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The art market is nasty

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Art by Jessica Calaguas

Picture this: You're walking through an art gallery when you see it. The piece you’ve been searching for your entire life, just begging for your attention. The blank canvas of a white wall, full of opportunity. In the middle, a luscious shade of yellow embodying peace, optimism, and creativity. The silver in the center, like chains that hold down life, preventing prosperity. The message it holds is beyond comprehension: a representation of the gradual struggles of life. The importance of growth and simultaneously of decay. A gorgeous, beautiful portrait of… a banana?! Duct taped to a wall?!

Photo by Rhona Wise/ EPA

Yes, this is indeed a real art piece, and like most outrageous art pieces, it sold for a whopping price of $120,000 dollars; much more than it should be worth. Created by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, this satirical piece titled the “Comedian” is just one of the many ridiculous art pieces that have sold for an insane amount of money. And although it gained attention mainly due to its purposeful stupidity-- the man who bought the banana actually ate it for the public display shortly thereafter--- it’s difficult to exaggerate just how unbelievable the art market can be.

The art market is fascinatingly stupid, especially in this day and age, but it wasn’t always this way. From its peak during the Renaissance until now, the art market and art itself has drastically evolved from what it once was. This includes which styles of art hold the most popularity and what is considered to be valuable in the eyes of art buyers and sellers.

Before photography was invented, portraits and such works that would capture places, moments, and people in time were the centers of the market. Art like Michelangelo’s, Da Vinci’s, and Raphael’s are all examples of art typical to the time period.

Now, since cameras allow for the production of hyper realistic images all by themselves, conceptual and modern art has slowly taken rise. Because of this, the skill aspect that contributed to a piece’s worth has slowly faded away, while creating significant (and valuable) art has become increasingly difficult. Ideas have to be thought out and meticulously planned with deeper, more profound meanings, and styles have to become more and more discernible.

Over these past 15 years especially, modern and conceptual art has dominated the market.

Artists like KAWS, Mr. Brainwash, and Banksy have garnered the attention of the public, surging in interest and becoming some of the top names in the industry. This is not to say that the classics aren’t still of as much value as before, if not increasing. Monet’s, Van Gogh’s, and Hockney’s are still the tops of the market and always will be, their value continuing to skyrocket as each year goes by. Although, in this new day and age, the classics are running out and have been tossed around enough times for buyers, sellers, and traders alike. People are beginning to look for fresh faces as the amount of money in every new millionaire’s pockets increases.

But how does a piece even gain its value? What determines the value of one expensive art piece as opposed to another? This mainly lies in the hands of an incredibly small number of gatekeepers: the curators, gallery owners, and auctioneers. In the art world, this exclusive group controls everything.

For example, take a look at two of the most prominent art auction houses in the world: Sotheby’s and Christie’s are known to be the premier destinations of all prestigious artwork when it comes to auctioning and private sales, therefore it comes as no surprise that whatever they promote almost always becomes sought after. All of the big names have, at one point or another, resided in Sotheby’s or Christie’s auction houses and are often what dominates the headlines when another multi-million dollar art piece is sold. With this level of influence, they can control the rise and downfall in popularity of certain artists and their work. This goes the same way for those who buy them: the filthy rich.

It’s no secret that the art market is catered to the rich and is nearly impossible to participate in without having at least a few million or so to spare. Using copious amounts of money, buyers and traders can manipulate the art market, essentially playing a game that is completely in their favor. For example, one major collector by the name of Jose Mugrabi demonstrates this perfectly as the leading collector of Andy Warhol pieces.

Warhol’s artwork is some of the most valuable in the business, having been created by the leader of the pop art movement in the 1960’s. Magrabi knows this and uses it to his advantage. His strategies are simplistic: for one, he rarely buys or sells art unless it’s in the public eye-- if there’s ever a Warhol piece being auctioned, he will most definitely be there. During these auctions, his money can go two ways. He will either bring the bet up, or knowingly overpay, even when unnecessary. The reason for this all comes back to the public view. The sheer fact that a Warhol piece sold for a high price will bring up the overall value of Warhol’s artwork, therefore benefiting Mugrabi and increasing the value of the pieces he already owns, which he can now sell for more. The worst thing for Mugrabi would be for Warhol pieces to come out of style, and so he single-handedly makes sure that it’ll never happen. It’s just a part of the business; a market composed of scams that can be too easily manipulated.

What’s even worse is that wealthy people can make a profit from donating art. Oftentimes, rich people will donate art in order to deduct their own taxes. Of course, there is a limit to the deduction, which is usually only 30%. So, with the rest of it, they will often use a tactic of fractional donations spread out over time, slowly giving up part of their ownership.

All of this ties into why it is so hard for upcoming artists to get into the industry. The value of an art piece, and hence the artist, almost always comes down to the collective agreement of rich white folk on whether or not something is profound or completely meaningless and invaluable; no in-betweens. It’s extremely hard to get your name out there and is more often than not a hit or miss situation.

Because of this known struggle, I think that majoring in art is not worth it and leads to doomed failure in terms of a successful career and future. This goes for the majority of art degrees. For example, a publisher doesn’t publish a book because a writer has an English degree, nor does a casting director cast an actor because they have an acting degree. A degree is a certification, but most artistic professions are passion projects and don’t necessarily require them. For fine arts especially, majoring in and being successful with it afterward is very difficult. You need to become your own independent contractor, selling art by means of active income, which means putting a lot of consistent effort into every new piece. The opportunities are limited and strenuous.

So yes, the art market is a genuinely ridiculous and crazy business that is ever-changing and completely manipulative. It’s a place where a banana duct taped to a wall can sell for $120,000 dollars, where the rich can evade taxes, and where modern artists struggle with inevitable doom. There are so many more aspects of the art market that I have yet to uncover, but just by scratching the surface, it’s clear that the art market is an atrocious industry.


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