Is it time for art critics to make way for the markets? 

Speakers at Art Basel Hong Kong’s first Salon talk on the 23 May 2013 debated who ultimately determines the value of contemporary art, the critic or the market. Ultimately, the two forces may be more closely related than they appear.

Watch the complete Salon talk on below.

Price equals quality?

Georgina Adam, Jehan Chu and Hammad Nasar joined the Financial Times‘s art editor Jan Dalley to discuss “Who Needs Critics? Does the Media Help Good Quality Art?” Dalley started with the question of whether aesthetic judgment still matters against the backdrop of an increasingly vigorous art market in the validation of contemporary art.

In response Georgina Adam, Art Market Correspondent of the Financial Times and Editor-at-Large of The Art Newspaper, noted that the validation of contemporary art today is strongly focused on the market rather than the traditional value judgments of art history. “Price equals quality” is the validation mantra of the day, according to Adam.

Ronald Ventura, 'The Dive', 2010-2012, oil on canvas, 215 x 305 cm.

Ronald Ventura, ‘The Dive’, 2010-2012, oil on canvas, 215 x 305 cm.

Art market momentum

Some artists seem to do very well without critical approval and can even see their market value soar while being consistently denigrated by the critics, stated Hammad Nasar, Head of Research and Programmes at Asia Art Archive, citing Scotland’s Jack Vettriano as a prime example.

Hong Kong-based art adviser Jehan Chu added that while the market is certainly strong, the critics still matter. Working with a lot of Asian collectors who are often new to collecting, Chu finds that critical writing provides additional validation and bolsters market value. But he admitted that right now it might be the market that has the upper hand in validation terms:

Yes, I have changed their [the collector’s] mind by providing articles and explaining the context […] but I think the market has such a momentum now.

Adding to this, Chu said he believes that the situation is cyclical and that there might come a time when criticism matters more to an art work’s monetary value.

Ma Yuan, 'Renyu Huoguo', 2010. Image courtesy Shenzhen Fine Art Institute.

Ma Yuan, ‘Renyu Huoguo’, 2010. Image courtesy Shenzhen Fine Art Institute.

Contemporary ink: fashion or market forces?

The panel agreed that Chinese contemporary ink painting is an example of the powerful influence of the market, its success being almost solely driven by auction houses.  According to Hammad Nasar, the growing attraction to contemporary Chinese ink painting among collectors is related to the appeal of cultural specificity: the growing interest for the artisanal in the contemporary art market. The same attraction in the market is seen for calligraphy, miniature and drawing.

This is where Nasar believes the art critic can find a meaningful role in the current market-dominated contemporary art scene. Depending on a critic’s “platform”, art magazine, exhibition catalogue or even PhD thesis, Nasar claims that the critic plays an integral role in the commodification of art: “the contemporary art market is an inexhaustible market and it’s all about branding.”

Healthy balance

Market forces and critics’ voices are not oppositional but interdependent, concluded the Salon panel. As the art market grows in Asia so should critical discourse, although traditional views of art criticism as morally superior to market concerns might have to be left in the past. Jehan Chu pointed out that Hong Kong’s huge and rapidly expanding art market operates in a vacuum; what the art scene and the market needs is more and better critical discourse. Who needs the critics? Contemporary art does.



Click here to read our coverage of Art Basel Hong Kong 2013

Related Topics: Hong Kong art scenelectures and talksart fairs, the business of art, collectors and collecting

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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