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Is Good Art Sellable or, Sellable Art Good?

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If the measure of a great artist is the sheer number of walls being decorated by his works, you could consider Ken Perenyi one of the most famous artists in the world today. But that is not the case. You see, Perenyi used to make a living as an art forger, painting almost exact replicas of famous paintings and selling them off at auctions for as high as $700,000. Was it illegal? Yes, it was a clear case of forgery. The question is - why were people still buying his work once he came out in the open?

The answer is a twisted sense of modern day vanity. People love owning rare or famous art, but more than that they love other people knowing that they own it. This is why, even now an artist like Perenyi sells his work to a steady clientele of antique dealers and real estate promoters for as low $5000.

Even fake art has its own use and it duly finds its place under the broader umbrella that we know as art economy.

If there are two words that you thought might never come together because of the two very different and opposite worlds they belong to, there's a very good chance it would be 'art' and 'economy'. Obviously there is a generic connection between the two since different pieces of what you would call art are always bought and sold, however, there was a certain level of discomfort artists would face every time they were asked to discuss money.

Now, as Amazon has released an online portal for fine art, the money cat has been set among the arty pigeons. But the fact still remains that art has never ever been detached from some sort of gain - monetary or otherwise. Even back in the days of cave paintings of men chasing down mammoths, there is empirical evidence that the chiefs of tribes would ask the shaman to paint the pictures of the likely hunt. An abundance of wildlife meant more food for the tribe. A chief asking his shaman to paint pictures of animals on caves using charcoal and rocks could very well be the first example of commissioned artwork. Speaking of which, how can we forget how much art has been commissioned by religious institutions? Michelangelo's fresco work on the ceiling in Sistine Chapel was commissioned to him by the church. The content was not a reflection of Michelangelo's religious piety (he could have been non-religious as well) but something that was demanded of him. Similar commissioned artworks exist all over the world in churches, mosques and temples. The concept of art for the sake of art gets a little shaken when you think of the sheer volume of commissioned work.

Another very hugely popular form of commissioned work was portrait painting which was largely an indulgence of the rich and famous to keep their memory immortalized through art. You have to remember that those were times before there were camera phone "selfies" for that matter, even cameras. Portraits and busts were the ultimate signs of vanity. The rich paid top price for getting their portraits done then and when that art of the bygone era shows up in galleries and auctioneers the rich pay top dollar to get their hands on them once again. This cycle of money chasing the art continues and it shall always do so and the rich, being who they are, now put money into art perhaps not so much for vanity but as an investment. Perhaps this is why art sales did not suffer in 2010, at a time when the overall economy was suffering. During that time, unemployment was at 9.7 percent and the Customer Confidence Index spiralled down to 54 and there were 2.9 million home foreclosures in that year. Even so, the art industry in America reported an economy that was worth $135.2 billion.

The art economy is not entirely made of sales made on pieces of art but also the income that is generated as a result of art events and festivals held all around. It is interesting to know that out of the $135.2 billion, $61.1 billion came out of the income garnered by the art institutions that made such sales while the remaining $74.1 billion reflected the money that was spent by the audiences during such events. And when we mention art as an industry, we cannot ignore the fact that it employs 4.1 million people in full time positions and produces revenue of around $22.3 billion to local, state and federal governments annually. That is a major return of investment when you consider that the annual budget allocated towards art as a whole is merely $4 billion.

While on one side it's been established that there is a deep connection between art and money, there is another side to it. Does the high commercial value of art distract true artists from their "calling"? Maria Miller is a member of the British Conservative Party and under the current administration, she is the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, which basically makes her the "go to" person when it comes to state decisions on art and the funds allotted to it. On the one hand, Miller claims in her speech at the British Museum that "art must make an economic case", implying that art that cannot be sold is the art of no use. On the other hand, Dame Liz Forgan, well known in British media due to her extensive contribution in the field of journalism, TV and radio (to many, she is also the voice of reason in the liberal world) argues that a very strong commercial approach to art would yield inferior results, thus devaluing it and defeating the purpose. Good art will always sell and that is the truth but claiming that sellable art will always be good is problematic .

Ken Perenyi leads a happy life now. Agreed, the 63 year old artist does not live the same jet setting, couture wearing life used to at one time (he even sold one of his John F Peto forgeries to Andy Warhol), but at least his buyers now know who the real artist is; at least most of them do.