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The Great Contemporary Art Market Cock-Up

The Great Contemporary Art Market Cock-Up

All last week I was bombarded with headlines that announced the returning strength of the contemporary art market thanks to the phenomenal prices
achieved for works by artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and
Klein whose work was described by one major newspaper as the fons et origo
(latin for source and origin) of contemporary art. Now I am not trying
to be rude or degrade the journalists who make this mistake, but
Warhol, Klein (Yves) and Lichtenstein are NOT CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS, and
their work is NOT CONTEMPORARY ART !!. To be honest, I am sick of
hearing and seeing artists of another era being referred to as
‘contemporary’, because they are not. The fact that Warhol, Klein and
Lichtenstein are all dead – and were all born in the 1920′s – should be
enough of an indication that their work should not be classified as
contemporary any more. As for myself, when I refer to the work of
contemporary artists I am referring to artists who are currently alive,
active and producing work that is in line with the prevailing
contemporary ethos. At this point I would like to say that there are
many journalists and market representatives who do make the correct
distinctions between post-war and contemporary art to whom I would like
to give a round of applause.

The reason this trend of referring to the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Klein as contemporary artists annoys me so much is because many representatives from the media and the market have been
announcing the return of the contemporary art market based on records
achieved by artists who are NOT contemporary artists. Thankfully, some
market representatives and some journalists have rightly referred to
the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Klein etc. as postmodern or post-war,
which is a much more accurate description. I do, however, also have a
problem with the use of the term post-war because of the broadness of
the category which I think is another marketing ploy – but would still
prefer they use the term ‘post-war’ instead of ‘contemporary’. Although
this may seem like a small problem not worthy of being discussed, I
think there are too many little issues that are not discussed – issues
that together can cause major confusion and misunderstanding.

This whole ploy of including anything produced post world war II in contemporary art auctions and referring to them as works of contemporary art is just not right. In fact, it is deceptive and
misleading. So why do some auction houses continue promoting the likes
of Warhol, Klein and Lichtenstein as contemporary artists and alongside
true contemporary artists? – I believe it is for three very simple yet
potentially very lucrative reasons. Firstly, the association of
emerging artist with the likes of Warhol, Klein and Lichtenstein lends
more credibility and validity to the work of emerging artists.
Secondly, the inclusion of a few big names in a contemporary art
auction pretty much guarantees that a poor performance by the work of
the true contemporary artists will be overshadowed by the success of
the work of their predecessors. Thirdly, artists such as Klein, Warhol
and Lichtenstein attract large and wealthy crowds who are more likely
to throw down some money on the work of an emerging artist if the room
is already buzzing from the record sale of a Warhol. Essentially, the
inclusion of work by Modern masters such as Warhol, Klein and
Lichtenstein appears to be nothing more than a clever marketing ploy.

If you disagree with my opinion then consider for a moment these definitions of the term ‘contemporary’ :

-marked by characteristics of the present period
-happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time
-belonging to the present time
-characteristic of the present; “contemporary trends in design”

As far as I am concerned, each of these definitions are blatant indications that the work of Warhol, Klein and Lichtenstein cannot be referred to as being contemporary.

The current definition of contemporary art that is used by a large portion of the art market – auction houses in particular – is basically a creation of the market it’s self that serves the pursuits of the
auction houses very well. Although the journalists appear to be the
main protagonists when it comes to promoting the work of
non-contemporary artists as contemporary, the auction houses certainly
don’t seem to do anything to discourage this practice. Although some
auction houses do hold auctions that are promoted as including post-war
and contemporary art, many fail to make much of an effort to
distinguish between the contemporary and the post-war, which leaves the
journalists free to make the incorrect assumptions and associations
regarding the classification of the works – perhaps a cunning ploy by
the auction houses to avoid being accused of incorrectly classifying
the works. Regardless of who it is that is ultimately responsible for
the errors being made, I think it is important that something be done
to stop this misleading practice. In the interest of fairness I would
like to encourage anyone who has a view on this issue – whether in
agreement with my opinion or not – to make a comment below.

**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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