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Mark it as art

Against all myths, artists in Pakistan are selling their artworks while collectors remain focused on the artist as a brand

Mark it as art

Myths are made by man but myths formed by some individuals or a community also shape human lives, decisions and destiny. Often the dominance and impact of these man-made fables are so overpowering that these are considered eternal and unavoidable truths.

One such myth is about the artist as a person disinterested in monetary matters. Making of art is considered a sort of spiritual endeavour (in religious calligraphy, iconic paintings, and motifs on places of worship, it is believable). A person involved in a ‘sacred’ act must not demand a reward in cash.

Another myth circulating about the visual artist is of a person so involved in his art that he does not have the time or capacity to manage his accounts. Almost like a hermit, he could easily survive on the ‘nourishment’ of his spiritual diet: his art.

Some of our artists, inspired by the image of a poet, dervish or fakir, only added to the making of the myth. Sadequain was perhaps the most successful figure projecting that image. Nobody could ever imagine he had a source of income. He had an aura — almost like prophets who are above the menial issues of earning. Because those holy figures were involved in spreading the message of the Creator, so He took care of him. Likewise, the artists who are busy in producing works that pay homage to God’s creations have thus been absolved of the burden of managing their kitchen.

In a way, we are in the best of times when the artists are free to produce whatever they like to do; because now a person who invests in an artist does not do so in his artwork but in his name. It is the artist who is sold and not the artwork.

However, this is a recent, modernist myth, often pushed by poets and fiction writers, later joined by film-makers. If one reverts to the history of art, the making of image was always linked with monetary value. Objects that we admire today as art in the museums of the world were either commissioned or created in order to sell to the user: a wealthy businessman, feudal lord, king, church, or fellow tribesman. Masterpieces of world art, from The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci to Taj Mahal, from Sistine Chapel frescos of Michelangelo to Gandhara statues, each of these artworks was paid for, and in most cases the artists negotiated the price.

Today, we have come back full circle. In a world operated and dominated by a certain economic order, the art work is for sale, and for higher sums. Long gone are the days when works of art were appreciated for their visual value (1960s and ’70s — an ideological phase in the history of Pakistan), exhibitions did not have price lists, shows were not frequented by collectors, and artists had to find other means to earn their living. Thus, majority of artists from Pakistan — Shakir Ali, Anna Molka Ahmed, Khalid Iqbal, Colin David, Zahoorul Akhlaq, Salima Hashmi, Lala Rukh, Zubeida Javed, Meher Afroz, Mussarat Mirza, Anwar Saeed, David Alesworth, Akram Dost — continued working as teachers at different art institutions, which earned them a regular income.

Now we live in a different world. I remember my degree show at NCA in 1986 where somebody had mentioned the price of a painting. The person was considered a philistine, for equating an intellectual and personal expression with a commercial product. It took more than 25 years for the art world in the academia to come to terms with the idea of ‘price’ of an art piece. Today when you visit a degree show, in some cases you come across the price list of students’ work clearly posted on the wall.

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Also, if one compares the value of artworks from different decades, the sudden rise in art from Pakistan has many factors to account for. First is the international attention which led to local collectors’ interest. The professional approach and spread of galleries is another factor. The idea of art as investment also contributed to increasing the price of an artwork. The new trend in gallery business is not to disclose the price of a work on display, instead it is ‘price on request’: a mystery, or another myth.

It appears that most of our artists have recognised, and are reconciled with, the idea of art as a market product. Their works are shown in an art gallery, which negotiates with clients about the worth (conceptual and monetary) of the art piece, and settles down at a negotiated price. In a way, we are in the best of times when the artists are free to produce whatever they like to do; because now a person who invests in an artist does not do so in their artwork but in his name and the prestige associated with the name. It is the artist who is sold and not the artwork. You come across phrases, such as ‘I have a Gulgee on my walls’, or ‘I am going to hang a small Pervaiz’, or ‘you must come and see my new Naqsh’.

This is a double-edged sword for the artists. Because they are free to do whatever they like, but at the same instance are pressurised to produce a certain kind of work. Artists today are brands/labels. When you leave for a big shopping mall, you have already made up mind to buy an Armani trouser or a Swarovski bracelet. Likewise, before going to an exhibition, the collectors are clear about what they want to acquire: valuable names. In some cases, a purchase is made not by choice but as an investment; thus several highly expensive works do not adorn living rooms but end up in stores.

As for the artists’ own marketing strategies, there are a few who have hired public relation firms for projecting their international careers, some are still operating in the old-fashioned world of verbal publicity, while others are lost in the labyrinth of multitude. Regardless of the process of accumulating artworks, by and large the artists in Pakistan have not yet succumbed to market demands. Market pressures notwithstanding, a creative individual follows his own whims. This, in the words of Andre Gide, is like swimming against the stream.

The problem in today’s art world is to identify what the stream is: gallery exhibits, alternative spaces, public art, or private collections. The definition of art is always changing and fluctuating — just like the exchange rate of US dollars!

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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