Art for arts hub too dear at any price

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am


Soaring prices for contemporary artworks are also making it tough to build the arts hub's own collection.

SCMP, Oct 10

I went to an art auction once. It was aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean somewhere south of Cuba and it was quite the show.

The cruise line started things off with several job lots of the sort of stuff you buy in the Stanley market, each item set in elaborate framing and displayed outside the dining hall for several days complete with pseudo-biography of the artist.

On the big day a Sotheby's-style lectern was set up by the grand staircase in the reception lobby, the audience was salted with a few cruise line employees to encourage (so to speak) the bidding and then the plummy-voiced auctioneer took his place at the lectern accompanied by flunkeys in jacket, tie and Sotheby's-style apron.

'You don't gotta worry about nuthin',' said the cruise director in introducing the show. 'You just raise your hand for what you like and the next time you'll see it is in your own living room. We'll take care of everything else.'

Magnificent! Profit margins of at least 1,000 per cent guaranteed on every sale. Why did I ever choose stockbroking as a career with money like this to be made in art?

But let's get one thing straight. In investment terms these things are as overpriced at a dollar as they are at a million dollars. They are not investments. An investment is made by setting a money value on a stream of income, be it from shares, bonds, property or even deposits. You value it in its own terms, a capital value of HK$100 for an annual income of HK$5, for instance. There are no income streams in art. A painting can perhaps be valued in thrills of appreciation or something like that but in money terms it is purely speculation. In money terms it can be priced (not valued) only in terms of how much someone paid for something similar recently.

Thus, I really can't say there was anything silly in the prices paid in this ship-board auction. In fact, I don't even know that I would want to quibble with the buyers' tastes. What is art anyway?

The answer to the question in this part of the world is that art is what David Tang selects for the walls of the China Club, particularly the staircase. Things have been that way for years and it is notable how much of the stuff now in galleries has that China Club look.

The only other criteria that I can see is the one that the West Kowloon Cultural District's director, Michael Lynch, seems to favour, which is that real art costs a lot of money. He certainly whinges about it.

Here's an idea for you, Mr Lynch. Broaden your horizons. Try the Stanley market. It isn't all China Club lookalike stuff there and it's cheap. You'll get a lot of wall space covered at your new museums and people generally seem to like it too. You can even get it done bespoke if you go to Shenzen.

I have difficulty with the elitist notion that only a few privileged intellectuals are granted a true appreciation of art and the rest of us had best learn to like what they tell us to like. I'm a democrat in these matters. I like what I like and if Mr Lynch's boss, Henry Tang, doesn't know what he likes, well, that's Henry's problem, not mine, and I can't see why my tax money should make up for it.

But it certainly has not taken Mr Lynch long to learn the local academic's theme song - Gimme Me More Money - and he is now singing it lustily in pursuit of fancy facilities, pricey pictures and the special ability of art experts.

What we should really have out there at West Kowloon is a Tin Hau Temple at the tip of the peninsula with an open praya between its doors and the sea to stage Cantonese opera in its traditional setting of a stage made of bamboo and corrugated tin that can be pulled down and rebuilt in a day. Now, that would be a true Hong Kong cultural expression. But if you want the opera stage you will have to go to the dusty dead-and-gone gallery of the Hong Kong Museum of History in Tsim Sha Tsui, live culture in a culture graveyard.

In the forward-looking modern facilities of our new arts hub we will instead feature dry and dusty works selected because they fit the China Club look and cost a lot of money.

Isn't it wonderful how we specialise in irony in this town?