Are high prices good for art?

There’s a debate in the current Royal Academy  magazine that asks the question, ‘Are high prices good for art?’

One side of the argument: ‘Art is hip, art is hot… art is embedded in the national consciousness.’ There are far more art-connected jobs. Whether the art is ‘good’ or not will be for future generations to judge.

And the counter-argument: collectors of contemporary art ’mostly don’t have good taste’. We have a kind of art which reflects the taste of those who buy it. Also, art is an investment, and bought in the belief that it will hold its value, so there’s a vested interest in not talking it down. That will be for future generations.

I love the buzz around the Tate Modern. Art is not only hot – it’s cool. There are extraordinary levels of invention. Often they’re scooting up backwaters: the public vote with their feet and move quickly through, hardly comprehending. Who has the patience for video art slowly revealing itself? Not many by the numbers you see sitting in those darkened rooms.

That’s the real world of art. There’s one hell of a buzz out there. And someone out there will be passionate about video art. But when a Saatchi picks them up, or an unknown Arab potentate, no longer. It might as well be that latest Ferrari, the most expensive car ever, which is pre-sold and never seen. Spin-offs and copies sell to the rest of us for extraordinary prices. Remember the prices of the various bits of Damian Hurst merchandise which someone thought we might buy when we exited the Tate Modern exhibition? Would anyone be so daft as to fork out tens of thousands of pounds? Maybe.

It’s a schizophrenic world out there. Yes, money feeds back in and elevates the status of art. And yet it taints it terribly.

It’s only another form of patronage of course. Painters and craftsmen and architects achieved sublime beauty in the name of religion. Do we or do we not rejoice in the creativity married so closely to the opulence at Versailles? How democratic should art be? (There’s a nice diversionary tack!!) Artists want to be discovered, want to win a public, create a market, and they will produce inevitably more of the same if that sells well. The William Blakes of this world who wilfully defy all conventions, they are the rarity.

In the end where would we be without all this money that floods and distorts and devalues? And where would we be without all that noise and all that buzz which matches up against silence? Art and all the buzz of art exists in a sacred space. But remember also – silence is the ultimate sacred space.

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