How the exclusive contemporary art world has become more about who owns what than the work itself

How much would you pay for a white canvas randomly splashed with coloured dots?

If you’re interested in one of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings, the price tag could run as high as $3.4 million (U.S.). The real kicker is that Hirst probably didn’t lay a single finger on the painting. His coveted spot paintings are mostly the work of his assistants and, in at least one instance, his children. In fact, the lauded creator – who once sold a diamond-encrusted skull for $100 million – has publicly credited his kids for some of the ideas behind his art.

Let that sink in for a second.

Paintings created by nameless assistants and toddlers are fetching millions of dollars on the auction circuit. The long-running punchline that five-year-olds could create much of what passes for contemporary art these days has become reality.

Painting by Damien Hirst

Painting by Damien Hirst

The correlation between how good or significant a piece of art is and how much it costs is increasingly non-existent. The contemporary art world revolves less around talent and more around a frenzied rush to acquire trendy of-the-moment status symbols by big names like Hirst, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat. There are no rules or regulations. It’s this “shadowy, opaque” world of one-per cent contemporary art collectors that Canadian filmmaker Barry Avrich explores in his new documentary, Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World.

Ironically, while art in general has become more accessible through the explosion of art fairs, private galleries and digital spaces like Instagram, the upper echelons of contemporary art have never been more exclusive. Prices skyrocket into the tens of millions of dollars for relatively unproven artists and fluctuate wildly in short periods of time – sometimes mere days. That’s if you’re lucky enough to be one of the few permitted to purchase the art regardless of how much money you throw at it.

“If you walk past a Ferrari dealership, you can walk in. The salesman might be a little snooty but, as long as you have the money, you can buy that car. The art world is not the same. You may find that you’re in a long line waiting for a great piece or they’re not even going to talk to you,” says Avrich. “In fact, I had that experience at Art Basel in Switzerland. I fell in love with an artist, and went into a prominent New York gallery to inquire about a piece. The gallerist wouldn’t even look up at me. I asked about price, and she wouldn’t tell me.”

Art by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Art by Jean-Michel Basquiat

While the art at fairs and galleries is clearly a commodity, what’s less obvious is that art collectors themselves are coveted commodities. Who purchases a piece can have a drastic effect on the value of an artist’s collection.

“While it doesn’t matter who owns a Ferrari, it matters who owns a piece of art,” says producer and Art Gallery of Ontario trustee Jonas Prince. “It can affect an artist’s career. If the gallery thinks there’s more than one potential buyer for a work, then the gallerist can select which owner will do the most good for the artist.”

Getting work into the hands of the right person – or even just being able to say the right person was looking at a piece – is the art world equivalent of a young fashion designer striking gold when Kim Kardashian wears her label. The quest for status symbols is a two-way street with collectors looking for the most coveted piece and artists looking for the most renowned buyer. It becomes less about the art itself, and more about big, flashy names and elite circles within elite circles.

Contemporary art feeds on publicity, valuing shock value and virality above almost all else. The result has been zero-to-hero artist stories that read more like Judd Apatow comedies than inspirational tales of young creatives earning recognition for their hard work. Take, for example, Canadian street artist Trevor Andrew, a.k.a. GucciGhost. He was hired to collaborate with Gucci after his last-minute Halloween costume went viral. That costume was a Gucci bedsheet thrown over his head with two eyeholes. Now his Gucci wares, baring prints that look like the work of a bored teenager in math class, sell for thousands and brands like Saks Fifth Avenue sponsor his art exhibits. You can’t make this stuff up.

Soaring prices and rampant speculation with little substance or logic behind it all begs the question of whether there’s a contemporary art bubble waiting to burst. “The central question of the film is whether art of our time will hold its value. People love buying words on canvases right now. Will that piece sustain its value five years, 50 years from now or be in the garbage?” asks Avrich.

“People forget there’s often a difference between price and value,” says Prince. “They tend to buy with their ears and not their eyes, focusing on the flavour of the month.” Some of Hirst’s work has already been devalued by as much as 30 per cent in the last few years, some even being withdrawn unsold at auctions. Meanwhile, works by established greats like Picassso and Matisse contain to gain value.

“The good always rises to the top,” says Prince. “It’s just that it can take a long time for the art world to decide what’s good.”

This piece first appeared in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux