The curse of the branded artists
Brand value is the driving force behind the major movements of the art world – whether it’s the museums we visit, the auction houses we bid through (or watch enviously), the gallery openings we attend or the artists we buy. Souren Melikian, long-time arts editor of the International Herald Tribune, considers branding as ‘the great paradox of our times’ because visual culture should be vanishing even as the art market soars, while abstract concepts take precedence over what the eye sees. “Artists’ names matter ever more – and the art to which they are attached ever less.” But in a sea awash with brands, can branded artists duplicate their success overseas to a hungry city of nouveau art collectors in Hong Kong?
In his book, The $12 Million Dollar Shark, Canadian economist Don Thompson poses the question: does Damien Hirst command power and high prices for his works because he is a ‘good’ artist or because he is a ‘branded’ artist? This is indeed a very valid question because, frankly, most of his work has no great technical or painterly skill; he has artists working for him in a factory-esque setting (much like his hero Warhol, who was the instigator of 20th century ‘branded art’), and is well known for his dictatorial approach to producing art. Nonetheless, the public at large lusts after his skulls, his beautiful butterfly prints and his downright morbid installations. The iconic artist himself pledges: “Becoming a brand name is an important part of life. It’s the world we live in.” The shock value in his works left us long ago – and yet his brand equity is still very much present, as evidenced by his grandiose retrospective at Tate Modern. It made perfect sense, that one of the most powerful dealers in the world, Larry Gagosian, inaugurated his first Asian outpost in Hong Kong with the most recognisable artist of our generation – Damien Hirst.
With so much great art on display at ART HK and recent auctions across town – why don’t more collectors step outside the box and collect artists who don’t carry the same branded cache? Try Jose Parla, Nadav Kandar, Julio Bittencourt, Ellen Gallagher per se? All fantastic artists who have carved a critical name for themselves and achieved commercial success. It’s the nature of the beast, really: art is intimidating. On that note, ‘never underestimate how insecure buyers are about contemporary art and how much they always need reassurance’ says Howard Rutkowski, a Singapore-based advisor and former director of Bonhams. So is it insecurity that keeps us coming back to the branded artists?
Unfortunately the insecurity is really quite reasonable, as most neophyte collectors will attest. It can be scary as sin peering through those glass boxes, also known as art galleries. Although, it really ought not to be. Giorgio Guglielmino, in his book How to look at contemporary art and like it, waxes on about how art ‘upon first sight may appear cryptic and elitist, and can in fact be explained in simple terms. There is no need for the complex, and convoluted jargon of most art historical texts’. If Hong Kong is a grassland (as opposed to a desert) for artists, is the recent gallery scene expansion a lesson in artist branding? Or can the city become the model for artistic tabula rasa?