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Industry of the Elite: Taking a Look Into the World of Modern Art

An Industry worth 67.8 billion dollars, growing at 3% year-over-year, surprisingly has only a few actors that play a role in its value. The Global Art Market is seen by many as secluded and elitist leading to even mainstream media mentioning the absurdity. “The Intouchables”; a French movie which grossed 360 million euros at the box office arises to me as an example. In the movie, a wealthy aristocrat Philip is pondering on buying a painting (which is a literal splash of red paint on a white canvas) for 41,500 euros. His caretaker Driss can’t wrap his head around why a person would spend such a hefty sum on a “nosebleed”. The movie follows up with Driss, without any artist background, painting his own version of a “nosebleed”, adding his touch of colors. Ironically, his painting was sold for 11,000 euros, thanks to the aristocrat Philip for his connections and the white lies that he told his friend, who bought this masterpiece from an ‘unknown artist’. 


The art world exists in a remarkably secluded realm. While the phrase "It's a small world" often rings true, the art world takes this to an extreme, resembling nothing more than a minute atom in size. Within this minuscule sphere, a select group of 'elites' wields tyrannical influence, determining both the price and artistic value of creations. Honestly, I have no idea what are the requirements of an artwork that would be considered ‘valuable’. In 2019, a banana duct taped to a wall was sold for $120,000. I guess you will never know if you buy a lucky banana one day. Of course, the artist of this masterpiece, Maurizio Cattelan, was well-known in the contemporary art world at the time. So maybe your name has any value? Talking about Da Vinci, his painting called “Salvator Mundi” was thought to be a copy of the original artist’s work and was sold in 2005 for about a thousand dollars. After years of digging and nagging the poor painting, it was recognized as an original work of Leonardo Da Vinci. Of course, it was then sold for about 400 million US dollars.


As much as some people may be passionate about art and dream of becoming a world-known artist, the industry only revolves around and benefits a few people. It is also a place where these few people can get away with some dirty deeds. For instance, a rich person with great connections buys multiple art pieces from one artist. What does he do then? Displays it to all his acquaintances, bombastically presents it as a work of the century, and sells it for a huge price. The other works of the same artist automatically become more valuable and expensive. The person who has now acquired the art piece sprints to a charity organization or a gallery, donates it, and boom: much less taxes to pay. I am not even mentioning the countless avenues for money laundering in such a complex world.


Truly this secluded world lacks transparency and is surrounded by elitists that benefit from it. Many artists are fighting for a higher degree of equity, inclusion, and fairness in the industry. Among them, is Tanvi Kulshrehta, a former management graduate who now works as a full-time, self-employed abstract painter in Pune, India. In a 2023 interview with The Best Adress, she says There is no doubt that those with influential networks are favored in the art world, and like any other field, politics plays a role. Neither primary-market pricing nor curatorial credibility is transparent, which leads to a lack of confidence in the market.


What about the artists that start from zero? What about the artists who do not have good connections or resources? It is a hard industry, even if you have been gifted with an astonishing talent. A random “nosebleed” can cost thousands of euros if the artist is in the elitist circle but a piece that took months may be seen as an ‘amateur work’ if the artist’s name doesn’t carry any fame. Brian Boucher for an Artnet news article dives into this topic more deeply, one gallery director says: “It’s supposedly so democratic and open to people but in reality, it’s cliquish and elitist, so it’s impossible for many people to gain access”.


The so-called “Nepotism babies” have overruled this world. If you analyze the names or surnames or investigate the connections that ‘valuable’ artists have, you could find friendships, parents, or wealth that may be hidden there. An art curator’s job is mostly to just feature artists that they have worked with before, became friends with, or offered a few bucks. Art is not critical anymore, it’s an inheritance, legacy, or just simply money.


Critical in this context would particularly mean evaluating art in a way that the artist’s name wouldn’t have a significant impact on the value. If you ask me, multiple things give merit to the artwork. For instance, the message and symbolic value, the time put into and the methods used to make it. To add up to this, the evaluation would be more accurate if done with multiple people, not only the ones that rule the art world, but also the ones that like art in general. Without substantial guidelines and effective unbiased critique of an artist's work will the blood sweat and tears of up-and-coming artists ever be rewarded? Much has been said about the artist's struggles, however, one must also consider the average art enthusiast who may not stumble upon great art pieces not shown in galleries. When one buys a phone at a large electronics store, one is presented with all options available at the time with their respective specifications. If Apple lobbied with all electronics stores in the world and only made their phones visible to consumers and subsequently inflated their prices substantially it would be seen as a clear violation of international competition law. How come we do not have similar competition regulations for artwork as we have with almost all other products nowadays? 


I know what you might be thinking… government legislation and regulation for the art market?? This girl must be crazy, what is she talking about? You might be however ignoring how influential the art world is to our everyday lives. The course of art has the power to change the way we see the world and influence our ideas and values. Art directly or indirectly affects the fundamental sense of self. Just look at how art changes in times of war, pandemic, or even economic cycles. Art is a reflection of societal morale and perspective. If you ask me, transparency and fairness in the art world is a big deal.


Melissa Gronlund wrote an article about this lack of critical discourse. She mentioned in the article how the art world has given her the cold shoulder, while persistently expressing the issues in the art world, particularly in the UAE. She highlighted the disconnect between art and people and explained how unclear the operation of art in the gallery is. She makes readers understand that we also need stories, information, and history to fully understand the piece. She completes her article by emphasizing how important it is to normalize critical culture and accept critiques, especially for non-artists and customers since it would create a space to give us our own opinions and voice.


Theoretically, we can value things like a particular artwork, an artist, or a movie. Though rarely do we have a say when it comes to worldwide recognition. These closed-off groups do not only choose what art is valuable, but also which we favour. It is impossible for a person to go into an art gallery and decide the price of a work. This gets me thinking if we have any say in something’s value. Or do we just value things that others do? Is there any critical thinking involved at all? And if we all value things differently and have our own preferences, is it even possible to put a price on them?


Do you guys watch the Academy Awards? I personally enjoy the movie world quite a lot, so my nosiness always leads me to find out who won the Oscar and who didn’t. I think this industry in some way parallels the art industry. It was interesting when Denzel Washington during his acceptance speech cracked a joke about how he was invited to a Hollywood press luncheon with people from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which decides who wins the Oscar), took some pictures, ate a good meal and then surprisingly (or not) won an Oscar. Not only the fact that this joke (or not) may confirm the fact that these indirect gifts may win you a vote but the fact that a group of ‘professionals’ decide for all of us which movie or actor/actress was the best. Again, is this another industry that lacks objective and critical evaluation?


The art industry is very questionable. It is not based on criteria or people’s opinions but on nepotistic connections and wealth. The common populous does not really know or even care who decides the value or rules the industry, we are made to think that there are ‘experts’ that really know which art piece is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Consequently, everyone who does not fit into these ‘elitist’ frames is struggling to gain recognition in the industry. No praise is put upon artistic merit which can be accurately measured by the general populous if all art is put on display for everyone to see. Unbiased critique has been completely thrown out the window in today's market for art with artists, part-time art enthusiasts, and media alike highlighting its nonsensical nature. Moving forward, we must be aware of all controversial dealings in the art world and call them out. Ironically, as art became marketable and professions started to arise from within it in medieval times, an artist would attain recognition and wealth from the quality of his brushstrokes and overall portrayal of reality. Nowadays we have learnt this is no longer the case.




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