Learning from Peter Lik

March 14, 2015
‘Phantom’ by Peter Lik
‘Phantom’ by Peter Lik

One day, with a photographer friend, I wandered into the Peter Lik Gallery in Cairns. It felt more like a chintzy tourist restaurant than an art gallery. The lights were low, the walls painted a charcoal colour. The furniture was new and gleaming, music played in the background. Lik’s landscape photographs were hung thickly on the walls in heavy gold frames.

Our first impulse was to get out as quickly as possible, but this is obviously not the way Lik’s American customers respond. To those who spend thousands of dollars on his photos, imagining they are buying a significant work of art, the style exudes a reassuring aura of professionalism. These buyers may feel differently if they try to sell the work through a major auction house, but for the Lik organisation there will always be another customer coming through the door.

Peter Lik may be the most commercially successful photographer in the world but he does not have a single work in the collections of Australia’s leading art museums. To many people this would sound remarkable. Surely if you’re worth US $440 million, you must be an artist of public interest? Is it only the snobbery and elitism of our institutions that has prevented them from acquiring Lik’s photos?

The same argument arose with the late Pro Hart. An incredibly popular artist, there was outrage when Hart died and it was revealed that few public galleries had collected his work. There is a basic belief that anyone who is successful must be good, but the curators and art bureaucrats often take an antithetical line: if it’s massively popular it must be bad.

Both of these views are forms of prejudice, with the difference being that the curators and bureaucrats are industry gatekeepers who see their role as enforcing standards. We should be open to anything, but If we judge artistic success in monetary terms we will always be praising the most banal and clichéd products. Complexity is a popular turn-off, as is anything that inspires negative feelings.

Lik’s website tells us he “has followed his calling to capture and share the most beautiful places on earth.” His images are classic no-risk postcard shots, using saturated colour and simplistic, often symmetrical compositions.

If we accepted this as great art we’d be obliged to see books such as Fifty Shades of Grey or The Da Vinci Code as the literary masterpieces of our time. We’d rate a film such as Avatar more highly than Citizen Kane. It sounds ridiculous, but when it comes to buying art, a large number of people are happy to follow that logic, assuming that financial success equates with artistic significance.

We should not disregard the statement: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.” This is literally how many of those who have made money in property, shares, or other investments approach the business of buying art.

Peter Lik breaks every rule in the book when it comes to running a commercial gallery. No conventional art dealer would have an ATM on the premises. No-one would accept the idea of a “limited edition” of 995. Works in such huge editions could more credibly be described as posters. In the art scene, the one-man gallery is generally seen as a vanity enterprise, or simply a shop. Lik embraces this identity, as his galleries are intended for shoppers rather than experienced collectors.

What makes the formula so successful is the magical aura of “art”. To those who only know about art from reading the newspapers, it seems as though works are always accumulating value, sometimes selling at auction for sums in excess of $100 million. When someone can boast that he has sold the most expensive photograph of all time, at US$6.5 million, it seems convincing proof we are in the presence of a master. Those works which sell for only a few thousand now seem like a bargain, especially as those same images get more expensive as the edition runs out.

Since Lik’s “world record” was a private sale to an anonymous client, we have little verification aside from the press release. If we assume the sale is genuine we still do not know if the buyer and the vendor have any undisclosed financial arrangements that may have influenced this transaction. It is meaningless to say the sale is “official” because there is no agency that validates such matters, and no set of guidelines that must be followed. The fact that two law firms were involved means nothing. We are expected to take the claims at face value.

In the era of the fast grab, that is exactly what may be relied upon to happen. Take the case of For the Love of God (2007) a diamond-encrusted skull by Damian Hirst said to be the most expensive work ever sold by a living artist, at £50 million. This claim is repeated almost every time Hirst’s name appears in the popular press, but it is rarely mentioned that the purchaser in August 2007 was a “consortium” in which the artist had a controlling interest. In other words, Hirst seems to have purchased the work himself.

Even though this information is widely available on the net, and mentioned on Wikipedia, Hirst is still known as the living artist who holds the record for the highest priced sale.

Peter Lik does not have the same artworld credibility as Hirst, but he is taking a similar liberty with Phantom, his ‘record-breaking’ photo. Instead of raising Lik to the levels of artworld stardom that Hirst enjoys, it draws attention to the lack of clarity that underlies both sales. Perhaps we should see Hirst not as a hero of the avant-garde, but as the same kind of commercial artist or master self-marketer as Lik.

The question remains as to why people are so prepared to be impressed with high prices paid for works of art. Many of the record prices set for an artist’s work at auction are the result of deliberate efforts to ramp up their market value. Setting a new benchmark provides a mechanism for raising the price of every unsold work in a stockroom.

When the records are set via an anonymous private sale there is even less chance of establishing legitimacy.

Perhaps it comes down to the fact that buyers treat art as a leisure activity not a serious business. Art is the last thing newly-rich people buy, usually to fill the gaps on the walls of a house, and it is viewed as high-priced decoration. If a salesman tells you it’s a good investment, that’s a bonus. If it’s expensive that’s merely a guarantee of quality, as is the inevitable gold frame. Work sold in this manner tends to cater to the most basic standards of taste, being colourful and superficially attractive. A little touch of surrealism adds a ‘cutting-edge’ frisson.

There is nothing illegal in any of this. It’s a world in which buyers can safeguard themselves against paying large sums for works with no resale value by doing a tiny amount of homework. Forget the press release and the sales pitch. Is the artist in any of the pubic collections? Do they have a track record with the big auction houses? Is the gallery merely a glamourised shop that doesn’t feature in Art Almanac, RAVEN, or one of the other standard exhibition guides?

There are plenty of high-profile galleries where one can shop around and ask for second opinions. Follow Sydney’s Art Month events calendar in March and see the true range of work on offer.

One doesn’t need to be a genius to do any of this. The hard part is accepting that one’s taste may be fallible, or in need of cultivation. Those who are proud of their ability to make money are quickest to spend it on junk. Even the most inexperienced art buyers seem to fancy themselves as experts, which is why hundreds of millions of dollars are squandered every year on virtually worthless decorations, while legitimate artists and galleries find it hard to pay the bills.