Why buyers don’t like their artists to experiment
Artists, as we all know, become closely identified with the subjects they paint, or sculpt, or, these days, install, sometimes ad nauseum. With few exceptions, you can say almost with authority that an artist does works in a certain identifiable style and, often, content and style. Say Subodh Gupta, and the image likely to emerge before your eyes will be of steel utensils. Sunil Das draws snorting bulls, Shuvaprasanna does crows, S H Raza is known for his bindus, F N Souza for his grotesque nudes and heads, Thota Vaikuntam for his Telengana beauties, Fawad Husain for his erotic satire in domestic settings, M F Husain for his horses, Jayasri Burman for her goddesses, Rameshwar Broota for his ode to the masculine torso, Manjit Bawa for his popsicle colours and Sufi imagery, Bikash Bhattacharjee for his surrealism, Bharti Kher for her use of bindis, Paresh Maity for his haunting seascapes, Rekha Rodwittiya for her iconic female figures, Arpita Singh for her concerns with the feminine world… It is true that artists often go, or grow, beyond their initial identities, but their signature style compels them to re-visit what becomes their distinctive stamp: therefore Krishen Khanna, who has painted a wide range of everyday subjects, is extolled for his Bandwallah series, Atul Dodiya becomes a chronicler of his city, and Thukral & Tagra, like travel agents, may find themselves rooted in the universe of migrations.
Is such an intimate identity with a particular subject detrimental to the interests of an artist — besides being claustrophobic? Can an artist fight the image? Artists are meant to re-invent themselves constantly, but when they become strongly identified with a series, or style, they end up coming back to visit the subject again and again. In part, this might be a fascination with how something can be used to create multiple images, or to see how their own views might have changed — which is how Subodh Gupta constantly returns to his world of utensils, though, admittedly, with less success than before.
But, mostly, an artist is not allowed to stray too far from his fidelity with a subject by two very important players in his life — the gallerist, and the buyer (who may be either a collector or an investor). The gallerist often reflects popular demand and asks for works that have previously sold well — in other words, if it ain’t broken, why tinker with it! The buyer, on the other hand, simply by having the bucks, can commission the artist to do a work in his identifiable mode.
There are two reasons why a collector might opt for the familiar — that instant recognition for an artist’s work and name is like a social badge of honour, but the other, when an artist’s work is not recognised despite the premium you may have paid for the signature, is the more embarrassing for him. What is the point of having paid so much if you have to explain the deviation in the artist’s style, and then be ticked off by friends for having made the wrong choice?
Is that “wrong” choice for a collector (who wants to be acknowledged for his ownership) also the wrong option for an investor? In the short term, familiarity with a subject may appear to work better (Husain’s horses, Sunil Das’s bulls…) but in the long term, it is the distinctiveness, quality and – most importantly – rarity that will impact prices. Therefore, a Subodh Gupta canvas, or installation, which is not about utensils may make the grade and become an alternate talking point. The uniqueness becomes a distinguishing quality.
Still, it can only work to an extent, and only occasionally. Buyers – whether they are collectors or investors – are driven away by the fear of the unknown, and prefer the safety-net of the familiar and the tested. Artists, too, however much they might experiment, are often obsessed by a single idea — and that is not just an image but an entire concept. Anish Kapoor’s work, for instance, is not just about distorting images, but distorting perceptions of space and our reactions to it. You can no more take that away from him than you can take the bindis away from Bharti Kher, or the rainforests from Senaka Senayake’s canvases.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.