It is not easy to give a definition of the phenomenon of contemporary art. The contemporary artist (born after 1945) tends to be one whose creations go beyond the standardised and traditional metrics of classical painting and sculpture – which sought perfection – and who interprets the complexity of the society in which he lives, with a concrete involvement in everyday reality.
His works are plastically conceptual, global, immaterial, and it is often difficult to quantify their value in economic therms because the canons of tangible valuation of creations are shown to be outdated.
In order to understand the dynamics of how the contemporary art system works today – from promotion to distribution to sales – and to identify the factors that determine the attribution of value to a contemporary work, we met Damiano Femfert, lecturer at the International Master in Arts and Culture Management at the Rome Business School, who told us:
“When talking about the world of art, one must understand that we are dealing with a very broad subject. Today we can speak of a sociological phenomenon of art, because art has definitively transcended the elitist boundaries in which it had confined itself in the past centuries and has become an object of interest for everyone, consequently addressing a much broader public than in the past. In a way, we could talk about a change of perspective, a theme I address with students in my seminar. In the last 10 to 15 years, the great modern and contemporary art movements, some of which were also born in Italy and Rome, have violently come into contact with a different environment: the market, which finds itself having to define an economic and monetary value to the abstractness of art.
Of course the direct link between artwork and economy has always existed, the difference today is a real explosion in the prices of creations, which transforms the art world into an enormous and very important market, the value of which is estimated at around 65 billion euros per year. The sector represented by contemporary art alone has grown by approximately 1000% in the last 15 years.
The reason for this boom? Simply because those who can wield purchasing power at exorbitant figures identify it as the pinnacle of luxury.”
The creative production of an artist – be it of the classical, modern, post-modern or contemporary age – is a cultural activity not devoid of economic components. Art and the economy represent two complex systems, two somewhat contiguous realities, whose paths have always crossed throughout human history.
In recent times, with the development of the knowledge economy, cultural economics has taken hold, making this intimate interconnection more evident: symbolic good is transformed into economic good and vice versa.
According to the 2020-2021 Contemporary Art Report published by Artprice by Artmarket, the market volume has grown by 2,700% over the last 21 years. In the first half of 2021, the Contemporary art sector recorded a historic result in terms of auction turnover, with a 50% increase compared to the first half of 2019 and a 5-fold increase compared to the first half of 2020, which was affected by the beginnings of the Covid-19 health crisis.
“People have always invested in art: for example, in the papal era and the Renaissance, it was the popes, monarchs, and wealthy families who bought works to expand their private collections. Today, owning a work of art, especially a contemporary one, is an indication of a high standard of living and a status symbol. Compared to 30/40 years ago, many more people with large amounts of money have decided to take an interest in art.
I believe that all this concentration represents a sins defect, the reasons are twofold and involve both the economic and the social sphere: on the one hand, economic investments in the art market are interesting and very fruitful – for a possible economic return or even just for speculation purposes – on the other hand, frequenting the cultural world ennobles status.
In the past, museum openings were enlivened by the presence of insiders, ministers of culture, representatives of institutions. Today, it is footballers and pop stars who roam the art galleries. Consequently, major exhibitions, e.g. of Jeff Koons or Maurizio Cattelan, are frequented by models and sportsmen and women, and for this reason they attract the general public. This is why contemporary art, as mentioned, has become a sociological phenomenon: it has opened up to the masses, with a more direct contamination between life and art. Today we are interested in what is new, digital. We are driven by the Google spirit, the Microsoft spirit. We have a different creed. Added to this is a new element: in the last five years, many of the big collectors, especially in Europe, have come from the fashion world. In Italy, the Prada family, Trussardi, Fendi, to name but a few, have set up foundations, which are essentially museums dealing with contemporary art.”
Art and fashion are two powerful means of communication and although in the past they represented two separate worlds, today, thanks to continuous creative exchanges, distinguishing the two arts is difficult.
In Italy, as in the rest of the world, Haute Couture Foundations play a central role: fashion and contemporary art represent a winning combination.
The foundations of the Prada, Fendi and Trussardi families – in France, Luis Vuitton, Cartier, Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent, Pinault – are at the forefront with projects of great cultural relevance and represent examples of ethical commitment: free of charge, they become containers for expanding knowledge and educational spaces that can be used by the general public.
“Art and fashion become interpreters of society through their own languages. Fashion has always followed the evolution of society, reads the manifestations of its context and imposes new cultural paradigms, just like art does. The big difference between the two forms of expression is the taboo that underlies them: fashion is a functional thing, it helps us get dressed, art helps us embellish our lives. Of course, in many cases fashion shows can also be considered a true and high artistic expression. But in my opinion, there is an insurmountable limit: fashion represents a company and must respect its businees. Fashion, in this view, tends to cannibalise the creative energy of art and place it in an industrial environment. The art world is the highest expression of freedom if it does not allow itself to be corrupted by finance.
German artist Anne Imhof, with her performance Faust, which won her the Golden Lion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, brought radical change to the contemporary art world. During the four-hour performance, young, fluidly dressed performers moved through a minimal space that could have looked like a fashion show. Imhof was an integral part of the performance, precisely to emphasise the intimate relationship between art and everyday life, in which fashion plays a decisive role.”
“To work in the art world until recently it was mandatory to come from art history studies. Nowadays it depends on what segment one wants to work in.
If you want to work in museums, to become, for example, curator rather than director of an institution, you normally start with classical studies and then specialise with ad hoc courses.
If, on the contrary, one wants to pursue a profession working in galleries or auction houses, it is more useful to study business, marketing, business economics: it is rare that one has a background as an art historian in these fields. But I believe that, in truth, all this is relative: the most important thing is to have curiosity and an interest in art in its entirety.
There are many self-taught people: you can enter this wonderful world in any way. But one piece of advice I want to pass on: if you are lucky enough to organise exhibitions, make an effort to speak to the general public. The narrative texts commenting the works must be comprehensible: making them super-intellectual is a stupidity that makes art bad and bad art becomes limited and returns to being elitist and self-referential.“
Damiano Femfert (1985) works in the art world as a curator, gallery owner and university lecturer. In Rome, he curated the exhibition ‘CoBrA, a great European avant-garde’ at Palazzo Cipolla. He is also active as a writer, scriptwriter and contributor to various foreign publications such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.