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 They were superseded by the Impressionists, who were not considered to be serious artists in their time.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.
In contrast, patrimonial art doesn’t yet have a plane of entry into the Establishment. The deep meanings contained within and the sacredness of such art may not help in creating financial value. However a patrimonial art work may have deep cultural value within the community, religion or spiritual schools it originates from. Ultimately, this may translate into monetary value as well.
An eruption is also coming from within the ranks. Many contemporary artists are not completely signed up to the modernist paradigm. Many have interest in art outside the bounds of modernism. They often admire sacred patrimonial art influenced by it and resort to embedding the ideas of patrimonial art into their own works.
There are indicatory trends in the culinary arts and gastronomy which have parallels to the art world. Australia is going through a small renaissance of traditional bush foods and fusion gastronomy. Bringing together food influences from different culinary cultures is now the order of the day in restaurants and food malls all over the world. Traditional herbal remedies are now more popular than ever.
Many modernists are now working within Indian, Asian, African, and South American indigenous communities in which local artists are influencing them with intellectual and style inputs within modern art pieces. Australia is a special case. Community artists have transformed sacred ancient patrimonial designs into modern art where gallery valuations went through the roof in recent years.
Australia was comprised of many ‘natural nations’ in existence before colonialism and its child globalism. Many of them are still here upholding their culture and art traditions which influenced contemporary art. Working within these two paradigms requires contemporary artists to start looking within once again.
This is beginning to affect the appearance of modernism, with new forms emerging with global outreach nurtured by sacredness and cultures of the “natural nations,” like the indigenous communities in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. This trend will meet modernism and collide with it.
When these two plates collide, a process happening now, sacred patrimonial art will break the plate of modernism. Along the fault lines eruptions will occur in the form of new patrimonial art centers emerging across the globe, causing a shift in the art world similar to the one which happened at the onset of modernism.
The result will be a new form that will incorporate the values and sacredness of many cultures that have been unable to express themselves in the globalized community of today. Art in the not too distant future will reflect some of the old traditions of the past and present.
The age of modernism is barely more than 100 years and thus has a minuscule timeframe when compared to patrimonial art, which has been in existence for thousands of years. When we see modernism reflecting age-old patrimonial art, we will come to our senses. We will stop believing that art is for art, art is about art, and art is from art. This will challenge the concept of art as a financial asset, that the best pieces of art are the ones that sell for the most.
Kovach Imre Barna is an independent spiritual teacher, thinker, calligrapher, painter, and sculptor. Murray Hunter is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.