While my own skills are limited at best, I have always been fascinated by art and to a greater extent the economics of art. While the economics of classical art seems to be more straight forward; Rembrandt won’t be cranking out any new masterpieces, but when it comes to what qualifies as “contemporary art” the economics aren’t quite so easy.
Economist, marketer and author Don Thompson tries to tackle the question of the economics of contemporary art in his new book, The Supermodel and the Brillo Box – Back Stories and Peculiar Economics From the World of Contemporary Art. Thompson starts at square one; part of the difficulty in defining the economics of contemporary art is the settling on the definition of what qualifies as contemporary art, with different auction houses having varying definitions.
While classical artists worked in a variety of mediums, contemporary “artists” seem to be more purveyors of ideas and outrage more than the traditional paint, canvas and clay. While I have spent a fair amount of time pondering the body of work of Stephanie Seymour, the “supermodel” in question in the book’s title, I can’t imagine that a sculpture of her arched, upper torso, complete with hand bra, would qualify as a multi-million dollar work of art. As if to prove the questionable nature of contemporary art, the “Stephanie” sculpture is credited to Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, who came up with the concept, but the work was actually created by Frenchman Daniel Druet. One of a series of four “Stephanie’s” was put up for auction and fetched $2.4 million.
Thompson tries mightily to dissect the economics by explaining the exponential growth in collectors willing to shell out big bucks for contemporary pieces. At times it seems to boil down to art in the eye of the bank holder; with the economics being defined simply by what people are willing to pay.
Thompson points out the at times almost anti-commerce nature of some of the “artists.” Take the example of British vandal/grafitti artist Banksey, who’s work gained notice and accumulated an enthusiastic following willing to shell out big bucks almost in spite of the of the artists desire for the contrary. Banskey strives not for cash flow, but for street cred among his contemporaries in the graffiti underground.
Ultimately, Thompson may not deliver a definitive answer on the value of contemporary art, he does succeed in delivering a fascinating look under the tent and into the world of modern art.