Is Art Still Entirely Commercial?

by Lisa Sahgal
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Here comes the most important difference between Contemporary art and previous art periods.

So what do artists make work for? To be bought, or to be known? At earlier times, these came hand in hand. If you’re famous, people will spend more money for your work, and that’s how you make a livelihood. Art was seen as a form of self-employment. Many artists still create work with the purpose of selling them, through which they generate their income.

You would probably think that is the smartest thing to do, for making art that doesn’t generate revenue is pure idiocy, right? There are a lot of factors to consider in this statement, and I will get back to that.

First, the question arises as to why installation and performance art has gained so much popularity in Contemporary Society, if it won’t generate any sales. The answer lies in the artist’s story. Some artists create work to tell their story, but they are not content with their story just being heard. They need their story to be felt. Contemporary art is based on human connection and empathy.

Performance art is based on acting out your story, where the artist becomes the artwork. Marina Abramović is one such performance artist. In her Rhythm series, she explored the limitation of the human body.

Similarly, installations give the viewer an essence of entering the psychological mind of the artist. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist. His works are a protest to the Chinese Government, and he has been imprisoned many times for such protests. At one point, he was exiled from China. He decided to showcase his house arrest to the audience by creating a series of dioramas. The viewer would look from above and see a set of rooms with realistic figures. Each cubicle depicted the artist with his daily routine, sleeping, eating, showering; and all this time there is a security guard, or two watching him closely. The lack of privacy is repulsive, and we empathise with him.

But why are so many artists engaging with this type of work? It seems as though they are investing way too much money in making their pieces, and making a loss. But the truth is, they may not see art as a commercial practice, but it is still their profession. They earn their livelihood through sponsors and gallery spaces where they host paid exhibitions.

The more famous the artist is, the more sponsors they have, that will pay them a lot more than emerging artists. So famous artists working with installation too can become rich.

Now you might think that it is a long shot, that artists will first suffer a loss before gaining recognition, but that also holds true for commercial artists. All practicing artists start out struggling, the choice of medium won’t change that.

Moreover, it is fortunate for artists’ to have the freedom to make this choice. In short, this new practice is indirectly beneficial to them.

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