Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Limits of Creativity

Adrian Lo
Intro to Contemporary Art

The Limits of Creativity
The Chinese contemporary art industry has been in full bloom for
the past two decades. It attracts avid collectors and galleries to buy
works on art in bulk just to ride the wave of price inflation. But do
these collectors and galleries really fully appreciate and understand
the content and concept of every piece they buy? There is plenty of
reason to believe that the Chinese contemporary art industry has been
largely driven by its price speculation and inflation. Firstly, the
art market is seemingly dominated and dictated by galleries and
collectors and sometimes art syndicates. They determine the prices at
which pieces are sold and also the ones who create the huge price
inflations. They are also hugely influential in determining what
constitutes as good art; they have the ability to turn an artist into
a millionaire overnight. Secondly, artists are now beginning to create
pieces of art to fit the market instead of the market adapting to the
art. Many artists are concerned about whether their pieces will sell
and therefore follow the trend instead create their own. I believe
these actions betray the basic principles of contemporary art. It is
no longer avant-garde, no longer controversial nor stimulating. The
market completely dictates the flow of creativity. Third and lastly,
the market is now putting a lot of pressure on artists' creative
integrity. Many artists are forced to adapt their concept to the
markets wants just so they can provide for themselves and their
families. All signs point towards the eventual commercialization of
the art industry and the demise of creativity. Maybe saying the demise
of creativity is a little dramatic, but what will become of the
artists who do not conform? What will happen to artists who stay true
to their creative integrity?
What is art? Art is a word with a very loose definition. Who is
qualified to give a definite answer? Who is qualified to decide what
is art and what isn't? In China, the galleries, collectors and
syndicates have a monopoly on the decision making process. They have
been present since the beginning of the Chinese contemporary art
scene. They facilitated with the industry's development and were
instrumental in bringing many Chinese artists and the Chinese art
scene to fame, but the industry's dependence on the galleries and
collectors have become inseparable. All aspects of the industry have
become subservient to galleries and collectors to the point where they
have the power to determine how successful an artist will be or how
much a piece of artwork will sell.
Baron Guy Ullens is a retired businessman from Belgium. He has
been an art collector for the part 40 years. During the 1980s, Ullens
started working in Beijing and Hong Kong. In an interview, he explains
that he met a group of artists who had just graduated from the CAFA in
Beijing and started living with them. He describes that time as
"immense fun". He gained interest in contemporary Chinese art and
little did he know, he would later assemble one of the greatest
collections of Chinese contemporary art. In April 2011, the Ullens
collection was put on display and auction. A collection of 105 pieces
was auctioned and fetched a number of record dealings. Now famous
artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Zeng Peili, Ding Yi, Yu
Youhan all had pieces in the auction. All of these artists sold for
personal record prices. Zheng Peili's X? series was estimated to sell
for $1.5-2.5 million Hong Kong Dollars, but sold for $23 millions HKD,
1000% beyond the expected price ($1USD = $7.8HKD). Wang Guangyi's Mao
Zedong was estimated to sell for $1.5-2 million HKD, but sold for $19
million HKD. Ding Yi's appearance of crosses estimated at
$600,000-700,000 HKD, but sold for $17 million HKD. Yu Youhan's 1985
was estimated at $400,000-500,000 HKD, but sold for $14 million HKD.
Last and mostly, Zhang Xiaogang's Forever Lasting Love, one of his
earlier works from 1988, was estimated at $25-30 million HKD, but sold
for an auction record $79 million HKD. All the sales that were
mentioned were either the artists' personal records at an auction or
in Zhang Xiaogang's case a world record auction price. The auction was
done by Sotheby's, one of the largest and most successful auction
houses in the world. Although the auction racked in record prices, not
a cent of it went to the artists. All the proceeds went to the Ullens
family and partly to Sotheby's through commission. Does that not mean
the market drives the art industry? Shouldn't the artists have more
say and control over where their work is sold and to whom? And most
importantly, shouldn't the artist benefit from the sales of their own
work? In today's society? Definitely not. Guy Ullens bought all these
pieces of artwork when the artists were largely unknown. He can
certainly be lauded for his great vision and keen eye, but as a
collector, the publicity that came with his collection created a
spectacle for the whole art world.
Art galleries have the capacity to be incredibly influential but it is
a seemingly "hit or miss" business. Famous galleries like the
Gagosian grow to the point where it becomes a sort of agency for
artist, where artists who can say they have had a collection at the
Gagosian can immediately demand a higher price. Larry Gagosian founded
the Gagosian Gallery in 1979. It was originally founded in Los Angeles
but has since moved to New York. They have now expanded to all corners
of the globe, to places such as Hong Kong, London, Rome, Athens, Paris
and Geneva. They specialize in collecting western modern art.
World-renowned artists such as Damien Hirst, Cy Twombly, Willem De
Kooning, or Jeff Koons all have had their work carried by the
Gagosian. With thirty short years of history, the Gagosian has become
a brand name and status symbol of sorts. One of Damien Hirst's most
famous pieces of work called "For the Love of God", which is a
platinum human skull encrusted with 8600 flawless diamonds, was taken
around the world by the Gagosian and exhibited in all their different
locations. This particular piece is priced at an estimate 50 million
pounds; if sold, it would be the most expensive piece of art in
history! And it costs Hirst 14 million pounds just to produce it. What
was so special about this skull? Surely 1100 carats worth of diamond
can make anything special. This piece was different from all his other
pieces such as his "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of
Someone Living" series where he would place dead animals in
formaldehyde and seal it in a tank, most famously using a 14ft tiger
shark. The skull did not challenge the boundaries of art; but it was
merely a marketing scheme, where Hirst was challenging to boundaries
of his own brand. Of course, some can argue that Hirst was able to
materialize commercialism and luxury and attempt to sell it but could
an unknown artist produce the same work with the same concept, demand
the same price and still call it art? Definitely not. It seems as
though art has become an extension of the luxury market, where the
name is more important than the product.
Capitalism can be called a curse or a blessing. Sure it made
people a lot of money, but it also it bred a society of greed and
materialism. This has even affected the art industry, especially in
China. An advantage/disadvantage of a market economy is the presence
of speculation. In terms of art, buyers are buying art with the hope
that prices will skyrocket. However, art is not like an equity stock,
its value does not appreciate based on its daily performance or the
country's economy, it only appreciates when masses of people
appreciate its value and concept, or in modern times, when the
galleries say so. When an artist becomes famous, the value of their
work appreciates exponentially. The values of these works will easily
jump by 1000% and this applies to ALL works by the artist and not only
the one that brought the artist to fame. Why do the prices inflate so
much? The answer is the auction houses and syndicates push the prices
up. Auction houses like Sotheby's have enough influence to push an
artist into the limelight, and once the artist gains enough fame, all
of the artist's works will fetch insane prices, especially at an
auction. Syndicates, however, are a whole other kind of evil. What are
syndicates? Syndicates are groups of people who buy into a work art;
they buy shares of the piece to minimize risk, and buy shares when
they cannot afford the full price individually. A syndicate operates
purely on speculation and on the purpose of resale. It is a business
transaction and has nothing to do with appreciation and understand of
In case the examples listed previously were not enough to prove
the art industry is purely driven by the market, here's more. Becoming
an artist has now become a full time job. Artists do what they do, not
only because they have creativity bursting at the seams but also
because they have something explicit and profound to express. These
opinions do not always resonate with all viewers but what matters is
that these artists can go on doing what they love and believe in. This
is called creative integrity. It is when whatever's on the canvas,
installation, movie, sculpture or through other mediums resonates with
the artist's own beliefs. In a world fueled by competition and
ambition, what happens when an artist fails to make money doing what
he or she loves and believes in? The artist is then forced to comprise
their creative integrity and produce works that are more tailored to
public eye. Many artist do this to sell better, they do it to keep
food on the table. It is done out of necessity. This can also be seen
in already famous artist. Many famous artists find a moneymaking
template and reproduce it over and over again. For example, Zhang
Xiaogang and his Bloodline series, Yue Minjun and his smiley face
series, Dingyi and his cross pattern series, Wang Guangyi and his
propaganda and Mao Zedong series, these are all hugely successful
artist who have replicated the same concept in different variations.
They do this to cater to the public just so sales can remain high.
It's impossible to say that all artists do this. Artist like Ai Weiwei
or Zhang Huan are also hugely successful but keep their creative
integrity intact. However, in a hugely materialistic world, some
artists do not have a choice. They have to suppress their creativity
and follow the money trail just to stay afloat.
In conclusion, people are driven by greed, and more primitively,
driven by survival. People, including artists do whatever makes them
happy and unfortunately, money seems to be the common denominator.
What does this mean for the art industry? Does it mean people should
stop buying art? Definitely not. Art is still a rare form truth. It is
a tangible form of a person's mind and thoughts and in that respect;
art is still a hugely invaluable and mystical thing. The boundaries of
art are virtually limitless and non-existent. It goes as far as the
human imagination takes it, it is beauty and truth at its purest form
only when paired with belief and understanding. That is true art. That
is priceless.

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