at work, breeds bad art? I think it does. Art's role as a financial indicator is much overlooked.

Can you imagine someone today, in these terribly straitened times, trying to pass off an unmade bed as high art, worth considerably more than a teacher or a nurse or most of the rest of us could hope to earn in a decade? Important art prizes only two years ago were being won by ‘exhibits' such as a room in which the light was switched on and off repeatedly - would anyone today take such nonsense seriously?

Throughout history art has been closely linked to the financial health of the countries producing it, and by extension to the mores of the people living in them. Decadent Weimar Germany produced incredibly decadent paintings of people carousing and indulging themselves like libertines.

Wealthy Paris in the early 1900s was the stomping ground of Toulouse Lautrec, and everyone knows the sort of stuff he produced. During the Renaissance the art world was controlled by powerful families and individuals who commissioned artists to create aggrandising, but skilful portraits - essentially propaganda art.

But what does the so-called ‘shock art' that has dominated since the mid-nineties say about us? I suspect whatever it is, is not very nice - something to do with attention spans and gullibility.

Since 1995 until very recently, the most lucrative sections of the global art market were controlled by a very small cabal of collectors and dealers - probably less than twenty people, the likes of Jay Joplin and Larry Gagosian and Charles Saatchi.

These people had the power to manipulate the market as they liked, buying young artists' whole collections - young artists who seemed to be doing nothing more than ripping off Marcel Duchamp - exhibiting them, and then watching the price go through ceiling on a wave of press outrage and scandal, while bearded intellectuals everywhere held earnest and circular "but is it art?" discussions.

The good news is that while the West is in decline, India and China are on the rise. There are more millionaires there than anywhere else, and the boom in numbers of the educated middle class is well documented. Both cultures place a premium on aesthetics. Likewise, art at art fairs all over the world is becoming cheaper in line with the recession - in other words it is becoming democratised.

And the masses want beauty; they want art that is pleasing to look at. Painters then, painters who can actually paint, are back in gravy, and if you go and look around any of the Gulf's flourishing galleries, many of which are filled with Chinese or Indian art, or art destined for those markets, you will see for yourself. The economic downturn, then, is not all bad news.

There may be no cash, but beauty is creeping back in.

Damian Reilly is the editor of Arabian Business English.

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