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article imageWhy isn't French artwork selling anymore?

By Michael Cosgrove     Aug 16, 2009 in Entertainment
French artists are notable by their absence from big international art auctions and galleries, and on the rare occasions that French art sells, it’s for low prices. French art needs to be more competitive, but efforts to change seem half-hearted at best
French artists are few and far between at auctions in London or New York, according to an interesting article published today by French daily Le Figaro.
The best selling French artist by a long way is Martial Raysse, who sold a piece for just under $2 million last year in London. That’s not much compared to artists like Englishman Lucien Freud or American Jeff Koons, who regularly sell for more than $20 million. Koons even sold a work for $33.6 million.
Since the beginning of the worldwide art market, the Anglo-Saxon auction houses regularly send back more than a third of French work submitted. It is in Paris moreover that French work sells for the most part.
The alarm bells have been ringing for years, and in 2001 a government mandated report demonstrated not only the mediocrity of French artists but also the weakness of the French market. It blamed the lack of private and corporate investment and the inefficiency of various French cultural organisations. Things have not really improved since.
The whole thing goes back to 1964 when American artist Robert Rauschenberg won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennial. The artistic sun left continental Europe at that moment, preferring to shine upon England and the United States instead.
It was just after that that French auction houses deemed the up-for-sale American house Parke Bennet as being “Without interest.” They were wrong. Sotheby’s bought it and the rest is history. The French didn’t see the future coming and have paid for it ever since.
The most recent French effort to promote its artists, the ‘Force de L’Art’ exhibition in Paris, mixed up its colours badly and left a smudgy image consisting of a lack of communication and invitations to the outside world and, worse still, there was an entrance fee.
Grégoire Billault, a modern art specialist at Sotheby’s, point out that “It’s paintings that the art world is fighting over. But the problem is that the better-known French artists work in different mediums. Look at the prices of German sculptor Joseph Beuys, a major reference in modern art. They rarely reach a million dollars.”
The world art market is a very aggressive and unforgiving environment in which the French do not seem to be comfortable. A conference organised last year to find out what could be done came to the conclusion that French art has a long way to go and that it is not communicating enough with the outside world, art market experts lack experience at the international level, art schools do not take into account the worldwide perspective, and private investment possibilities were not being explored enough.
On the subject of private investment, the recent initiative ‘Young British Artists,’ launched to help younger artists and sponsored by world-famous art collector and gallery owner Charles Saatchi, was heavily criticised in France.
"He was accused of making money out of the artists", said French gallery owner Daniel Templon, “but people forgot to mention that he made fifty artists famous. There has always been a conflict between public and private interests, notably in France {where state intervention in the art world is substantial.} How can we be competitive if we don’t use the American model? Progress has been made, but much remains to be done. Companies and collectors need to be able to buy art that is tax-deductible if they donate to an art museum, for example."
He added “John Kennedy said to Americans ‘Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ We need to develop the same attitude here in France.
By this he meant that individuals and private initiatives should be more involved in the world of French art.
(Readers interested in French artistic creation may like to read this opinion article, which addresses the similarly precarious state of modern French literature.)
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