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It is one of the curious aspects of the growth of globalisation that the `market' has become the ubiquitous metaphor for the way we live. We set our watches to keep time with the opening and closing of international markets; the rise and fall of markets set our pulses racing; and, above all else, we are persuaded that our essential rights and freedoms emerge from our commitment to living in free-market societies. There is some truth to these claims, and much to be questioned too. How do we distinguish between different manifestations of the market phenomenon? Are the effects of markets as uniform as the expansive metaphor sometimes suggests?

The art market provides, I think, an interesting corrective to the vaunting vocabulary of financial-market boosterism. Art and culture – the creative sectors of our societies – flourish in conditions of free expression and equitable exchange; `closed' societies, by contrast, have a tendency to seal off the deep sources of the individual imagination from its creative means of expression. However, although our markets may be free and our societies open, there are occasions when the art market is manipulated by those to whom we entrust its care: auction houses, dealers, curators. Indeed there are times when artists themselves brazenly play the market in pursuit of vanity and wealth.

Violations of the art market profoundly distort art's value. When it comes to take its place in the public sphere of civil society, it has to be valued differently from other commodities. Whereas commodities can be consumed, exchanged or traded in the market, significant works of art resist such processes of objectification and reification. Although they may be bought and sold, something haunts the spirit of art which, if properly understood, refuses to be treated as a trade-able thing. This is not because art has a mystical or transcendental reality. Art's resistance to being treated as a commodity has to do with the space it occupies, and the form it takes, within aesthetic experience.

The value of art rests in its virtual presence. The `being' of an artwork – its emergence as an aesthetic experience – is located somewhere in between the artist's cohesive creative intentions and the spectator's expectant and enraptured attention. This virtual space of art's presence resists being represented or realised (as a thing or a commodity) in formal conventions that are preset or cultural values that are preconceived. The art-object has a material reality that bears the artists signature, the provenance of tradition, the imprint of material, and the formal and social history of its moment of creation. However, the desire for the work – the artist's passion, the collector's obsession, the spectator's identification – is a more contingent and transactional process. It is based on the virtual and projective qualities of the experience of art – an object that emerges out of the to and fro, or back and forth, between the work, its institutional and curatorial conditions of display, and the spectator's perspectival gaze.

Art's virtuality insists that the work's value springs to life, anew and afresh, each time a viewer observes it or a critic describes it. Even when you know an artwork well, you only have to look at it again to realise how much you've forgotten. It is the enigma of art that gives it a charismatic presence. It is charismatic in its inexhaustible ability to reveal new aspects of well-known and well-worn symbols or images, but it is also charismatic in the sense that each emergent, fresh dimension of meaning and pleasure provides a different explanation for the powerful presence with which the work takes its place in the world. The charisma of art, like that of a person, is a strange blend of the qualities of the rebel and the chameleon.

The virtual value of the artwork makes the art market vulnerable in a way that is different from other markets and commodities. This has little to do with the rise and fall of the artist's reputation or the fluctuation of auction prices. It is the charisma of artworks that has to be cultivated and protected, nurtured and developed, that must be shielded from the market's fast and loose modalities. Why? Because the charisma of a work (or of an artist) can take a long time to emerge as a virtual part of its character; it can take many seasons and showings before its diverse dimensions are acknowledged by spectators and critics – or indeed by the artist herself.

An artwork realises its enigmatic, virtual `self' slowly and haltingly; markets act quickly and decisively. Herein lies the innate difference between economic or financial markets and the art market. Of course, the price of commodities can fluctuate, and shares can turn from being bearish to bullish; such changes of circumstance can fairly be compared to aspects of the art market's behaviour. However, what I am trying to establish as the virtual or charismatic value of the artwork is only partially circumstantial or contextual. It is more intimately related to an inner, slower transformation within the work, a delayed disclosure similar to the way in which a novel delivers the enigma of its narrative over time, after many diverse readings and delayed re-readings. Or a writer suddenly finds his voice after several visions and revisions of a manuscript that has been a long time in the making.

The responsibilities involved in arts patronage go beyond philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. Both these forms of civic virtue make crucially important contributions to the success of civil society and the creation of institutions that support cultural citizenship. However, the ethical value of patronage, whether public or private, individual or institutional, lies in the fact that patronage, at its best, is an act of hospitality, of hosting. Hosts welcome and nurture the artist and the artwork. Patronage enhances the charismatic presence of art, keeping it from turning into a commodity. Patronage provides a home – museum, Kunsthalle, private collection, public gallery, studio, workshop – that gives both artist and artwork the rarest of all gifts: the gift of time. Time for the artist to reflect on the past and the future in shaping the symbolic languages of our own time, time for the artwork to open up its diverse facets to the trained eyes and unsuspecting gazes of those who constitute today's global art world.

These speculations on the charismatic value of art and the ethics of patronage speak to the core values of the Art & Patronage Summit. It is not often that a conference programme concerned with institution-building and arts policy carries a preface that strikes a reflective, philosophical note. I was led in this direction by what I perceived to be Hossein Amirsadeghi's overarching commitment to the vulnerability and vitality of emergent art markets, the Middle East in particular. Emergent arts communities struggle for representation both within their own societies and in the world at large. Contending cultural and market forces are often at a loss when it comes to recognising the charisma of emergent artistic practices, vitiating their virtual presence. Emergent artworks are frequently slotted into prefabricated, stereotypical ways of seeing. Their identities are rendered exotic or anachronistic; their modernity is considered to be imitative and belated; their historical differences are fetishised; their aesthetic profiles are blurred by contextual, historical explications which obscure their enigmatic appeal. The time needed for emergent works to slowly unveil their diverse aspects of meaning and feeling is frequently foreshortened; the cultural space required for artworks to develop their own visual vocabulary at the conjunction of different cultural and social practices is often reduced to a one-dimensional framework of indigenous origin. The larger market rapidly appropriates these emergent art markets – India, China, Brazil, the Middle East – in a race to offer something `new', while the careful archival and analytic work that requires critical provenance and conceptual clarity is woefully lost amid the hubbub of celebrity and commodity.

The A&P Summit project aspires to regulate such distortions and set a benchmark for best practice across the range of emergent art activities from the analytic and creative to the administrative and the redistributive. The project's mission is to prevent provincialism by opening up a dialogue among individuals and institutions whose affiliations stretch beyond national prejudices or regional particularities. The emphasis on the Middle East as a site of emergence is an attempt to locate the region's art, history and politics within the larger idea of a global civil society. Each of the Summit's patronage projects represents a commitment to creating the financial and institutional support required to build the cultural resources necessary for a civil society. In such societies patronage joins hands with creativity, and the responsive spirit of private entrepreneurship ignites a sense of responsibility and obligation within the public sector.

The A&P Summit has the potential to be much more than a conference or think tank; its aspirations give it a power of convocation that could spark off a movement, a mustering of peoples and ideas, to change the climate of opinion. I sense the stirring of spring – a Middle Eastern spring – in the cold air in London on this January day, and I only wish I could be there with you.

Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University and Trustee of the UNESCO World Culture Report.

art & patronage:

Professor Homi K. Bhabha