MONEY NEVER HURTS – OR DOES IT?
published in: (H)Art (Belgium), #70, September 2010 and online: kunsthart.org/nl/16/136/money-never-hurts
It's usually like this in the art world: the artist gets upset if someone suspects him or her to "work for the market", the art dealer doesn't consider providing educational events as one of his or duties, and the curator must be absolutely incorruptible. If there is only the slightest doubt, then the respective person is in trouble or at least expected to explain what made them cross that distinct line between non-commercial and commercial....
The notions of ‘commercial' and ‘non-commercial' are seen as fairly strictly separated from each other - at least in the Western art world. But what seems all natural and self-evident to us in Europe is not at all given in other parts of the world. For example in Asia where in the last decades the contemporary art world has been flourishing in every aspect, people do not care too much about the distinction between these two sides of the coin. Namely in India, artists create works on a cutting-edge artistic level as well as somewhat conventional works for their collectors, art dealers organize mainstream gallery shows as well as sophisticated talks on aspects of the current art theory, and curators not only curate thought provoking avant-garde shows but also work as art consultant or in a commercial gallery.
And everybody is yearning for more contemporary art discourse. The energy and the enthusiasm which are noticeable in Asian ‘art cities' like Delhi, Beijing or Shanghai are compelling and, even compared to vibrant European art cities like London or Berlin, amazingly high. Curators and art dealers usually don't (yet) sport the overcool attitude which you find very often in their Western colleagues - this is not only pleasant but also makes working much easier.
Of course, compared to London or Berlin, the Asian art scenes are rather small - some dozens contemporary art galleries in Delhi are opposed by around 400 in Berlin - when you think about it: 400 art galleries in one city, isn't that a completely silly number? And only one or two hours away by plane there are cities as Brussels, London, Paris, Basel, Vienna which all have buzzing gallery scenes, full of art dealers selling artworks, opening shows, and, not least, trying to get into the major art fairs in Basel, London or Miami.
Naturally, most of them can't afford to invest energy and money into projects which don't promise to be profitable. This is why most of the European galleries, even if some of them also try to support less profitable work, are strictly commercial. And nobody expects anything else from them, as there are many public institutions whose only function is to promote contemporary art, to organize exhibitions, projects, events not for profit but for pleasure, education and cultural development. (That nowadays there is a huge pressure on museum people to attract masses of visitors with their programmes is another story. Or not?) Then there are plenty of public fundings for artists, project spaces and initiatives - not enough, that's for sure, but still, they exist. After all, stipends and educational institutions make an important part of most of the European public systems.
The public art museums in India and many other Asian countries are almost irrelevant in terms of the contemporary art discourse and a huge disappointment for someone from abroad who visits them in order to learn something about modern and contemporary art practice in the respective country. So it's no surprise that most of the artists or young curators sooner or later go abroad to complete their studies there, preferably at the Goldsmiths in London which seems to be the measure of all things, at least for the contemporary art scene in India.
And this is where not only artists with their incredibly ambitious funding and residency programmes jump into the action. Take Mumbai as an example: local galleries work closely together with the Goethe-Institut for exhibition on an European museum standard, a gallery like Chatterjee & Lal aims to provide a deeper insight into the not-so-easily-to-sell performance, video and installation art, in the same street in Colaba Tushar Jiwarajka's new art space Volte not only comprises an exhibition space in which quite regularly all kinds of events take place but also a café with book shelves and Wi-Fi, so that people can stay and get in touch and talk. This model of a mixture of gallery, café, library, space for events seems to be quite fashionable now in Indian cities, you also find similar places in Bangalore, Delhi or Kolkata.
For someone who is used to the European way of separating between these things - you go either to the museum (and its café) or to a gallery opening or to the library or to a not-for-profit project space - this mixing is only on the first sight confusing. It doesn't take long to see the benefits in this kind of ‘amalgamation': distances are short (literally and metaphorically), people with all kind of positions and perspectives come together and can discuss beyond categories.
So what does this mean for the European art? Should we be less squeamish with regards to the distinction between commercial and non-commercial? In recent years, the line between both sides has been more and more blurred anyway - galleries invite curators to curate shows for them which are not necessarily easy to sell, artists repeat their own work for the sake of collectors' wishes, public museums work closely together with gallerists, art fairs organise panel discussions on art theoretical subjects etc. etc. But particularly the people who reputedly belong to the non-commercial side - artists, curators, art critics - don't like too much talking about these intermixtures.
Why is that actually? Of course, there is the argument that money - being commercial - can confuse the objective view onto art, and this is doubtless the point why all the many, many undersupplied and struggling artists and their project spaces in Berlin, London and elsewhere want to stay away from selling art and the suspicion that they are buyable. But then: showing art in a space is always about ‘selling' and looking at art is always about understanding and developing one's mind, no matter if in a ‘commercial' gallery or in an artist-run space or a museum.
A couple of weeks ago some people - among them artists, curators, gallerists, collectors and non-art-people - met in a Berlin project space to talk about the Indian art market and its dynamics. It was amazing to see how the lively discussion again and again ended up in considerations and confusions about the relations between art and the market. Whereas the artists kept saying "Contemporary artists are too dependent from the market", one of the gallerists kept repeating "But it's a business." No. Yes. Of course. But. It's a business that is grounded on dodgy things like philosophy, personal valuations and taste. And artists who want to pay their rent and their food from their art depend on this business - financially. But still - please excuse the corny phrase - their minds can be free. As the minds of curators and critics. And gallerists.
One has to keep in mind that it's not only money that can corrupt people, it can be also vanity, fear or cliquism which drives people to wrong choices. So don't let money - or the thought that someone might be venal - determine the way we make art, write or think. Earning money is a good thing. Making much money can even be a better thing. Asking for money is natural and not to be condemned. On the other hand, realizing projects without any money can be a sign of great idealism but doesn't necessarily lead to something valuable.
There is anyway nothing like an ‘objective' way of judging about good and bad art - which is not to say that criteria and values don't exist. They do. Let's talk about them, anywhere and anytime, no matter if it's a ‘commercial' or a ‘non-commercial' surrounding - then money can't do any harm.