Rabu, 03 Maret 2010

The Art of Profit

art is a very subjective matter, as it is usually created based on inspiration and ideas, which can’t be quantitatively measured. however, these days, it seems there is a monetary value for everything, and enlightenment is simply a price tag away

Do not be misled by art critics, art historians, curators, collectors, gallery owners and auction houses who wax euphoric as they praise artists for their powerful brush strokes, brilliant colour combinations, striking compositions and profound (but often hidden) meanings. While the ultimate judgement of an artist’s importance should be based on his (or her) originality, relevance and ability to forge diverse influences into their own vision of something new, fresh and meaningful – make no mistake the real criteria that drives the art market in Bali and elsewhere is nothing less than MONEY!

Now that the truth is out, let’s consider the playing field. First, let’s exclude dead expatriates, like the legendary Walter Spies, whose small gem-like paintings have sold for over a million dollars for years. Once the topper, his record prices were surpassed a few years ago by Adrian Jean Le Mayeur de Merprés, whose large oils now fetch double. If one considers that if you see one you’ve seen them all, this is a stark testimony to the fact that talent and originality do not necessarily have anything to do with art prices.

Anyway, this is all irrelevant for our quest because these guys were not even Balinese. Furthermore, they have an unfair advantage because deceased artists don’t paint anymore. In the dog eat dog Adam Smith market, this means limited supply and ever-rising prices as long as there are more buyers than sellers.
A naïve person might believe justifiably that the most valuable Balinese artist dead or alive would be one of the greats of the Pitamaha period, such as Gusti Lempad or Ida Bagus Made Poleng who worked at the same time as Spies and Le Mayeur. Sadly, this is not the case.

Even though these masters are represented in international collections like at the MoMA in New York and have long been cremated, their works have rarely fetched more than a low five figures in spite of their outrageous importance – again a sad reflection of the priorities of collectors of Indonesian art.

The next generation of Balinese painters of note were those like Nyoman Gunarsa and Made Wianta who, instead of learning in the villages, attended modern academies in the 1970s and, in Wianta’s case, travelled abroad. Notably, the usual venues for their shows in the still very ethnocentric West were not contemporary art museums, but rather the old ethnological museums looking for a new identity to hide their colonial origins. The irony was not lost on some. Nevertheless, both men would go on to achieve critical and financial success.

In recent years, however, a new phenomenon has gripped the Indonesian art market as several young Indonesian and Balinese artists, like Putu Sutawijaya, gained international attention as established names who have achieved steady high prices in sales rooms and galleries.

Admittedly these artists benefited from the huge wave of interest in Asian artists, which began with Chinese contemporary artists who took the West by storm. As testimony to their own abilities, while Chinese art suffered a major setback after the fall of the Lehmann Brothers and financial crisis in 2008, Indonesian artists have fared far better.

By far the absolute King of the Hill is I Nyoman Masriadi, a young Balinese artist. Much to the shock (and jealousy) of many, his coronation took place in October 2008 when one of his large canvasses titled The Man from Bantul, the Monster sold for the world record price of US$ 1,006,356 in Sotheby’s Hong Kong, setting the record as the highest price ever paid, not only for a Balinese artist alive or dead but for any living artist in South-East Asia. The record, succeeded by more big sales, has left many people kicking themselves as they rue their failure to purchase his work when it was selling for only 20 or 30 million rupiah a painting.

A taciturn introvert, Masriadi, who dropped out of Jogjakarta’s prestigious ISI art academy after his professors labelled him untalented, is definitely an outsider. Ironically, while his reputation continues to soar in the East and West with a major exhibition in Singapore and glowing articles in Newsweek, Time and The New York Times, Masriadi himself seems to have evoked much more jealously than admiration in Indonesia.

An ugly example of this was heard during a symposium sponsored by an Indonesian art magazine to help Indonesian artists prepare for globalisation.

Rather than seeing Masriadi as a knight in shining armour who had knocked down the castle walls thus allowing other Indonesian artists to follow, the participants preferred to speculate that his international success was not based on sheer talent and hard work but rather shady nefarious plots hatched by Chinese and foreign middlemen. One expert even scoffed that nobody would pay so much for an artwork by an Indonesian!

At this point we get into psychology, another subject altogether. That said, it is no wonder so many of Masriadi’s paintings are of fight scenes and invincible super heroes. As his star continues to rise he might want to consider getting into intergalactic travel. •



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