The production of art has been with mankind since as early as 15,000 B.C.— evidenced by the primitive depictions of animals on the walls of the Caves at Lascaux (Abercrombie/Whiton, 1). Whether financed by the churches of the medieval ages, the wealthy families of aristocracy, or the corporations and individuals of capitalism, the means by which men and women afford the luxury of producing art has changed with the times; thus, not only is the artist’s career path effected, but his mode of production and choice of depiction is influenced as well. The inextricable link between the source of money and the artist’s strategy has never been more apparent and complex than in the contemporary art market.
To gain insight into the relationship between today’s artist and his market, it may be useful to understand some key developments in globalization–the spread of the World Wide Web, the proliferation of global media, and new multinational business practices—and how these helped shape an ironically fragmented global art market.
Thanks to outsourcing and trade, business is booming in places once considered third-or-second-world countries—like China, Brazil, and South Africa—and along with this increasing economic power comes a rising consumer culture and a new demand for art (Friedman). Consequently, in a trend unique to contemporary art, a young generation of ethnic artists from these countries are beginning to market on a global level. Just think of the prices of Oriental art since the nineteen nineties. Here we have an interesting intersection between globalism and the art markets, perhaps best worded by Hans Belting: “Thus the art world may eventually become a permeable, porous entity that disintegrates within a larger whole or yields to a diversity of systems (Weibel/Buddensieg, 24).” This is a market in which the producers and consumers of the art can be located anywhere on the planet.
Adding to this fragmentation is the increasing use of the World Wide Web as a device for commerce. Not only does this enable online auctions with bidders from all corners of the globe, but it also enables some artists to sell directly to patrons, blog, and maintain their own web pages. The inescapable fact of contemporary art is that it is sold as a commodity in this global capitalist context, and the artist’s job is not only to produce work, but to reach his or her market and entice them to buy in an increasingly competitive market.
“If you are an artist trying to sell your work, you are no longer only an artist. You’re a businessperson as well (Stanfield, 1).” In the contemporary art market, artists develop and implement many marketing strategies to compete in today’s new, larger art world. There are countless self-help books on marketing your art. New ones advocate a strong online presence, being a media magnet, keeping archives of your work, and being involved. The message is clear: get out of the studio for financial reward. Gone is the notion that creating the most technically precise work will bring success—instead branding, marketing, and confidence are pointed at as the key to getting your work noticed. There is a huge emphasis on using the web as an emerging artist to get your name recognized.
While globalization may have united many geographical regions under one umbrella, certainly individual reactions to these forces have varied tremendously, producing artists with differing methods of reaching their audiences. Perhaps if we examine a handful of successful artists in the 21st Century, we can learn from several of the recent marketing techniques used.
Thomas Kinkade, “America’s most collected living artist,” has developed a mass marketing and reproduction system that allows people to buy his prints and other licensed products for reasonable prices (The Official Thomas Kinkade Website). His limited editions run for increasing amounts of money, depending on which artisan of the Thomas Kinkade Company has produced the work. Here we have an artist that is able to meet the price demands of the general populace, while maintaining a reputation for making beautiful, sophisticated paintings. The way his art is made and sold has been custom fitted to a globalist art market. Kinkade couldn’t possibly paint as many paintings as he sells, yet systematizing his art enables him to produce more.
Kinkade’s ability to reach the masses is magnified by his website, complete with a shop. Bypassing the traditional galleries and auctions to sell directly to his patrons, or customers, Kinkade becomes part of a global, contemporary art market. This is an emerging trend that demonstrates the world wide web’s ability to empower the individual by brokering instant transactions around the world. Also on Kinkade’s website, is information on his life, family, career, and perspectives on art—allowing him more direct control over the way he is perceived. All in all, the Thomas Kinkade Company is a great example of an artist creating a business, a legally separate entity, through which to channel art—a truly contemporary practice.
Thomas Kinkade’s marketing strategy involves mass production and mass appeal—capitalizing on globalism’s scale. In contrast to this strategy, artists such as Damien Hirst attempt to isolate a small and particular market—the wealthy.
Damien Hirst is the creator of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, in which a ferocious taxidermy shark is suspended in a glass tank filled with formaldehyde. While one could argue that this sculpture could be decorative, its enormous size places it out of reach to anybody with an average home. It is outrageous and impractical. So why would Steve Cohen, owner of SAC, Capital Advisors, pay $12 million for a stuffed shark?
Don Thompson offers us an answer in his book The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, stating, “In the world of contemporary art, branding can substitute for critical judgment (Thompson, 2).” Damien Hirst was originally commissioned to create the work by Charles Saatchi, the famous art collector, for 50,000 euro. Fourteen years later, Saatchi sells the work to Steve Cohen. It was the use of lofty names that branded this work. It was its enormous, ego-stroking size that marked it for the “special” collector.
A wealthy businessman like Steve Cohen, as knowledgeable as he may be about art, has a busy life dealing with his career and finances. He relies on professionals, lawyers, advisors, and experts to give him advice on most matters, including art. Thus, branding is a way to make wealthy collectors feel more secure about their purchase by portraying the auction house or dealer as the expert. In contemporary art, the price tag on this security is enormous, with most of the proceeds going to the middle man, the dealer. However, Hirst benefits from the inflation of his art’s prices at auction, because the prices of all his works begin to rise, and he gains publicity.
Kinkade and Hirst are excellent examples of flamboyantly successful artists due to their marketing tactics. They are separated from the crowd by the infrastructure built around their works. However, the art market in the 21st Century is global, on the web, and colossal. Kinkade and Hirst are just drops in the bucket. Thousands of artists—who’s names may never make it into history books—sell their art every day on the web.
Indicating the degree of fragmentation in the art world, some of these individuals are highly skilled and some of them barely pass as hobbyists. However, they have one thing in common, they are finding ways to make art, reach consumers, and sell their creations. Websites such as Etsy.com allow people to sell or trade their handmade products with anybody in the world, providing a global forum in which the quality of your work and publicity you can generate determine your success. These new developments in globalization prove to be the most empowering—if the emerging artist can give up the pretentions or ideals of yesteryear.
Important to remember is that art coexists with the social and economic world around it. It’s easy to imagine art as sacred, and unblemished by money and ego. Reality tells a different story. One in which art has never and can never be separated from the context or zeitgeist from which it is born. The Contemporary Art of the globalized 21st Century, with its revolutionary and diverse marketing strategies, is a testament to this link.
Abercrombie, Stanley, and Augustus Sherrill Whiton. Interior Design & Decoration. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.
Thompson, Donald N. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.
Weibel, Peter, Andrea Buddensieg, and Rasheed Araeen. Contemporary Art and the Museum: a Global Perspective. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2007. Print.
The Official Thomas Kinkade Website. Web. 30 Apr. 2010. .
Stanfield, Alyson B. I’d Rather Be in the Studio!: the Artist’s No-excuse Guide to Self-promotion. Golden, Colo.: Pentas, 2008. Print.
Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. Print.
Etsy :: Your Place to Buy and Sell All Things Handmade. Web. 30 Apr. 2010.