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A debate on ‘priceless’ art in context of today’s rocky times
In an interesting documentation of insightful opinions by experienced art experts, The New York Times publication in a recent academic exercise checks whether art as an investment avenue can be worthwhile in today’s rocky times. Denis Dutton, the professor of philosophy of art; Eileen Kinsella, the editor of ARTnewsletter; economist Kathryn Graddy, and art historian Donald Kuspit debate the beauty, creativity, and investment angles in-depth.

Taking us back to the 2008 summer when the financial crisis hit its peak, Eileen Kinsella recounts: “Auction house experts, dealers and collectors nervously watched as a $25 million Van Gogh was left unsold, buyers retrenched, and volumes dropped sharply. The auction sales for the spring 2009 were the lowest in almost seven years - a clear sign that the economy (in crisis) was weighing heavily even on the art market.”

However, as the expert points out, not everyone felt this was a bad thing, especially longtime collectors who had got frustrated with the intense, oft-frothy competition for both contemporary art as well as for blue-chip masterpieces. They couldn’t wait for the art market to correct, eager to go shopping. This exactly appears to be what several super-wealthy art collectors have started doing in recent months. The abundance of blue-chip works available at discount is bound to spark global demand. The reasoning here is that their quality will make the genuine buyer confident in his or her acquisition, irrespective of the art market or the broader economic trends, Eileen Kinsella observes.

Donald Kuspit, the professor of art history & philosophy at the State University of New York, notes in his write-up: “Long before the broad economy collapsed a year ago, most art-savvy people argued that it (art) is the new equity: one can probably make more money in it than in the stocks. Stock prices go up and down. However, the stock of certain artists invariably keeps going up.” Why, the essayist asks to add, “Is it because their works are unique, making them prized possessions, or because they were avant-garde innovators, not to say geniuses? The answer has less to do with the artists’ achievement and more to do with the fact that people are buying the brand name and getting the work along with it.

“The name is the high-priced, desirable, one-of-a-kind commodity, not the work, which has a certain incidental relationship to it. This has to do with the celebrity culture: artists have been absorbed into its spectacle. Their creativity has been appropriated by it, making every celebrity seem like a great artist in the making, and every artist a celebrity in the making, aspiring to make spectacular art,” Donald Kuspit explains.

According to Kathryn Graddy, an associate professor (economics) at Brandeis University, the recent record-breaking prices at auction for blue-chip works reflect the changed sentiment. Reasoning the logic behind improved art sales, the expert states: “Many people did not really enjoy the financial turbulence of mid 2008 and early 2009. If income and liquidity are not key considerations, investing in cultural assets may well be the way to go.

“Stock prices had risen sharply from a year ago. Many savvy investors have had an exceedingly good year, and the correlation between equity returns and the art market is well documented. While many people may be in economic distress, the very top echelon of wealthy individuals are doing just fine, and it is this very top fraction of the distribution that drives this end of the art market,” Graddy concludes.

In his paper, Denis Dutton, the author of ‘The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution’, argues that the fundamental aesthetic expressivity of art is delivered to audiences in very different forms. According to Dutton, sculptures and paintings remain the locus of a different kind of value. The veteran editor of Arts & Letters Daily explained: “The painting is an intricate and utterly irreplaceable record of a historic artistic achievement. Whether or not you term it a truly great Picasso masterpiece, it’s a solid investment: his place in the foreseeable future of art seems assured, and with it the interest and value of this work.”

The experts in their respective research essays have tried to fathom several such factors that would facilitate quick return to confidence in the contemporary art market and re-establish the intrinsic worth of art as a dependable asset class.