While ars gratia artis is the unequivocal calling for the world’s creative types, ars gratia lucri may be more accurate in the business of art. From the first finely carved caveman club to modern-day pharmaceutical pills on a shelf courtesy of Damien Hirst, visual enhancement of our daily lives has always been well appreciated, if not well understood.
What has changed dramatically in recent years is the ardent acquisition of art for financial gain rather than aesthetic pleasure. At first glance, this may appear to be an affront to artists, but the reality is that the flow of money into their world has seen unprecedented prices attained in the sale of their art – and extraordinary profits for auction houses, galleries, former owners – that leave returns on investment in other vehicles unsubstantial in comparison. Collectively, there has never been as much money in the world as there is now, and where money goes, art follows… these days, not only into the salons of wealthy patrons and well-endowed museums but also into the boardrooms and corridors of savvy corporations that correctly perceive works of art as valuable assets.
In the case of American photographer Cindy Sherman, this year’s recipient of the prestigious Roswitha Haftmann Foundation Prize awarded at Kunsthaus Zürich on 10 May, her intriguing images are increasingly sought by individual and institutional investors alike. Sherman, whose body of work is, literally, her body of work, is famous for her steadfast commitment to artistic expression, using herself as her own often unrecognisable muse in myriad photographs over a decades-long career on both sides of the lens. With New York’s Museum Of Modern Art currently hosting a retrospective of Cindy Sherman’s work, the first for the artist in the United States in more than 14 years, 2012 seems to be a banner year for the unassuming woman with uncanny ability to transform herself into everyone she is not.
The day after the presentation of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize was the one-year anniversary of the Christie’s auction in New York that saw Sherman’s evocative work, untitled #96, sold for USD 3.9 million (virtually double the high estimate), placing it atop the list of the world’s most expensive photographs. Not that Sherman is unfamiliar with this heady territory; her 1985 work, untitled #153, was sold in 2010 for USD 2.7 million. In November 2011, the record price paid for a photograph was broken again, this time for a work by German photographer Andreas Gursky, whose Rhein II was also sold by Christie’s New York. Like Sherman, Gursky, too, occupies two of the top five positions in the current list of the world’s most expensive photographers; though the silent frenzy of his 2001 work 99 Cent II Diptychon seems a stark contrast to the austere image of Rhein II, both share an unsettling geometry that draws the viewer into the image – willingly or not. The works of both these artistic visionaries exemplify the increasing interest in the collection of modern art in general and photography in particular, long derided as a lesser art than painting or sculpture, now more appreciated perhaps after a generation of the general public’s near continuous interaction with handheld electronic devices of every ilk. The USD 3.3 million pricetag for 99 Cent II Diptychon in 2007 surpassed the record for a Gursky work set by a second print of the same subject sold in November 2006 for 2.48 million, which itself had exceeded the price of a third print sold in May that year for 2.25 million.
The photographic images of Cindy Sherman are especially prized by Austrian insurance company Verbund, one of the world’s leading corporate collectors of her work. Like Switzerland, Austria is often erroneously perceived by the rest of the world to be uncompromisingly conservative while in truth appreciation for all that is new and unusual – as long as it is of high quality – has long been part of its culture. That an Austrian company embodies this trait is unsurprising; what is surprising is the extent and depth of Verbund’s art collection and the profound knowledge of the art world among employees who see artworks every day hanging on the walls of the company’s offices in central Vienna. Verbund’s Am Hof headquarters is also the location of the Yellow Fog art installation, which each evening at dusk emits its eponymous substance, the work of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, one of the current beacons of the world’s contemporary art scene.
So – how to get in on the next big thing? Much like the horses of Ascot, the roulette wheels of Monte-Carlo, and the stocks on Wall Street, picking a winner on a specific day is not easy. Art, though, is far more beautiful as wall decoration than stock certificates, so the basic rule remains “buy what you like”. In Switzerland, one of the world’s leading art markets, there is certainly no shortage of art for sale, and innovative galleries like Mines d’Art in Geneva’s Carouge district are good places for a Sunday stroll that may end up yielding significant returns on investment. Mines d’Art, a gallery specialising in works on paper, makes a point of showing the works of avant-garde artists who see the world differently from the mainstream – exactly the kind of modern art that eventually becomes collectable. Coming to Switzerland in June, for example, is the work of controversial Australian artist John Douglas, whose Scat, Cat series of cat scat fingerpaintings caused a diplomatic uproar in 2000 even before his solo exhibition opened in the salubrious setting of Bangkok’s Neilson Hayes Library. Why the abstruse impulse to use animal excrement as artistic medium? Douglas, proudly expelled from his art college for being what the administrators called “a disturbing influence,” explains, “I wanted to use a substance considered dangerous for human contact, and cat excrement can be very noxious for people with autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis”.
Douglas’ exhibition at Mines d’Art – a rare opportunity to see contemporary Australian art in Switzerland – diverges from his earlier work in its social commentary, yet the images of his Midnight Gardens series are just as visually compelling, impressing the viewer to question what lies beyond the colours. Though he has worked extensively as a professional photographer who has covered events such as the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and has travelled on assignment extensively throughout Switzerland, painting remains his most avid form of self-expression. Other than hardcore investors seeking to make a profit above all else, buyers of art generally look for more than a face captured in a photograph, more than a river slicing the horizon. The “intangible something” behind the work is often as important as the imagery itself. In Douglas’ case, an apparently simple painting style is in fact rampant with symbolism and meaning. Does he choose to share their significance? On a good day, yes; as is the case with all true artists, the work is created as an extension of their souls, not as a commercial enterprise undertaken with profit in mind. It is this entrée into the world of the artists that patrons seek to purchase along with the work itself.
After all, when pursuing our interests personal or professional, we all aspire to be part of the inner circle. At the same time, many artists whose success is accompanied by an increasing interest in their inspiration find it appalling to be obliged to explain themselves; that’s what their autotelic compositions are supposed to do. Interviews can be painful; baring souls is no easy task, yet even this aspect of life can be expressed through art, as Douglas has done via his painting entitled I’d Rather Comb My Hair Until My Head Bleeds Than Be On Facebook. For his Geneva exhibition, Douglas, a native of Scotland transplanted to Australian soil, does provide some insight into his Midnight Garden; on view along with more than 100 vivid paintings, all exactly the same size, is a video showing the process of creating one of the paintings in the series, adroitly permitting the viewer an inside peek of the artistic process and deepening appreciation of what is presented on the walls at 39 rue Saint-Joseph (www.mineadart.com).
Article by Robert La Bua