There really is no such thing as art, there are only artists, said Gombrich in his seminal work, "The Story of Art". Artists "are favored with the wonderful gift of balancing shapes and colors till they are 'right', and rarer still, who possess that integrity of character which never rests content with half-solutions but is ready to forgo all easy effects, all superficial success for the toil and agony of sincere work," he wrote.
But in an era where art funds are booming, and artists can command astronomical prices, are we seeing more and more artists content with half-solutions?
Dealers and investors have started telling the artist what they want, much like going to one's tailor and pointing out the way one wants a dress to be made. Established artists like Anjolie Ela Menon say art today has become a commodity - artists are more conscious of their image and create art for commercial reasons rather than for art's sake.
Commercialization, it is argued, creates an artist who paints to please the market rather than creating that special quality and character in his/her work. The dynamic quality of art as a response to the spirit of our times is lost. Is that true?
What is this commodification? By commodification, they mean that the artist is not free to pursue her goal but is shackled to market forces. High prices are one indication. M.F. Husain who sold for $16,000 in 2000 now sells for more than a million dollars.
The fault, art gallery owners claim, lies with artists who hike their prices after one sale. I bought a vivid Chennai cityscape by a young artist from a gallery. A couple of months later, I checked whether they had any more. Mayur, the manager, said that the artist came back and quoted a "ridiculous" price (three times what I'd paid) for his new paintings because he felt that his art was very popular - all because he'd managed to sell the first lot quickly. Others allege that art galleries and funds rig the prices of artists. The truth probably contains a bit of both.
Is art really commodified? First, how do we know that art has been commodified if there is no agreement on whether there is such a thing as art? John Ruskin in "The Elements of Drawing" (1857) said all great art was delicate.
But each person may have a different and idiosyncratic view of what delicacy is. A painting is not like a stock. We cannot determine the fundamental worth of a piece of art. Nassim Taleb's random effect works for art as well.
Second, even if art has become a high return investment, it does not necessarily mean that the nature of the work is suspect. In some sense, art has always been an investment - sometimes fetching minimal returns (1.6 per cent according to one quixotic economist) and during a 'bubble' phenomenal ones.
In India, we've seen a bull run in the art market in the last three years. A top artist like Tyeb Mehta, M.F. Husain or Souza has given a 35 percent return on the investment.
And if a star artist dies, you've hit the jackpot. The prices of an Adimoolan abstract tripled after his death. Not surprisingly, the art market has become a place to invest and park one's money in funds introduced by Osian, Edelweiss, and Copal.
In India, some 3,000 or so people invest about Rs.2 million per year in art. With over 200,000 painters and sculptors, the public certainly has a lot of choice. The demand is so high that at a recent exhibition, one painting had the sign 'wet paint'.
Art auction sites like Saffronart have helped fuel demand since you can sit in your home, type in your credit card details, and just click on the picture. But stars like Akbar Padamsee, Rameshwar Broota and Jehangir Sabvala still evoke a response from us that transcends any commercial value.
The wealthy aristocratic collector of yesteryears may have been joined by the hoi polloi of stockbrokers, professionals and businessmen, but the transformation of a painting into an "asset class" like a share or gold does not necessarily mean that the painting has lost its spirit. Investors can also be collectors.
Third, the commodification argument seems to assume that during a rise in prices, the artist's spirit is sacrificed at the altar of money. So what happens during a slump?
Commodification can fluctuate. The entry of art funds and ordinary investors may have increased the prices, taking it beyond the wallet of a collector, but this is not true during a slump.
Just as in the West, which has seen a rise and fall of art prices (the prices of impressionists have declined precipitously from their highs in the 1990s), the art market in India will also experience a downturn. The effects of the sub-prime crisis and the recession in the US will be felt in the art market, argue some analysts who expect the prices to halve. Others disagree and say that art and wine offer safe havens in uncertain times.
If commodification means that the artist settles for half-solutions, and the investor does not become a collector, then the concerns are valid. Then we lose the process whereby the viewer or buyer as collector sees, touches, and feels the idea that the artist struggles with in a painting.
Krishen Khanna rightly says that to be a collector, you must first fall in love with art. "I would even say, you must resist buying it in the first instance. Let it follow you, tease you, and cajole your senses so much that you start loving it. Then you can resist no more and you will start feeling obsessed by it. Acquisition, then, happens naturally. And because you love it so much, you will also find it difficult to part with it."
As an investor in an art fund, one could just as well be buying a reliance or HDFC share - one neither sees the object nor hangs it in one's house. Art, when treated as a mere investment, becomes like lobby music - repetitive, monotonous, soulless. Ultimately all suffer - the artist, the work, and the collector. To reclaim the spirit of art, one cannot just be an investor.
(Shylashri Shankar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)