“It’s like a Mercedes-Benz. You drive it off the lot, it loses half its value," says artist Peter Lik, describing his own work. This brutal article from the New York Times examines the extraordinary amounts of money that people continue to spend on Lik's work and how he has created his own speculative — and lucrative — economy.
Lik's success opens a debate as to what qualifies as art or, more particularly, fine art.
As the article observes, Lik is offering his customers an opportunity to buy art — a prospect that offers opportunities for investment, but often seems inaccessible. I've seen it myself. Having photographed a few interiors in London's Kensington, the super-rich frequently litter their walls with incredible artworks. I've seen huge pieces, each worth tens of thousands of pounds, adorning the hallways of family homes, all chosen by an art buyer whose advice has been sought to track down works that fit the space, the decor, and the rest of the buyer's collection and that will also offer a long-term return on the investment.
The fine art world is effectively a shadow banking system; it allows the transfer of capital across borders through trading in art that remains one of the least regulated commercial activities in the world. In this system, price-fixing, insider trading, and laundering money is alarmingly simple.
As Robert Hewison notes in his book "Cultural Capital," artists are brands. They "synthesise celebrity and accessibility into the ultimate cultural commodity." Art itself is "an ideal means of absorbing cultural capital," allowing both investment opportunities alongside the ability to demonstrate social status.
The New York Times article notes the explosion of money being spent on art in recent years, citing the increasing profits of auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's since 2003. Some would suggest that the financial crash of 2008 prompted investors to look elsewhere to put their money and fine art has, bizarrely, been a stable investment, perhaps in part because of the continuing lack of regulation.
Lik's success is the product of this growth combined with his own savvy sense of how to sell something for a lot more than it is worth. He is tapping into a market of new art buyers who want a piece of the action, have limited knowledge of the art world, and are led to assume that because the prices in Lik's galleries are always increasing, this will continue to happen once their newly purchased print is hanging on their wall.
Lik has been a subject of much discussion of late following the investigation into "Moonlit Dreams" (1,2), now acknowledged by Lik's own studio as a composite. I have not been able to discover the origins of any supposed assertion that Lik's work is all composed in-camera as popularly believed, but it is now confirmed by Lik's gallery that "Moonlit Dreams" is, in fact, a composite. Given the number of editors working for him, it would not be a surprise to me if some of the works that are for sale in his galleries were produced by his team, the finished product having never had any connection to the camera in Lik's hands. As long as people believe that Lik made his art, it doesn't matter.
How this now-debunked assumption that all of his images are authentic came about is not particularly important. What is important is that the assumption was there and widely reported, and those buying his images believed that they were buying a photograph and not a digitally manufactured composition. Whether Lik ever made this claim is irrelevant; to a degree, however, his work sells on the value of that assumption. As we're often told, we are in a post-truth world.
Like any investment, fine art is speculative, and speculation flies around Lik. He is proof that if you have enough money to pay enough people to tell the rest of the world that you are famous, you will be famous. If you can afford to tell enough people something extraordinary, they will retell that story regardless of its truth, divorcing it from its own reality or lack thereof.
My old art teacher would describe Lik's work as "chocolate box." If pushed, he would explain that this means "populist tat." There is always space in the art world for chocolate boxes, but I would argue that these chocolate boxes are more prone to a fall in value than other, more weighty (some would say, "pretentious") artworks, such as those produced by Gursky, Sherman, or Brandt. And Lik himself seems to acknowledge this when he says that his photos are like a luxury car, with half of the value disappearing as soon as you drive it off the forecourt.
The financial value of the work of the fine art heavyweights — Sherman, Gursky, Adams, etc. — is in part based on the aesthetics, but, importantly, also on their cultural significance: their potential to reflect on, question, challenge, or inform how society functions. The works implicitly represent more than what their visuals explicitly convey. If an image is pure surface, I doubt it has the potential to retain its value, never mind increase in value.
That said, this might flip. Lik's prints might acquire cultural capital because they have achieved a level of fame for their pure superficiality, of their ability to play the art world at its own game, and for epitomizing the early 21st century's capacity to be bought by rhetoric and surface.
Lik is a chancer. But in the art world, that's not an insult; the art industry is made up of artists trying by all manner of means to convince those with money that their work is of value — or even, increasing value. If Lik has achieved this, then kudos. It doesn't mean that I think his work is of any worth or merit, but I could say the same about a vast chunk of the fine art market. It's not to my taste, and just because I think that it's populist tat doesn't mean that I should be sniffy about anyone spending thousands of dollars on it.
My advice: if you fall in love with one of Lik's stunning photographs (or composites), spend whatever you are willing to spend to have a beautiful print hanging on your wall. But at the very least, sit down and watch "Exit Through the Gift Shop," first. Alternatively, save yourself some money and download something very similar to Lik's work from Unsplash such as the image at the top of this page. In thirty years, it could well be just as valuable as a Peter Lik original.
Lead image is by Luca Huter.