A couple of weeks ago, I joined a gallery team in Singapore with a strong presence in Asia. It is wonderful to be back home and learning about Asian artists who predominantly appeal to the culturally vast Asian community.
One Asian artist, however, defies all odds by being all at once popular in the East and West, a prolific creator of works, and an aged woman. Her current popularity is fueled by trends like feminism, Instagram art and greater attention to mental health. Yayoi Kusama is #55 on ArtReview's Power 100 List in 2017, and there is little to question that ranking (only perhaps why the ranking is not higher still).
On a personal note, many friends, family and acquaintances are fond of reaching out to me to satiate their curiosity about the fine art market. What motivates their desire to engage becomes obvious with the one remark; 'Hm..I can make these dots myself, can't I?'
You can perhaps predict my reaction to this. It is something along the lines of 'No you naive, overconfident chap, you bloody can't.' There is plenty of (growing) literature on the mechanisms of the fine art market. Derived from them, below is a list of things I wish I was calm enough to give instead as my reaction:
1. For those who form opinions of fine art while scrolling their smartphones: It is important to see works of art, including Instagram-trending ones, in person. This is because materials and materiality, scale, how your eye sees colour, visual details and non-visual components like context are part of an artwork.
2. If you have seen them in person, gain an understanding of the technical skills required to produce a piece. Artists must gain access to the right materials, perhaps work with engineers or manufacturers and often involve specialized conservators and restorers.
3. Kusama specifically has gone through an incredible process that informs her artistic expression. Here is a good read: 10 things to know about Yayoi Kusama. When you look at any other work or even a well-attempted reproduction, you are not faced with the same expression or artistic intention.
4. There is a sophisticated and elusive market mechanism that attaches value to these works of art, which allows artworks to behave as commodities. If you are interested in how that works, do not confuse it with the ability of the artwork to be an experience and expression at the same time. It can, and does, have the characteristics of both.
At the moment, Kusama is the recipient of an incredible amount of attention and rapport online, on social media platforms, and in the international art market that buys and sells her works of art of high net worth. Many find themselves curious about why our economy and society rewards and recognizes Kusama on these platforms.
Simply going to view a work will not give you the resources you need to understand 'Why is this artwork more visible/important than others?' Look instead for the answer to 'What is Kusama trying to capture, communicate, channel in her work?' and 'Do I have a personal response to her expression?'
By finding the answer to the second question, perhaps you will find yourself closer to answering questions about our collective approach towards reward and recognition too.