Fixing the Contemporary Art Auction Crisis Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com

 Fixing the Contemporary Art Auction Crisis Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.comIn my last post I detailed two definitions of contemporary art from two different contemporary art museums that challenge the rather inadequate and misleading definition of contemporary art that many auction houses seem to abide by.  Even though I had found two good museum definitions of contemporary art, I continued my search to see what else I could find.  And I am glad I did continue searching because I came across a particularly interesting definition of contemporary art provided by the Tate Museum.  According to the Tate, contemporary art is a:

“Term loosely used to denote art of the present day and of the relatively recent past, of an innovatory or avant-garde nature. In relation to contemporary art museums, the date of origin for the term contemporary art varies. The Institute of Contemporary Art in London, founded in 1947, champions art from that year onwards. Whereas The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. In the 1980s, Tate planned a Museum of Contemporary Art in which contemporary art was defined as art of the past ten years on a rolling basis”.

This definition is somewhat misleading because it lists the date range of two Contemporary art museums, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, as though these museums define contemporary art by these date ranges.  What I found was that the beginning of the date range of works in the collections of both these museums is in fact the year that each museum was founded.  So, the Museum is not defining contemporary art as work produced from the year each museum was founded, but is in fact just maintaining a collection that is partly historical and archival even though their focus is on work that is new and experimental.  What interested me most about the Tate definition of Contemporary art is the revelation that “In the 1980s, Tate planned a Museum of Contemporary Art in which contemporary art was defined as art of the past ten years on a rolling basis”.  I personally think that this definition of contemporary art is the most accurate and sensible that I have come across and is the definition of contemporary art that the art auction houses should be abiding by.  Continuing with the museum definition theme, I think that the Getty museum provides one of the most blunt and profound definitions of contemporary art on their website which states that “Strictly speaking, the term “contemporary art” refers to art made and produced by artists living today”.  Here, Here !!!.

So, what does this mean for the art market, I hear you ask.  Well, let’s take a look at the results of a recent contemporary art auction held by an auction house that I will not be naming.  The reason I am not going to name the auction house is that there is not just one auction house on which one can lay total blame for this problem.  I also have great respect for the major auction houses regardless of whether or not there are issues relating to the classification and categorisation of works of art.  Looking at the top ten prices paid for this auction, which was promoted as a contemporary art auction, there were eight artists whose work was included in this top ten. The eight artists were Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Out of those eight artists, seven are dead – the only surviving artist out of the eight being Gerhard Richter.  Even more interesting are the dates that each of the top ten works were created:  1962, 1955, 1962, 1985, 1966, 1992, 1969, 1962, 1986 and 1987.  Six of the works were created prior to 1970, three prior to 1990 and only one after 1990.  The most recent work in the top ten was a work by Gerhard Richter, the only living artist in the top ten, which was created in 1992.  Of all the works in the top ten, the Richter would be the only one that I would consider referring to as a work of contemporary art – only at a stretch, mind you.

Although the top ten prices paid were dominated by the work of deceased artists, I must acknowledge that the auction did include works by true living contemporary practising artists.  Unfortunately the auction house uses the ridiculous misnomer ‘recent contemporary artists’ when referring to the work of the true contemporary artists.  By definition, something that is ‘contemporary’ is recent so to make reference to ‘recent contemporary artists’ is just plain wrong.  The fact that this term has to be used at all is, in my opinion, evidence enough that there is something amiss with the way some auction houses are cataloguing, categorising and presenting the works of art that they are selling.  If you don’t think that this is a big problem in the scheme of things then I respect that and even admit that you may be right.  But for me, this is the straw the broke the camel’s back; just another seemingly small problem that when added to the other seemingly small problems equal a rather big problem.  I do have some plans to combat all these small problems but you will have to wait to find out what my plans are.

image: ‘The Art Crisis’ by Robert The

 Fixing the Contemporary Art Auction Crisis Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications

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  • http://joyengelmangallery.com joy

    Thanks for bringing this up and for putting so much research into it! It has always bugged me as most of of us creating works these days are always at loss as to how to explain our art on those odd occasions when someone asks. The terms ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ have been used too loosely by that great big blunderbus called the art world and as you have most capably pointed out, the blunderbus itself doesn’t have a clear definition itself, so why wuld the rest of us! Go ahead and make history! Hopefully the world out there is listening to your considered arguments.

  • http://michaelwestfried@gmail.com Michael Westfried

    I just discovered this blog. You have some really awesome articles on here. It is now on my favorites list.

    To be honest, I really dislike both the terms modern art and contemporary art. The word modern and contemporary basically mean the same thing and, as you have expressed, the terms are poorly defined. I guess that they are going to call the next generation of art Current Art.

  • artistaelishaw@yahoo.co.uk

    I completely agree with the points you made regarding contemporary artists. It is absurd to include dead artists. I believe you could argue that contemporary includes a generation but above all this generation should at least be living! These things aside, a truely good piece of contemporary work needs to comment about the time in which it was made, making reference to current philosophies, culture, discoveries and technology. Of course references to the past are valuable and interesting but somewhere in the mix an artwork should reflect contemporary life in some way. I agree some things can be timeless but the most interesting works make one think. In this day and age, the importance of learning from the past, leaving it behind, living in the present moment and looking to the future, have never been so important. These ideas are a major part of my own work and I thank you for re-lighting my passion and bringing thiese ideas clearly into focus. I really enjoyed your article and look forward to reading more. Love, peace and prosperity to all living artists! Artista Eli

  • Glmetz23

    interesting quandary, getting a fix on ‘contemporary’ related to art market and museums. 
    like the word ‘art’,  call it what you will but all will have their own affixed justification. the bigger issue is what happens to something that was once considered ‘contemporary’ as opposed to ‘ modern’?  .  if something was deemed ‘contemporary’, it is no longer ‘modern’ -like a Warhol, only to pass the 10 year mark or the artist dies, what does it become?  Pre Contemporary? What term is used? When there is a term to replace ‘contemporary’ then the argument can ensue. now if it is used as a noun, it is always relevant.  Johns is a contemporary of Rauschenberg and both deemed contemporary as opposed to Modernist (60′s cutoff).  Both are dead,  both past 10 year period.  Does this mean all other artists living after are post contemporary contemporary?  until there is a term to describe all those who come after, the point is mute and of general coinage.  Avant Garde is a term that can be relevant to the past and the future (though a tired term to many). There is post Modern-though applies more specifically to a genera….so coin a term that replaces the contemporary mantel, designating it ‘the new’ or  ‘the former’ conceding to the newly defined.   Until then, Contemporary will be in flux as a term much like ‘art’. Perhaps ‘Millennial’  ?? 

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