Buyers must learn to look beyond mere promotion

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Feb 24 2002, 05:30am hrs
Consumer society has spread its tentacles in the Indian market as well. It is a peculiar state of affairs in which mass producing monopolies not only exploit those who work for them on their terms, but also evolve captive markets that provide buyers addicted to their products. In such a situation, consumers must be protected and organised to prevent unscrupulous controllers of the market taking undue advantage of them.

The first protection of the consumer in capitalist economies is competition. This helps to give the consumer a wide range of products from which to choose. But the tendency of big fish to swallow those smaller does not allow competition to survive the process of monopoly, so it has to be kept alive consciously and determinedly by the consumer.

In the art market, the process of monopoly reflects itself most strongly in the evolution of groups of elite artists and the monopolist galleries that promote them. These artists may or may not include some who are genuinely talented, but they are largely constituted of those artists who maintain falsely inflated prices shored up by journalistic hype and a presence in the cocktail set, both of which have little to do with the quality of art. These names of the society and gossip pages in newspapers are not the best investment. Buyers must learn to spread their net wider and make choices based on criteria other than mere promotion.

The second protection of the consumer is to combat elitism projected as exclusivity. Everything that is rare (like a fish with biological deformities) is not an object worth investing in. So, the consumer must ensure wide access to investment possibilities beyond this elitism. A far better standard is to invest an object that has a basis in ongoing tradition and makes a significant break with it.

The most obvious case is that of mainstream artists such as M F Husain, Arpana Caur and S H Raza, whose work reflects the base of our folk expression, but transposes them into a modern context. Such artists, of course, would be mere exotica if this were their only quality. Their work must also reflect a dialogue with modern expression, techniques and media. So, we see such artists experimenting with installations, assemblages, happenings and the like, a process that helps their core art to develop its individuality.

The point to remember, however, is that such art should not be mere decoration. Nor should it be just a conventional reproduction of a better known trend. While imitation must be avoided, the judicious use and development of already powerful trends, a capacity difficult to emulate, is a good sign to look for in art in which one wants to invest.

Then there is innovative art. And India has a wide range of such artists. Whether it is Atul Sinhas sculptures for use or Vivan Sundarams installations constructed out of automatic elements that serve as ongoing art objects, or even art videos, innovation is nothing new for Indian art. If the West with its mass produced prints was able to meet the growing demand for objects, Jamini Roy experimented with contemporary atelier art that was mass produced by his assistants, but sold for as little as one rupee per piece. Also, the eminent painter made no bones about the fact that these works were mass-produced by helpers, unlike elite artists who mass-produce works with help, but never admit to it. This is a fraud on the investor and must be treated as such.

The third protection of the consumer is transparency. This must be ensured to prevent monopolistic elements taking advantage of the consumers lack of knowledge of the market.

Finally, the consumer of art is a consumer of individually created products of quality by independent producers, so its production successfully denies the possibility of monopoly of production. The process of monopoly control effects only its consumption through galleries that may monopolise all the works of an artist (and, therefore, be forced to sell good, medium or poor works), or project only a few (and strictly limit the range offered). Either way, the quality and standard suffer.

So ultimately, the consumer must ensure everything is done to help competition, to insist on a wide range of products and transparency in transactions. This alone will help our art market acquire the confidence of the buyer.