Can The Art Market Judge Value? Discussion With Luo Fei
by R. Orion Martin
In 1991, Huang Zhuan participated in an interview for the magazine Art Market. In it, he argued that the creation of an art market in China would establish a relatively fair arena in which artists could compete while also supporting those artists. He further explained that artists are always under pressure (political, religious, social, and economic), and that the test of a true artist is how he or she responds to that pressure.
20 years later, I think many in China would say that the development of the art market didn’t work out quite as well as he predicted. I sat down to discuss his ideas with curator Luo Fei.
Orion: Let’s begin by talking about what happened to the development of the Chinese art market after this interview written. During the 1990s, Chinese art was “discovered” by foreign dealers.
Luo Fei: Yes that’s right. In the 1990’s foreign embassies became important to Chinese artists as alternative sites of exhibition.
Orion: This is the so called “embassy art”?
Luo Fei: Yes. At that time artists had no space to exhibit. Sometimes they would show in embassies or private spaces. Of course, the artists who were able to exhibit in an embassy or a diplomat’s house were those artists who were already discovered and were relatively well known.
Orion: Throughout the 1990s there was more and more attention paid to Chinese art circles, but what about major auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies? When did they become involve?
Luo Fei: I’m not sure about the specific dates, but the legitimization of 798 was a major turning point because it was a signaled that the government had acknowledged contemporary art. In the beginning 798 was a spontaneous, independently founded community like the Artist’s Loft in Kunming. It was a place where artists and art organizations gathered together and resisted the pressure of urban development. Then in the mid-2000s it was recognized by the government as a cultural center.
Orion: The 2000 Shanghai Biennale was also an important turning point, correct?
Luo Fei: That’s right. I remember reading many art magazines talk about the biennale when before they had never introduced contemporary art.
Orion: Around 2006 the art market really began to heat up. Since then it has cooled a bit, but there was a lot of money invested in the 2000s.
Luo Fei: In Yunnan during 2005 and 2006, the hottest thing was wasn’t the market but Jianghu (a series of experimental exhibitions funded by the Lijiang Studio). After that, the market’s influence on Yunnan became stronger and stronger. Particularly in 2006, many Yunnan artists were invited to display in Shanghai and about 20 or 30 artists participated in an exhibition. Most of the pieces where oil paint, sculpture, installation and photography. One particularly large event was the “New Impulse” exhibition held at the Yuan Gong Fine Arts Gallery. I think this definitely had an influence on Yunnan artists, the chance to go out and exhibit, look at different kinds of exhibition. Through these large exhibitions, artists with commercial value began to filter out. Some good artists sold all their works and began to work closely with galleries.
Personal experience with commercialization was an important learning experience for Yunnan artists. I remember that once when I was installing an exhibition in Shanghai, someone from China Post came and asked if I was willing to print my works on postcards. They wanted to expand the market and its influence by printing these postcards. I remember thinking that there were no China Post officials in Yunnan going to exhibitions and asking about collaboration, and if you went to them they would definitely look at you with indifference. The entire Yunnan market was still clearly very immature.
Orion: What happened then?
Luo Fei: In those years there were many artists who moved to Beijing or other locations and established studios. Many of their studios were huge, even as big as a gallery, in order to make large works. Some young artists also began to employ small teams of assistants to produce their work. At that time there was really a lot of investment in studios, art production, teams and selling. I did a very simple installation involving a loudspeaker on a six meter long wooden pole that played recordings of the prohibition of violent and grotesque performance art in public spaces. They wanted to take the installation to Shanghai but to move that long piece of wood across the country they had to rent a huge shipping container. Personally, I thought it was unnecessary, I just wanted to do a new art project in Shanghai. But at that time many galleries really didn’t care how much the price was. They wanted to try presenting a grand exhibition. I think that this kind of thing rarely happens today unless you are a very successful artist.
Orion: In your opinion, does the market now establish a “legitimate arena” with “rules of competition”? (terms drawn from Huang Zhuan’s piece)
Luo Fei: First I should say that I’m not in the market. I focus on experimental art. But my friends and teachers who are involved say that the art market is no different than other areas of the economy. In actuality, the Chinese art market is governed by Chinese rules of competition. All of the society’s rules of competition clearly have problems, there are too many unwritten rules and background connections. For example, Bo Xilai’s case is dramatic because there are a lot of things going on behind the official news. Maybe the art market is not as dramatic as the political sphere but it has the same characteristics.
Orion: Are you referring to corruption in the art market?
Luo Fei: It’s a bit different but yes, it’s there. In politics we have corruption, but in art circles it is expressed in a different form. For example, if a boss wants to support an artist, he may ask someone to buy their work at a high price in an auction.
Orion: There are reports that during auctions of Chinese works, some organizations will plant buyers in order to push up the prices.
Luo Fei: Yes, it’s a game. In addition, the critics who assess value are also involved. The boss will gather buyers and art critics for dinner. The critic says good things and at the end of the night he/she gets a red envelope (Chinese tradition for passing gifts of money or bribes). It’s good that the critic gets some income but they lose their independence.
Orion: Zhuan sees a very large role for critics in the art market. Do you think critics can be the arbiter of art’s value?
Luo Fei: This is one of the critic’s responsibilities, to distinguish between good and bad, to assign art value, and to publicly interpret art. But as to the value of art, I personally do not believe that critics can act as the final arbiter. In terms of the public value of art, I am more interested in establishing a robust art system based on museums. Museums are a more fair way of selecting outstanding artists. Critics today are all self-employed or teaching at schools. Some work in galleries. I work at TCG Nordica, and therefore my responsibility is to introduce artists to the public. Interestingly, some independent curators will ask their students to write essays for them. This makes evaluations of worth very dubious and ambiguous, turning art criticism into a kind of advertisement.
Orion: They just tell the students to write some nice things?
Luo Fei: Yes, as a kind of practice for the students. Artists often complain to me about critics who do this. You can read the work and recognize that it’s really bad.
Orion: You mentioned that museums are a better alternative, but if there were more museums, wouldn’t they be like the Yunnan Provincial Museum? I recently saw an exhibition there that was absolutely terrible.
Luo Fei: I’m not talking about official museums. I mean those run by companies or independent individuals. In this system, buyers buy the art in order to collect the history. The public institution (whether private or a type of organization) profits from society, and then those profits are translated into cultural value and given to society. This is the function of those museums.
Orion: We’re talking about independent large scale galleries and private museums.
Luo Fei: Yes, we need different kinds of organizations that can show the public there are different values. Ideally, art critics would not have all the power. Different systems would reflect different values. We need a rich art ecosystem with all kinds of organizations including commercial, nonprofit, experimental, government, religious, classical, fashion, conservative, large scale, small scale, stable and mobile. The audience can decide what good art is, or what is good in different areas.
Orion: In the 1990s and later, some curators asked companies for economic support in order to create independent galleries. Is this a better solution? Perhaps some galleries work like this?
Luo Fei: Strictly speaking, they do not support. Rather they rely on a kind of exchange. They ask for gifts from the artist or collectors in order to regain the capital invested in the exhibition. There’s no free lunch.
Orion: Alright but at that time in the 1990s there were some curators who convinced companies to support them, no strings attached. Then it really was a kind of free lunch.
Luo Fei: Generally speaking there are very few. This kind of support is based on the personal relationships or short term tactics of a system that isn’t public. Some museums or galleries select artists and offer them full support, perhaps because the artists are already successful and can guarantee market success. Others will exchange support for some pieces. Some galleries pay artists a material fee, living fee, or appearance fee. Lijiang Studio, for example, has some projects like this. Performance and installation artists prefer this because they know there’s no way to sell their works. They just hope you can cover some of the costs.
Orion: In China, it’s common for artists to support galleries by paying exhibition fees. Is this correct?
Luo Fei: It depends on which exhibition, which person, and whether the gallery’s vision fits with the artist’s vision. There are also galleries that support artists. Generally speaking, if galleries invite an artist to have an exhibition there is no fee, but if the artist personally applies for an exhibition then there will be a fee, and the fee is quite high. In short, galleries are still in an undeveloped period, except those very big galleries from west. Galleries need artists to pay the bills and artists need galleries to offer support. It’s not support, it’s more like cooperation. That’s why a museum is a better solution. The goal is not to earn money and they don’t rely on selling paintings or collecting exhibition fees to exist.
Orion: In the West museums have government support, both direct support and in the form of tax breaks.
Luo Fei: Maybe you are critical of this solution but in China we still need to establish a system of public support for art. When private businesses support art, they are still basically focused on earnings and the company is limited to commercial tastes. This leads to the expansion of commercial art and the weakening of experimental art.
Orion: In this case, the curator doesn’t have power.
Luo Fei: This is always a discussion point. Who is the curator? Normally it’s whoever has money and relationships. Now it’s changing but in the 1990s or 2000s it was like that, very chaotic.
Orion: Is there space for artists operating outside the market in China?
Luo Fei: I think there is. Otherwise how would they do work? The art market is always only for a few, very lucky artists. In Kunming we can count only a few artists who have signed with galleries, maybe ten.
Orion: How do artists survive?
Luo Fei: They are teachers or they do public projects, sculptures. They may have their own studio to teach students as an alternative to university. There are also some who work at galleries, companies or other institutions. For example, He Libin teaches at Yunnan Art University but he also acts as curator and has other various projects.
Orion: Huang Zhuan felt that the market might not be the best system, but there’s no alternative. Do you agree?
Luo Fei: In the early period of the 1990s and before, this might have been the case. Their understanding of these things was very limited, as were the circumstances at the time. Art workers had never heard about government support or non-commercial art organizations. At that time, China was going through reform and opening. The strategy is drawn from private business and property reform. My understanding is that at the time, their strategy was to break the old art environment and this was the only path, to encourage individual sales of art pieces.
Orion: They wanted to use money to break with the government.
Luo Fei: In those days the strategy had value. In the 1992 Guangzhou biennale, curator Lu Peng organized the first commercial exhibition, and that first exhibition had symbolic significance.
Orion: He was one of the first to open the official system.
Luo Fei: Many people criticize him now. They say he’s not a historian, he’s just a business man (Lu Peng was criticized for his organization of the 2011 Chengdu Biennale, which featured traffic cone barriers and large “Do Not Touch” signs). But in that time (1992) he did a good job. Afterwards those artists who participated were invited to many countries. They became a kind of national team. Traveling in a bus together, they would also go to president’s house and meet politicians. They suddenly become so important. That’s why they were accepted by the government in the 2000 Shanghai Biennale. Chinese contemporary art had already become a global business card.
Orion: Huang Zhuan argues that the market is a kind of pressure, and that the mark of a true artist is how they navigate the pressures of the market and express themselves.
Luo Fei: I agree, but that’s not the only thing. The market is not the only standard to judge the excellence of artists. There should be other standards as well.
Orion: It raises the question, what is the role of luck in the market? Huang Zhuan might argue that luck is unimportant, that being a true artist involves making connections and presenting your artistic view to buyers.
Luo Fei: There are some very good artists but they have no relationships with this circle. Or they don’t like this circle and need a bridge. The typical example is Van Gogh (Van Gogh is also mentioned in Huang Zhuan’s article). Non-commercial galleries and organizations have the responsibility to reach out and explore who is good. They must evaluate artists from a different view.
Orion: Some artists and critics criticize young Chinese artists for vapidly pursuing financial success, but I would say that the most (financially) successful artists, including Damien Hirst and others, are producing works that are critically interesting and engaging. Perhaps we should stop encouraging artists to be aesthetics, and tell them that only by truly advancing their craft they will achieve financial success.
Luo Fei: For artists there are many possibilities to make good or interesting works. But this is not the only value of art. I would not say that poor artists are the best artists. The reason for this criticism of market oriented artists, though, is because it is having a larger and larger negative influence on new artists. The new artists have less space to think about what is good art. There are lots of voices about commercial art, and they have no system to participate and think about what is real art, what are the problems of the art scene right now.
Take Yunnan landscape art for example. Many artists follow successful artists. They think this is the best art, and they never wonder if landscape has problems. They never ask “Why do we need to paint landscapes? Why are our styles so close?”
Orion: I guess what I’m saying is that on a high level, the market is doing what Huang Zhuan says it should. It is responding to what works are good and what aren’t. For example, we have talked about how Yue Minjun’s work seems stale now, and the market is now responding. His works don’t sell as well as they did in the past.
Luo Fei: It’s true, the market is becoming more and more mature. Yue Minjun’s work is no longer increasing in value on the auction floor, and it seems the collectors have also learned. It’s just that the cost of this knowledge was a bit too high.
Orion: The largest influence of the market I see is the preference for oil painting. Will the market ever move beyond this single medium, or is it simply too convenient and we will always have oil paintings?
Luo Fei: I think in the Chinese art market, traditional master (ink paintings) will always be expensive. As for oil paintings, some of them are good, but collecting oil paintings is really a kind of investment.
Orion: Do you think this preference for traditional ink painting and modern oil painting will change? Will there be more mediums represented in the future?
Luo Fei: I think it is already changing. In Beijing some video works sell well. Some artists have established a video art museum and you can go there to see the DVDs donated by artists. In Beijing it’s easier.
Orion: Maybe it will take a long time to come to Yunnan.
Luo Fei: Maybe it will never arrive. Some goods can’t find a market everywhere.