As anyone with common sense is aware, much of today’s contemporary art market is populated with works that are eye-poppingly overpriced, let alone horribly clichéd. Collectors are paying astronomical sums of money to dealers and auction houses for works which were only created within the last few years, by artists whose long-term prospects remain, at best, uncertain. Such purchasers are largely engaged in a money game, hedging their bets that a piece which they purchase for $10 million today, will be worth $50 million five years from now when they re-sell it, or donate it to an art institution for a tax write-off. Yet now comes a new entity known as the Art Preservation Index, which is creating quite a buzz about a budding problem for these collectors, apart from the obvious one of their terrible taste: one which has largely been ignored or swept under the rug by the art market until recently.
Unlike more “traditional” materials – canvas, wood, stone, etc. – many contemporary works of art are created using non-traditional materials and methods. This experimentation is part of the art, as it were, but to the uninformed collector, it is also a potential minefield. Whereas an oil painting can last for centuries when properly cared for, many modern materials begin to disintegrate relatively soon after they have been employed in the creation of a work of art. The person or entity that commissioned a portrait painting or sculpture in 1700 reasonably expected that the object would last forever, or at the very least for many, many years. What is the reasonable expectation now, for a portrait or sculpture created in 2015 using non-traditional, untested materials and methods, whose long-term viability remains to be seen?
The argument can be made that the more ephemeral nature of many pieces of contemporary art is part of the story being told by the artist. However, one wonders whether most art collectors, paying millions of dollars for objects which may well cease to exist within their own lifetimes, are being properly informed about the situation that they are getting themselves into by collecting such works. Perhaps as collectors, they are drawn to the idea of art as investment, i.e. anticipated resale profits, or as a form of liquidity. Perhaps they are drawn to the feeling of excitement and enhanced social standing which a savvy art dealer or auction house can evoke through the sale of a major work of art, and they are unconcerned with the long-term preservation of the art which they are purchasing. The rule of caveat emptor – buyer beware – applies to art sales just as it does to the sale of other goods, but of course the price tag in question is considerably more than that for a used car or a second-hand washing machine.
People have always traded in art as a commodity, just as people have always collected art because it makes them feel like they have one-upped their neighbors. Yet what has changed, in addition to the decline of standards in content and execution, is a corresponding decline in many instances of the understanding and use of materials to create works of permanence. In the past and still today, when a collector purchases a painting by Rembrandt, or a sculpture from Ancient Egypt, they anticipate that such works will endure well into the future, given that such pieces have already survived for centuries. Today, in many instances, the works accumulated by a contemporary art collector face a very uncertain future, to say nothing about the publicly-funded institutions which subsequently add these works to their permanent collections.
In art history, one of the complaints leveled against Leonardo da Vinci even during his own lifetime was his deviation from tried-and-true methods in the creation of his art, often with disastrous results. For all of his unquestioned genius, a review of Leonardo’s existing artistic output reads like a catalogue of failures: paintings that failed to stick to walls, bronzes that could not possibly be cast, projects taken up and never completed, etc. Today, we excuse the limited quantity of his artistic output, by focusing on the quality of those works which he did complete.
One wonders whether, centuries from now, the same excuses will be made for many of today’s contemporary artists, whose materials are often even more unstable than those employed by Leonardo, and whose work rarely if ever even begins to approach his in terms of technical study, masterful composition, and sensitivity of content.