TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

iCon: Innovation and branding in the art market

T.C.A. Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on November 15, 2017 Published on January 11, 2012


Steve Jobs

Picasso and Jackson Pollock were to 20th century art what Jobs and Gates are to IT.

The next India Art Fair, previously called the India Art Summit, will begin on January 25. The three previous ones were mildly successful in terms of sales.

An interesting aspect is that Indians look for foreign art, foreigners look for Indian art. But as usual the Government sticks its foot out into the aisle: there is a 30 per cent import duty.

Even so, India is slowly — very, very, slowly — emerging as an important market for art. Last year at the fair, six Picassos were sold to Indian buyers and they cost a bomb.

Why they should do so has never been very clear to anyone. Indeed, that applies to all paintings.

The usual explanation is scarcity value. But though Picasso painted thousands, the supply of Picassos is vastly less than the demand for them. Hence the scarcity.

So how was this demand created? In modern terms, how did Picasso become a super brand?

Art historians say he was the only “significant” painter of the 20th century. His art has been accused of being “a celebration of this century's introduction of a totally promiscuous eclecticism into the practice of art.”

Economists and other philistines like me snigger at this sort of talk. But what does “significant” mean, they ask? No one knows for sure.

One economist has conducted extensive research on art and economics. His name David Galenson and he is a professor at the University of Chicago. He came up with a credible explanation.

As long as painters had to paint what their patrons wanted them to paint, there wasn't much scope for innovation. But once the market for art moved beyond the patrons, innovation became possible.

Every budding painter now thought he had something to offer. The supply of all forms of art expanded.

But who would succeed? The answer lay in innovation.

Never mind if it is an iPod or an iPhone; or in cricket a doosra or the reverse sweep; or in the world of ideas, even Marxism in the early 20th century; innovation is central to the success of the practitioner.

And, like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, the most successful innovators in art won the day. Picasso and Jackson Pollock became to art what Jobs and Gates are to IT. Their incomes reflect the value of the difference between their innovativeness and that of the rest.

But who branded Picasso, Pollock and the rest of the biggies? Remember, this was the era before marketing had replaced simple advertising and publicity.

The answer is that they did it themselves, helped along by a friendly social environment.

But who does the branding now? Who decides which painter is truly innovative? What did M. F. Hussein have that the others didn't? How does an artist become so preferred that if you say his paintings suck, people move away as if you have AIDS?

No one knows.

Sensory pleasure is a good way of telling. But then what if it is absent and the artist still becomes an icon?

Or should it be iCon?

“Artistic innovation in the twentieth century was dominated to a remarkable degree by one man.

By the measure of textbook illustrations, Picasso accounts for three of the five most creative individual years of the century... The story of the rise of Cubism is one of the most wonderful chapters in the history of art. There is something deeply moving about the way this pair of artists in their late twenties found themselves subverting six centuries of European painting…

David Galenson in "The Back Story of Twentieth-Century Art",

(T.C.A. Srinivasa-Raghavan is Senior Associate Editor, Business Line)

Published on January 11, 2012
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