By: Kovach Imre Barna and Murray Hunter

Today’s art world is a well-mapped-out universe consisting of a few thousand leading galleries, museums, a few hundred influential curators and art fair organizers, writers and critics, wealthy collectors and institutions, and of course, the artists themselves. It is a US$64 billion-a-year industry in which sadly today’s definition of good art is its saleability and the marketability of the artist.

Mirroring socioeconomic trends, the industry has become globalized. Contemporary art is considered a financial asset class in which the promotion, investment, and protection of the asset has taken on priority, with financial institutions and fund managers joining collectors in creating their respective portfolios.  

In their most elemental sense, what the buyers are actually purchasing is stretched canvas and paint. The actual material value of a painting is a tiny fraction of the purchase price. That is based on and justified by opinions within the art community which give a certain value and importance to the artist as a brand. The artist becomes a brand with a price tag.

The large difference in valuation cannot be justified by artistic quality. Its real cause is the pressure for change. Certain periods of art can fall out of favor, with the drop in interest leading to falling prices for that category. Consequently, often art works that were once highly priced can be bought today at give-away prices. At the same time artists whose work in some way is compatible with the emerging pattern may see their art zoom upward in price. This would result in revaluation, resulting in the acknowledgement of their importance and higher price.

For instance, academic painters who are almost completely forgotten today were well known and popular in the 19th century, where they commanded praise and high prices for their works. They were superseded by the Impressionists, who were not considered to be serious artists in their time. Manet’s paintings caused a scandal when exhibited at the annual exhibition in Paris. However, today Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Pizarro and other impressionists (and post impressionists) command sky-high prices. The once famous academicians no longer find interest from collectors, art writers or museums. They wait for the moment of rediscovery if it ever happens.

There is a dirty little secret here. Within the art world today, innovation is carefully contrived to keep the market buoyant to make sure that the ‘stars’ of yesterday are the ‘stars’ of today.  

However, a tectonic shift may be coming, in which today’s modernist art work, which might be described as art for art’s sake, art about art, and art from art creations will soon be seen in a new perspective. We believe a shift in culture and globalization is in the works, stirring up movements based on traditions, sacred philosophies and teachings, with their symbols and colors embedded within cultural themes.

Patrimonial art, embedded within traditional lifestyles and beliefs, may collide with contemporary art, the art of global capitalism. Such sacred tribal art most often consists of symbols that are thousands of years old and teachings which provide advice and guidelines for all aspects of life.

Patrimonial art is not art for art’s sake. It has a much higher goal of seeking to maintain the heritage of harmony and balance of traditional rites, rituals, and spirituality. It is embedded within nature itself, with a teaching and healing function and establishing the values of a humanistic community.

In contrast, contemporary modernist art’s goal is to establish a saleable brand, the artist’s name, which creates a high valuation based upon a consensus between the players of the art world. There is also a mythology, an assumption that it is one of the highest social achievements of society, placing the discipline on a cultural plane that is viewed as something pure and uncorrupted. Contemporary art is consequently seen as one of the most valued artefacts of society, collected in art galleries, museums, and in private collections around the world, unquestionably considered to be at the pinnacle of human prowess.