In Art, Everything is Perception

Since it is almost impossible to quantify art or evaluate it using the empirical tools with which we measure so many other things, all reasonable opinions about a work of art are equally valid. While I might bring more knowledge and experience to the process of evaluating the technical success of a piece in an exhibition than might another viewer, in the end, to like or not to like is a totally individual decision. That’s why the Romans declared, “De gustibus non disputandem est.” Tastes (and lusts) are not disputable. Tastes are based on many things: experience, knowledge and certainly a whole bundle of perceptions.

There are always discussions and arguments about what is art and what is not. People walk into a gallery or exhibition, take a look at the display, and walk back out saying, “If that’s art, I’ll eat my hat.” Another viewer will be intrigued or moved by the same works and have no trouble thinking of them as art.

Is it valid to glue tea cups and saucers to a canvas and call it art? Is it valid to immerse a crucifix in a beaker of urine and call it art? Is it valid to project a video of a chicken on a dusty village street being hit by a truck and call it art? How about a stuffed tiger shark that costs twelve million dollars? Is it even valid to take a photograph of a flower, print it out from a computer, touch it up with acrylic paint and call it art? Is it valid to answer all of these questions with a paraphrase of the tired old Shakespearian phrase: “art is in the eye of the beholder”?

My own personal and professional answer is that in art, anything is valid—except misrepresentation. In other words, I don’t care what artists identify as their work of art, as long as they are honest about what their intention was, what they have done to create it, and what they believe its value (monetary or otherwise) is.

This is just an extension of my motto:

If a person has integrity, nothing else matters.
If a person does not have integrity, nothing else matters.

When I walk into the Whitney Museum Biennial exhibition in New York, I know that I’m in for a couple of hours of challenge, and I will not be prepared for much of it because I have not done the work required to be “up to speed” with the latest conceptual art. Some of the concepts I won’t get because my knowledge, experience, and perceptions have not evolved to that level yet. In many areas, they never will, because I am not interested enough to make the effort. On the other hand, if the curators, working in conjunction with the artists, have done a good job of introducing the concepts and explaining how the artist has developed them and what his intentions are, then I’m available to make the effort to catch up. I’ll work on developing my ability to perceive all the information the artist, through his work, can give me.

In a market so dependent upon perceptions, it is especially important for a consumer to develop a level of knowledge and understanding that permits purchases to be made through a balance of emotional response to an artwork and the ability to evaluate the value being received for the money paid. Kirsten Ward, a physician and psychologist, notes that art has the greatest impact when it makes the thinking part of the brain talk to the feeling part.

When one enters the art market at any level without this degree of sophistication, one becomes fair game for the market’s agents, who stand ready to create the purchase-motivating perceptions the client lacks. That is, giving an art viewer all the reasons why this subjective artwork must become a part of that person’s future. It’s salesmanship. We expect it in the automobile showroom, but in the art market it seems that few people listen to gallery salesmanship as such. In effect, they use the statements and representations offered as blocks in building the edifice of reason that will justify the purchase. The great danger, however, is that the salesmanship may actually be delivered by a con man or woman and the collector will not find out for years, if ever, that the art purchased does not carry the value and monetary-appreciation expectations promised at the point of sale.

Another way to look at it is as the increasingly pervasive process of branding. The role of the art dealer has evolved over the past 150 years and, in large measure, whether selling in the primary (first time) market or the secondary (resale) market, the dealer’s role is to assure a prospective buyer that an artwork is highly desirable as an acquisition. In both markets, the price of art is governed by supply, demand, and marketing. Branding is a critical technique in marketing.

In his fascinating book about the economics of the contemporary art market titled The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, Don Thompson observes, “In the world of contemporary art, branding can substitute for critical judgment …” He is writing here about the upper levels of the international market, where people with tremendous amounts of money buy art at astronomical prices that actually represent only a few days’ income to them.

He further says,

Since art collectors cannot always fathom the value code, they understandably do not trust their own judgment. Their recourse is often to rely on branding. Collectors patronize branded dealers, bid at branded auction houses, visit branded art fairs, and seek out branded artists. You are nobody in contemporary art until you have been branded.

As we shall see, this is pervasive at all levels of the art market all the way down (and perhaps especially) through the various levels of decorative art. People frequently buy because they have been provided with the perceptions that support their decision and those perceptions are based on the recognition of brands that assure the purchase is a desirable decision.

This topic has been well covered by several recent books, and even after reading them, talking to many of the players, and observing the development of the high-end contemporary art market for decades, I am as clueless as ever as to what really explains the unbelievable phenomena we frequently see reported with great fanfare. When asked about the ever-escalating prices paid for art created not by Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons, but by cadres of artisans in their studios, my practice is to remind people that 75 percent of the word contemporary is temporary. The remaining 25 percent is con.

In an interview, Damien Hirst, whose works command prices of many millions of dollars, revealed that his artworks were produced by teams of assistants. Each painting, for instance, is done by several people so no one is ever responsible for an entire work of art. Hirst adds a few brushstrokes and signs the work, a technique developed by Peter Max. He also said that he cannot paint. A buyer would get an inferior work if it were painted by him. Buyers of Damien Hirsts are apparently driven not by the desire to have an original creation from the hand of a genius, but are content with the perception that what they buy has great value.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, on October 27, 2012, one curator said, “Money and celebrity [have] cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore.” He added that the current system of collectors, galleries, museums, and art dealers (and auction houses) has colluded to maintain the value and status of artists and has quashed debate on art.

Dave Hickey, a curator, professor, and author known for a passionate defense of beauty, says the contemporary art market is “calcified, self-reverential, and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing. They’re in the hedge-fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious.”