The couple that walks into the gallery has been “collecting” art — though “buying” might be the appropriate term in their case — for some years now, unmindful of spending a lakh or two on paintings that they like. Their picks are naïve, not yet jaded by signature scavenging, even though they are a concession to popular (er, “kitsch”) taste. The husband is happy to “educate” himself, he says, though he has trouble understanding why F N Souza should be so popular. “There’s nothing nice about his works,” he says, struggling to comprehend the distance between his lack of appreciation of the late master’s works and the market’s appreciation of his worth. “I don’t see why his drawings should be so expensive,” he complains, and you sense he’s on the cusp when he will begin to buy works by artists he doesn’t yet fully appreciate but to which his friends respond or at least have already bought. Peer pressure is a prime motivator among art buyers, just the way it is for high-end luxury brands. His wife, meanwhile, says there’s just one “nice” work at the exhibition, a romanticised canvas by a Bengal revivalist, what’s the price for it? On being quoted Rs 60 lakh, she doesn’t bat an eyelid, but sighs. “If I could afford it, that’s the work I would buy.”
After four years of being in recessionary mode, the art market is once again offering a glimpse of hope, and the couple is an indication of their willingness to engage with it. The number of such people at the bottom of the ladder is queuing up once more, but it is the dormant collector — a species that had gone into hibernation — that is beginning to stir up things again. Reports of growing interest in art are everywhere; the resistance to acquiring it is disappearing as fast as the morning mist. Art hunters are turning active again, chasing down masters to add to their trophy walls. Contemporary artists, viewed with suspicion by the market, are getting a dekho and finding validation once more.
It’s unclear what’s leading the change. Finance minister P Chidambaram’s attempts to revive the economy have helped, though recent sentiments seem negative for the spending classes. If art sales are picking up, it’s perhaps because people are loosening their purse strings, having abstained from indulging themselves for too long. Art, like fashion, raises the spirits, but unlike fashion, isn’t ephemeral. It creates conversations, bestows intellectualism.
The revival of the art market is proving contagious. There’s an element of business-as-usual in galleries, an electric energy that had been missing for some time, but which seems to have been switched back on. The big ticket collectors are returning slowly, hesitantly, circling around opportunities for bargains that will disappear as soon as the market has consolidated itself. But it is the growing interest in a new generation of buyers which is adding to the stimulus. They’re on the outlie of the market, feeding on its fringes, but it won’t be long before they became central to it as they move in with greater resources and a hunger for the pleasure that acquiring art bestows.
Art creates distinction. So does luxury, of course, but where brands provide a homogenity, art marks you out for your individuality and taste — however superior or inferior. That deviation from the norm is beginning to manifest itself once more as a new generation of buyers demands to know what it can get for its few lakhs, or crores, of spare cash. And whether that’s Souza or Sakti Burman will depend on how the market responds, in turn, to a naivety that will morph into knowledge with a snap of the fingers.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated