A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Basic Rules of Art as Commodity
by Lee Rubinstein, member African Antiques discussion group
Art as Commodity
1) a network of interested parties seeking to regulate not merely the designations of "quality," "importance" and "authenticity" but also to delimit the attribution of such valuations so as to preserve the values held by those within the dominant or controlling class of collectors and/or traders. The art market, though one might wish it were afloat on the ethereal plane of aesthetics and culture, is a market -- plain and simple -- and, as such, is subject to the same principles that come into play in any market economy. In the current African art market, there is a significant degree of "branding" and "hype" quite analogous to the use of these practices in other sectors of the global market economy. For instance, discussions that seek to identify the so-called finest artistic traditions (Fang, Luba, etc.) are market-motivated as well as derived from (ideally) a true aesthetic impulse and evaluation; ultimately, such classifications represent essentially mere opinions (however well supported by education, scholarship, etc.) attributed to the objects considered and are themselves subject to change.
2) some attempt to reproduce, replicate or forge. Forgery is probably as old as prostitution and perhaps, historically, more lucrative. (But, anything done well and with sufficient likeness to the truly desired object might easily obscure the perception of even the most learned and or passionate of lovers, I mean, scholars and aestheticians.) I don't believe there is a single "expert" in any of the traditions within any field of art that has not been duped in her or his lifetime or thereafter. In fact, many curators include and utilize the historical masterpieces of fakery -- which generally have withstood quite intense scrutiny that ultimately yielded contradictory determinations -- as important examples in the training of art scholars, all of whom at this point are human and thus fallible. Classification and valuation is a matter of having confidence in one's own -- or somebody else's -- eye (or whichever point in your being through which you register art or beauty or awe and then of faith in that impression) and then maintaining the ability to see/sense the object in the same light throughout your period of interaction with it. But it is important to place the object higher than the participating egos (or accounts) in order to allow for truths, perhaps fleeting and sometimes contradictory, to be distilled from the on-going consideration of the object.
At the end of the proverbial day, one's appreciation of an object posited on external assumptions, attributions and designations -- its market analysis -- may be less reliable or lasting than an appreciation rooted in the gasp of awe that occurs upon being struck by the object's presence. There are many agendas at work, both innocent and nefarious, in the analysis of African objects. Perhaps it is possible for everyone to derive pleasure from the sheer breadth of different perceptions and analyses offered regarding the same objects considered and, consequently, to gain from the illumination of these differences the strength of conviction and confidence in perception regarding the objects we each consider meaningful and valuable -- or do not. In that manner, we are all empowered to engage in respectful dialogue about the objects by and for which we have all been drawn together.
Wishing everyone a Joyous New Year of Art*, Love and Peace (*provenanced or otherwise).
december 27, 2004 (c)African-antiques.com
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