Is Fine Art a Scam?

imgp2980This is a discussion which I’m sure has long been debated between the pros, amateurs, techno-freaks, artists, and everyone in between. I’m sure we’ve all seen the paintings that have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, which look like nothing more than random splashes on a canvas. For those of you who’ve seen the movie “My Kid Could Paint That” you’ll know what I mean. The film is a documentary about a little girl (3 or 4 years old) who was questionably selling her paintings for tens of thousands of dollars.

Speaking from a photography standpoint, or better yet - a DIGITAL photography standpoint, do you think fine art photography is a scam? What do I mean by this? Well, certainly in any artistic discipline there are the obviously truly outstanding, those who’s art is undeniably the work of pure talent/genius. However, when looking at some fine art photography I often think to myself, “I could do that!”  This is not (in my opinion) a self centered view. I could just as easily be saying “You could do that” but I don’t know you, do I! 

Photo by Andreas Gursky, Courtesy of Sotheby's
Photo by Andreas Gursky, Courtesy of Sotheby's

Let’s take a look at a real life example. The photo shown here was taken by Andreas Gursky entitled “99 Cent II Diptych”. Now here is a nice duo of colourful wide angle shots of what appears to be a dollar store. Nice photo right? What if I told you that this just happens to be one of the most expensive photographs ever to be sold. This photo actually sold at the Sotheby’s auction in London for a whopping $3,346,456. How do you feel about the photo now?

So this begs the question, “Why are YOU not a millionaire?” I’ve personally seen a thousand other photos which I consider be technically better, more appealing, more interesting, etc… but they have been taken by so called amateurs. Ah! So is that the difference between a $3 million dollar photo and a worthless shot taking up space on someone’s harddrive – the photographer’s name? Is it because an artist has a name (famous name) that their work is automatically up on a pedestal? Or does the work of art have some underyling meaning which the majority of us fail to see or interpret? Perhaps this is what seperates us amateurs from the pro fine-art photographers; the ability to create an underlying theme? But again, is it worth the kind of money that fine-art sells for?

 The fact that someone paid for it means that this truly is worth it (to someone), but the question now becomes “Why?” This of course may never be answered, as only those individuals willing to pay for the fine art will know the answer. I have no doubt in my mind that the artist truly considers their work to be “thoughtful” art, and that the buyers feel the same way, and I am certainly not knocking the contemporary artists out there. What makes our hobby and our world so great is the fact that we all have individual thoughts and sovereign opinions. I have the utmost respect for those who try over those who do not, and I know that for every $3 million photographer there are millions of starving photographers trying to make it, and I commend them for doing what they do.

Take my photograph of the picnic table at the top of this posting. Look at it and ask yourself what it means to you. Did I have an underlying meaning when I shot this photo? Only I will know the answer (unless I reveal it to you). Upon reflecting on an image such as this, how much would it go for in the fine-art world? Hopefully I’ve given you all something to think about when you re-examine your works and future photos to be taken. To those of you who are in the world of contemporary art, no, I don’t think it’s a scam – however, I don’t yet have a complete understanding of it.

About the author

Dave Seeram is the Editor of PhotographyBB Magazine, photographer, Canucks fan, Lostie,  fanboy, Dad, blogger, entrepreneur, and part-time superhero. Dave is the owner of this blog, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the PhotographyBB Magazine and CLARITY: PHOTOGRAPHY BEYOND THE CAMERA
5 Responses
  1. With really expensive artwork it is the artist and not the actual artwork that is expensive.

    As we are all ware there are numerous fake paintings that many curators and buyers that have been fooled into thinking that it was an original and therefore paid the going rate. But when discovered to be a fake then the artwork is no where near as pricey but may still fetch a few thousand dollars.

    For the average artist selling paintings or photographs in the $100 to $3,000 range then it most likely has to do with the actual subject, paper or canvas used and whether it is limited to a small number. Scarcity does create additional value.

    The subject is timely here, as this weekend I will be writing an article on why “Bad Art Work Always Sells Better than Photographs”.

    What I mean by bad is not in the strictest sense but there are many paintings witch I like but have a very heavy approach to the brush work to the point that it is hard to distinguish the subject and scene and normally these are always preferable to the original photograph of the same scene even when selective focus has bee used.

    I am hoping that further comments may give me some guidance into these thoughts

    Niels Henriksen

  2. Dave,

    This is a great article. I appreciate your thoughts here. You bring up some very valid points.

    I’m returning to photography after many years away. I used to take a lot of time really seeking out those things I thought would be “artful” and would “sell”, but I find with my return to the photo world that I’m less picky, because of what I have direct access to. Of course, “way back then” I shot film on cameras that were completely manual and I had to be specific in taking each shot; cost and time were major factors with film, processing, etc.. I had to work very hard to get my photos prepared, mounted, out, and seen, because the market was tight. On that note, there was a marketing element to the “art of photography” that each photographer was expected to invest in. Some still do and my thinking is that they are the ones who get noticed and receive the larger pay checks.

    Today that need for the precision has faded away in my opinion. I have flickr, and forums, and blog where I can highlight my work. People have automatic camera’s that really do all the work for them and every shot seems to come out great, because we can post edit like never before.

    I’m not saying that I haven’t seen some fantastic work done very very recently. I have. I have seen work on flickr, in your e-mag, and on the forums here that I would pay for, because they are fantastic. However, in most cases, not all, I would not classify them as “fine art”, because I understand the ease in which a really great picture can be produced. That may be part of the ailment of photography as a fine art and why we see people being very critical of supposed artists. For me, scribbles on a page don’t make for art at all, but they do make for something mommy and daddy should certainly hang on the fridge.

    One has to wonder if photography is becoming a lost art, because of easy to use gadgets. In my opinion, and just my opinion, when I find something that I might classify as “fine art” there must be an element of investment related to the artists time and attention to the craft of photography.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m just being snooty about it all :-)…

    Mike Frye

  3. Tom Igger

    Of course it’s a scam! I am surprised that you never considered the nature of the fraud perpetuated on people by curators.

    I am a fine art photographer and have lived, modestly, off of it for over 30 years, so I have some insight into the matter. My photographs have been purchased by several museums and many collectors. I am not one of the people who get $20K and up an image (though I wish I were) nor do I dress up in fantasy outfits and photograph myself.

    The value of an artist during the 20th century and now in the 21st century has continued the practices of the Renaissance Period where the support of the Catholic Church was critical for your ability to work, to earn a living, and ultimately to be considered of value today. Only now it is the curator who has the job of selling you to the fine art market. A curator makes his mark by identifying an artist and then marketing him/her. First to his private club of benefactors for his institution. (The dialog goes something like this: “Buy this artists work and we will take the work as a donation later. And buy additional pieces for sale later because I like the work and you will make a bundle of money. My institution will have a show which will place the name of this artist on the map and you will be recognized for your art knowledge as well as scooping up a lot of money when other institutions need to collect the artists work or risk falling behind in their collection of contemporary (or?) art.”

    Sure there are variations on this theme but get real. Fine art is about as transparent as the financial instruments sold by Wall Street. Isn’t that why Wall Street has driven the art market to unbelievable prices over the past ten years.

    If you find my comments offensive (though I am taking a simplistic approach in my example) then pay one of the many art consultants their $250 or $500 an hour to tell you how the photograph of a 35 year old woman in her brother’s 30 year old pajama’s is a significant photograph worth every penny of the $30K starting price.

    Regarding your comment on the importance of your intention when photographing your own image as illustrated in the article; here I must differ. Ultimately the art is judged, in many if not most cases, by how it affects or relates to the thoughts of others, not your own feelings.

  4. RoyL

    It is not the artwork that sells and image, it is the artists name. Sad fact of life but it is everywhere you look in all walks of life, those that are well known win (except criminals).

    Yes, one may be able to produce a $3 million artwork. It is a combination of artistic flair, an eye for good composition and tonality, and being at the right place at the right time, though Andreas Gursky would have done his work staged (it is a very rare thing to not see people in a dollar shop this size). The problem is, would Sotheby’s even look at it, No!

    Living in an unfair world, if you are not born into a title or name then you have to make one for yourself. It is much like the fashion industry, does Guchi make better product than those found on the high street, No! Again it is the name one is born into that will normally decide what sells and what doesn’t. And the only way to break this is to be flambouyant and outrageous to the point that people notice you and not your work. Pathetic but true.

    The other way is by association.

    As for the artwork it is what the eye captures that determines its artistic quality. The bench in a park is nice, it is an everyday object looking like an everyday object so the brain registers it as such. The Andreas Gursky shot is different again, great splashes of color, horizontal lines broken by vertical lines that draw the eye into the image, and above all, contrast and plenty of it. It is contrast that wins with the eye. As the image has all these elements and the name associated with it then it commands big dollars. If I had produced it and Sotheby’s would handle it then maybe it would realise about $1,000.

    I will guarantee that the $3 million shot probably went through at least 10 plates to get what he was looking for.

  5. This reminds me of a story about Alan Bond (an australian billionaire who subsequently went to jail for fraud) – he had a Monet hanging above his chair in his office that he paid millions for, but would boast to his friends about his Monet (pronounced with a hard “t”)

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