Sonal Motla Writes About Whether Money Creates Taste

Sonal Motla Writes About Whether Money Creates Taste

It may be fashionable to pass judgment on the poor taste of rich ladies with Birkin bags, who buy artworks to hang to match their walls or to discuss the latest acquisition at parties

Sonal MotlaUpdated: Monday, September 11, 2023, 02:03 PM IST
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‘Money creates taste’ is printed on one side of a wooden postcard, created by Jenny Holzer, an American installation and neo-conceptual artist. Holzer’s statement is bold and clear, words, powerful, important, and meaningful. But, of course, the message also undermines itself. We are instantly made to question: ‘Does money create taste’?

‘Holzer Truism’ looks at the relationship between money and taste, and this debate gets fuelled as one engages in exploring the connection. As artworks are auctioned for outrageous figures, if one investigates the capitalist hijack, the results are startling.

In my short stint as a gallerist, I’d have collectors as well as young couples come and ask a repeated question, “Which painting would be a good investment?” My standard reply was that select an artwork that you love and would want to live with and can live by. But there are collectors, who, over time, treat paintings like scripts, artists’ names like companies, and work on their collection records as spreadsheets for trading in the art market.

It may be fashionable to pass judgment on the poor taste of rich ladies with Birkin bags, who buy artworks to hang to match their walls or to discuss the latest acquisition at parties. Or more importantly to make a statement that ‘they have arrived’ on the social scene.

Honestly, taste has little to do with having money. Yet, instead of criticising those who provide this support, we should recognise the vital role they play in sustaining artists. After all, Art requires the rich for their money and patronage, doesn’t it? History has witnessed that the then royalty, and today’s corporations, and collectors play the role of patronage for the Arts. Every few years comes a passionate and educated collector who collects artworks and hence, documents the works of the time, for the benefit of generations to come. There were times, I am a witness to, when gallery owners like Kekoo Gandhy and Kali Pundole, who were the first gallerists of the city, would let young passionate but not-so-affording collectors, buy artworks and pay in instalments. Reminiscent of endearing times. 

Though art has flourished due to the patronage of the wealthy, the reason could be that true refinement often requires ample time for exposure, contemplation, and reflection. Unfortunately, the working class hardly gets time to manage their daily obligations, leaving them with few opportunities to engage in appreciating art or literature. 

There are exceptions to the rule, like the local performances at Shivaji Mandir in Dadar, Mumbai, which has seen exceptional Marathi plays and music that go full house with a culturally rich, working-class audience. But it is more an exception to the rule, than the rule. The art world and money have a symbiotic relationship.

One wonders what makes a painting worth 10 or 20 million. Certainly not just the artist or just the painting, but the entire system that is the business of Art. 

Is the entire art market absurd? Perhaps yes. Most living artists do not earn that kind of money. But, years after they are gone, a gallerist along with an art historian or art critic reveals the hidden pricelessness of the artist’s works, combs the market, collects the artworks, partners with an auction house, and viola! The artist who found it hard to sell all of the works is now sought after and sold in auctions and the price skyrockets. Is it all a big bubble? Perhaps yes. But, then bubbles are beautiful, let them float, and don’t burst them.

(Sonal Motla is an art curator and Director at Rachna Sansad, working towards issues on art education, craft and design as a visiting faculty with a few educational institutions like NIFT Mumbai, among others. Send your feedback to: sonal25fpj@gmail.com)

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