The commercialisation of art

Stacey Wrenn argues that increased privatisation of art allows ultra-wealthy individuals and corporations to dictate the art world, reaping great financial rewards in the process


“A businessperson very rarely invests in something that will not benefit them directly”

Art has been of consistent importance to all civilisations since man first picked up one object and rubbed it against the surface of another. It helps people to cope, connects them with strangers and new cultures. It shakes us from a state of political complacency as well as stilling our agitated minds so we may focus once more.

And while there is a common consensus regarding this importance, it is difficult to pin it down to a single point and this may be the reason for our appeasing approach when it comes to the growing privatisation of art.

Art and profit

One might argue that art has been privatised for centuries, with guilds and prestigious families functioning as the multinationals of the day. The commercial side to art can most clearly be seen in the history of Dutch Art and the lucrative print trade, Albrecht Dürer himself mourned not producing more oil paintings in his career, admitting that it was simply because prints were more profitable. Our contemporary problem of privatisation is far more sinister though, for we aware that it is happening and yet we do very little to combat it.

Powerful individuals and their business colleagues have seized the position of the most prominent patrons of art, the most notable being the controversial yet apparently charismatic Charles Saatchi. Through his lucrative deals and talent spotting, Saatchi has consolidated the position of artists such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, and others belonging to the Young British Artist movement.

By doing so he brought the ugly elephant of the art world to the fore — the artist’s ego. Technique and message are slowly being replaced by shock-value, with the desire to end the taboo around sex, which still lingers in our society, being exploited by them on a daily basis.

One does not have to travel far to see this change, with exhibitions and student publications whose mission statements promise to do something that no others will — submitting and giving these artists the attention they seek so deeply with full-page spreads on Instagram accounts which display nothing more than angled selfies and various nights out.

Saatchi in effect is the agent for this change, for these artists, who serve as his moneymakers — like sales reps in a company. They sell the image of a revolution in art, the image that anything can be considered art if one says it to be so, a non-elitist art which appeals to the younger generations.

But this image is nothing but a farce, it remains incredibly elite with but a few of even these artists making it, the rest falling back on their degrees and/or their parents money.

Luck of the draw

Some might argue that such large payments are putting an end to the life of a struggling artist, citing Hirst’s somewhat dismal past, but that trope is still alive and well and perhaps, is ever more present as a result of the aptly coined School of Saatchi. In 2000 he paid £150,000 for Tracey Emin’s disgruntled bed when she was still relatively unknown, sky-rocketing her to fame and setting her asking price far higher than many beloved artists experienced within their own lifetimes. In 2014 he sold it for £2.2 million at Christie’s, reaping a substantial profit for him and his stakeholders.

Hirst and Emin could be considered lucky, extremely lucky to have met and satiated the needs of such a wealthy investor so early in their career. The majority of artists are not ‘chosen’ by such investors, and are forced to work in completely unrelated jobs, overtime, often for less than minimum wage. Not only do they not have the leisure time to focus on their desired mediums, they cannot afford the materials to work with; they are no longer artists.

But the artist cannot help being chosen and who they are chosen by, I hear you protest, and while this is entirely fair that does not mean that we do not tread cautiously with these individuals. A businessperson very rarely invests in something that will not benefit them directly, and we already have striking evidence of the art world being used and corrupted to serve the desires of their main investors. In 1994, after thirty years of dispersing their profits into various arts institutions, the Phillip Morris Company successfully called on these institutions to lobby on their behalf against anti-smoking legislation in New York.


It is with this, possibly conspiratorial eye, that one should glance towards Google and their numerous art projects ranging from installations in every office to the simply titled ‘Google Art Project’. Google Art Project appears to be good, with one classmate I spoke to arguing its case as it provides free access to art for anyone who can get internet connection, that it’s a sort of educational tool.

But that argument is fundamentally flawed as Google Art Project only displays what the admins want to. There is a board picking and choosing which works of art are worth showing on it, thus as they decide what to show they are also deciding what not to — with no disclosure as to why.

There is also very limited information available on the website in comparison to that of a gallery, and this cannot be put down to the only logical excuse of lack of resources as countless reports have revealed the wealth of knowledge that an internet search-provider has.

One has to question then why they choose to give such little information, what is their reason? One possible reason that is not improbable is that they do not wish to function as an online gallery as they might claim to, but that it serves to determine the tastes and the focuses of people regarding art.
The only real backlash against the increased privatisation and corporatisation of art has been by the hands of independent groups and individuals, with left-wing parties who promised to fight for the rights of the artist in the general election failing to fulfil their promises by showing as little interest in the arts as their political opponents.

Irish Arts Review, with the help of their passionate readership, successfully prevented the auctioning off of three paintings from the publicly owned collection of the National Gallery of Ireland in the summer of 2015, but their struggle against the renting out of museums for private use carries on with no sign of the Seanad backing down from their planned occupation of the National Museum of Archaeology while their chamber is being refurbished.

Across the Irish Sea, the School of Saatchi has been defeated in it’s attempt in razing a building on the UK’s Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, in order for Tracey Emin to build another house. The point of the ego previously mentioned is most clear in the reporting of this defeat, with Emin stating that it was simply because she was ‘not wanted’ in the East End anymore, ignoring the countless council applications that are rejected on a daily basis in the city of London.
Figures such as Saatchi buy and popularise art in order to sell it on at a later date for a large profit; it is just another business venture with no real thought besides ‘that will get The Guardian’s attention’. He has become the mogul of art dealership and while some critics are beginning to question his purchases, there are still so many of us that will accept anything with the label of ‘art’ underneath it, not pausing to question why it is considered ‘art’ and not just a tent and who put it there.

And so it is thanks to Saatchi & Co. and their appeasers that ordinary people can not afford to become artists in their own right, private art colleges continue to dominate exhibitions, and luck replaces sheer merit when it comes to one’s success.

Note: This article was edited to remove a reference to an individual.

Stacy Wrenn

Stacy Wrenn is a staff writer and a Senior Sophister Jewish and Islamic Civilisations student.