Does the World Art Market Need Better Art Laws ?

Art Market

June 10, 2016

Art must be beautiful – or at least Marina Abramovic says so. This statement is taken out of context, but there is, indeed, something liberating and (therefore) beautiful about art. However, sooner or later, all art starts bearing the burden of reality, and while it endeavors to stay “beautiful”, its freedom is often challenged and restricted by the laws. Money makes the world go round and nothing escapes this cycle, so once art meets business, it becomes a commodity, a matter of luxury, the highest level of prestige; as it unwillingly agrees for its beauty to be downgraded to vanity. Moreover, it appears that the price of an artwork should be the one to make you appreciate a work of art to a greater or a lesser extent. All of this sounds quite... un-arty. But then again, what are our other options? Obviously, there must be some kind of a bridge between passion and economy. So why not make it a substantial one?

Laws confront rights and the use of visual property created by an artist. Any legal case could help us understand the use of law, either when it comes to public property or copyright issues.
Ulay and Marina Abramovic - Artists and ex lovers; Marina was recently sued by Ulay.

Art and Business - A Love/Hate Relationship

If only things were that simple. As much as we would all like to rely on the scrutiny of economic rationalism, it seems that this relationship between arts and regulations is not really a match made in heaven, as it apparently makes both parties suffer. Even if art was on its way to becoming less complex (which it is not), it would still be facing a number of issues that ultimately make it complicated and hard to process; and even if the laws were more strict (as it seems to be happening in Germany), they wouldn't necessarily do art any good. From artists and galleries to art collectors, through auction houses, lawyers and art advisers, art comes a long way. At first glance, it seems like pricing an artwork is the hard part, when in reality it is only a concern to begin with.

copyright use, right laws
Robert Indiana - Love. Estimated sale value £350,000-450,000. Image via

The Love Part

One of the most obvious matters that makes the art market problematic is its lack of transparency. This was a subject of numerous debates, but the issue was never entirely resolved, at least not on a global level. One of the reasons why it remains a point in question is the fact that circulation of insider information and a certain amount of opacity (meaning secrecy) are considered to be desirable in the art market by some. In some countries, the art market was partly or entirely built on lack of regulations - a quality that could be regarded as acceptable among the art world, due to the vague nature of art itself. Also, the fact that contemporary art is not only reduced to classical mediums, such as painting and sculpture, makes it that much easier for both arts and regulations to get manipulated by those who know how. This doesn't mean that any artists or art dealers need to engage in illegal activity, but simply that the possibilities to get around the laws are much bigger in the art world (at least, for now). If you can't think of an example yourself, try recalling The Most Famous Artist and how he managed to sell money for money as art. Or simply think of any artist who knows how the art market functions and who turns it into his (or her) playground.

Law sometimes works against visual arts. Copyright can protect your works from being abused, but it can also downgrade your work.
Banksy's Spy Booth mural used to be a precious addition to a house in Cheltenham, England (literally precious). However, now that it has been damaged by vandals, it is worth nothing.

The Hate Part

Depending on your point of view, either art or business could seem like the "bad guy" in this unlikely marriage. We hear about random lawsuits and legal cases every day, but when it comes to art, things seem just a little bit more distasteful. People fight over rights, taxes, damaged artworks, oral agreements and done deals; they even fight over the very possession of an artwork - in sum, business can make art look ugly. It magically makes all the narratives, the creativity and the essential point of art-making become less important, or even completely irrelevant. On the other hand, you could also say that art is the one that downgrades the laws that aim to regulate it. Either way, it's a no-go.

Artist sometimes doesn't know the laws to protect the rights for the images created. Copyright helps protect your work or works.
Howard Chandler Christy - Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1940

Art Laws - Is It an Oxymoron?

Changes and transformations happen, probably more rapidly than ever, both to art and the world economy. This, too, adds to the list of reasons why the art/laws puzzle is so perplexing and difficult to solve. Take appropriation for instance - explaining why Richard Prince's New Portraits series isn't a felony could be a very exhausting task. And this is not even a novelty, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were doing quite a similar thing in the 60's. The bottom line is that all the existing laws are, perhaps, simply too rigid to tolerate art. Which brings us to the very core of the problem: If art weren't that progressive and forward-looking, then it wouldn't be art at all.

rights public laws copyright work works
Adrian Piper - The Probable Trust Registry, Installation view, Elizabeth Dee, New York, 2014. Copyright: Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin. Photo Etienne Frossard.

Handling Art is the Greatest Art of All

However, it should be taken into account that complete lack of regulation leads to different kinds of problems, which are likely to ultimately harm art. Anarchy is apparently not a right answer, as it would make the abuse of art and its value easier than ever. Finally, there obviously aren't as many answers to the question posed in the article's title, but there must be some way to close the case. Other experts dealt with a similar issue, mentioning self-regulation as a possible solution (instead of government regulation). It may be that this is a fair option, since the art dealers in Germany are already complaining that the new laws are slowly killing the art business. Still, you might as well notice that this relationship between all the players of the game has to be at least partly founded on an almost forgotten quality - trust. This makes this strange "love story" (as I chose to refer to it) an almost unique example, especially today, in the post-digital world, where information is abundant, easily accessible and often untrue. So it might as well work.

Featured image: Rene Magritte - The Son of Man:  "There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present" (Magritte, on the painting). All images used for illustrative purposes only.