Is The Fine Art Industry Becoming A Brothel



Most artists I know (this includes myself I guess) tend to be a little manic-depressive. This term tends to describe us a lot better than the current description now favoured that of being bi-polar. We are not that at all, just plain good old-fashioned manic at times and very depressive at other times. I guess it is the nature of the game. Sell a large painting or sculpture, get good press and you are manic and leaping all over the place. When nothing is selling or a real dog of a painting hanging next to your masterpiece sells out of a particular gallery you tend go into deep a state of gloom and depression. How many of you recognise yourselves here? And so we carry on like a yo-yo, sometimes up and sometimes down. Being an artist requires that one be sensitive and this up and down state is one of the spin-offs of being a creative artist I guess. This talking about being sensitive and having a thin skin leads me to a phone call from a sculptor friend of mine recently, who asked in some despair, “Does an artist in this country need to prostitute his or her work in order to sell and survive?”


While participating in a blog site debate from the USA recently it made me wonder if my friend’s question is applicable in most countries in the Western world today.


Needless to say the question has stuck in my mind mainly because I have asked it of myself so many times. It struck me that a bit of research may offer an interesting and topical subject for a ‘Thoughts’ article and so I Googled “Do artists have to prostitute their work in order to survive?” Immediately I received a reply – It was an article from Canada, and with this very title, telling of an artist who had won the prestigious top award at the American Watercolour Society (AWS).


It seems that this apparently well known and highly regarded artist, who had won prizes previously, had entered a painting in their gold medal competition and swept the awards. By some curious twist of fate, and for some reason not readily apparent, a restorer was called in and found that the prize-winning entry was not quite what it appeared to be and was in fact a print that had been over-painted. The incident was reported in the Canadian Sun Newspaper, and shortly after it was also reported that the source material had been plagiarised from the net. The image she used belonged to someone else. A photographer from Australia I believe it was.


This story made me think back to an incident in one of our local galleries. Not quite as public but again an exhibition. A supposedly competent artist entered a number of stunning works that were greatly admired and desired. It was later discovered that this artist had had some photos printed onto watercolour paper and then had manipulated them a bit and passed them off as originals and was asking some quite substantial prices for them. The work was withdrawn and I heard that some that were sold were recalled and the money returned to the rather shocked and disappointed customers. The artist seemed to disappear after that incident and I have never heard her name mentioned here since.


Something a little different also occurred sometime back when I was invited to serve as a judge at a local group exhibition. There were three judges and things went along pretty smoothly till we came across a painting that was really very well painted but posed a big question. It was the subject matter that intrigued us all. It was a portrait of a woman who belonged to a tribe from a very remote part of Angola. It was so different that we were inclined to ask if this artist happened to be something of an explorer. We were told she certainly was not. As judges, besides selecting paintings on competence and talent, we were also expected to (as far as possible) see that the show was honest as all the participants had signed release forms saying that the work presented on show was original and their own. When we saw this particular painting a red flag (or two) went up and we wondered about the origin and authenticity of the work.


Only one thing to do and that was to ask the artist how and where she had sourced the material for her painting. We approached the organisers and they in turn questioned her. She was adamant that she had taken a photo of the tribeswoman in the painting. We asked to see the photo. She refused. The painting was disqualified.


Sometime later it emerged that the original photo had belonged to a professional photographer who had made a presentation of his work in that remote area. This ‘artist’ had been at the workshop/presentation and had ‘borrowed’ the photograph of the tribeswoman. She then claimed that she had had permission to use the photo but the photographer denied this and said he had in fact been searching for the picture which was highly prized by him. The photographer and his picture were reunited and the artist went off disqualified and in a huff, and believing that the judges were unfair and no doubt villains.


The sad story continues…


I find it so interesting that people who do not ‘play the game’ ultimately are in so many cases found out. In researching this ‘Thoughts’ article and other preceding articles I have established a circle of knowledgeable people in the art sector and broader arts industry; and even in legal circles people to whom I can turn for information and advice. They have in the past and do come up with some amazing and invaluable information.


As I researched the current article the more examples of dishonesty in the visual arts came to light and I seemed to be only touching the tip of this iceberg. I didn’t even consider looking into well documented and high priced fraud. I did decide to send an e-mail to my group of friends and advisors asking if they had heard of any cases of plagiarism or fraud taking place in the arts.
The incident that follows illustrates this very well.


Recently some of our more socially minded artists organised a wonderful charity exhibition where artists were asked to donate a painting/s which was to be sold online and the proceeds donated to a very good and needy cause. Paintings from all over flowed in and it has been novel, high-profile and fun. It attracted and still is attracting a great deal of interest and the paintings were and are being enthusiastically received.


After I’d sent out my e-mail enquiring about skulduggery in the visual arts, almost immediately information started coming back including an e-mail containing two pictures. One photo was of a painting in the very charity show I have just referred to, and one of a painting in a book by a well-known artist who visits our shores regularly. It was an exact copy from the book but she claimed it to be her own. In fact already sold as her own work. Ouch!


I contacted the organisers and they were shocked and had no idea that there had been an infringement but they reacted immediately. The painting was withdrawn and the artist’s name deleted from the list of entries and a proclamation included in the conditions of entry that no copies or infringement of copyright would be accepted. In future any cheating or dishonesty would lead to instant disqualification.


Very hard but necessary.


So far the evidence of bending the rules or cheating seems to implicate the ladies, but very far from it, and in fact by far the most serious cases seem to be perpetrated by men.


The problem with the many of the e-mails I received is that they are in most cases uncorroborated, but they appear to be close enough to the truth to be viewed with concern. I believe we would be foolish not to pay attention to some or most of these reports.


The most consistent and serious reports are of Gicle fraud. (Gicle for those who do not know is a hi-tech means of printing. The process can be used to print one single print or many. The process is so sophisticated that it can be used to print on a range of surfaces including watercolour paper or canvas).
The fraud seems to occur at two levels. One is where the artists print either their own photograph or one lifted from the internet (as in the case of the first artist mentioned in this article). These are then printed on watercolour paper or canvas and then overpainted with gouache, acrylic or oil and varnished to create additional texture and brush marks and sold as an original, sometimes at high prices. The other fraud it seems is where artists are asked to submit work for an exhibition. This is all above board (it seems) and the work is displayed and is possibly sold and the artists are paid or the work returned after the show. Theoretically the end of the story but unknown to the artists their work has also been used to make gicle copies which are later sold without the artist’s knowledge.


Let me stress that none of the galleries I deal with have ever been accused of malpractice and I do believe that by far the majority of galleries are honest and I have little doubt that they have the same aspirations as the artists in seeing the arts industry being as clean and honest as is humanly possible; but that does not mean that such galleries do not exist. Where most run a tight and honest ship there are some (sadly more than we’d care to hear about) who would do anything for the unholy dollar.


I felt that it may prove interesting to go to the Internet and see what that produced, and so I Googled ‘gicle fraud’. I was overwhelmed with reports listed. Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself!


Now the question and certainly the point of view of some I have spoken to is that because of the internet, and the fact that so many images are in the public domain, they feel everything is, or should be, a free for all. There is even a lobby group wanting to dispense with copyright altogether. Crazy idea!


I’m afraid that perhaps my thinking is old fashioned, but because ‘things’ are out on the internet does not mean they are there for lazy artists or dishonest dealers to claim as their own. In many or even most cases those images or art-works belong to creative people who have ownership of them and are not there for fraudsters to use freely as their own. We are not talking about being inspired by ideas but literally stealing the images.


Already I can hear many of you saying “Yes but what about the Old Masters copying the work of their predecessors in the Art Museums or artists still doing that now?”


First of all the works they are copying are by artists who have been dead a long time and whose work is widely identifiable.
The copiers in those galleries have applied for permission to copy certain works and no-one can simply drag his or her easel into a museum and help themselves. It does not work that way. Rules do apply!


I have watched people ‘copying’ art in the big museums in Europe and England, even recently spoken to some of them, and it is generally part of a research project, or in most cases they only copy parts of the paintings of the Masters. I have never seen those copies up for sale. Especially passed off as their own with their signatures on. In rare occasions this may happen but it is clearly indicated that they are copies of paintings with credit given to the original creators.


It is true that if one had to stress all the time about being copied, and to refuse to use the internet just in case some miscreant was going to copy your stuff, it would be self-defeating. Few artists can function properly without some representation on the net these days. Still I find it abhorrent that many people who call themselves artists are no better than common crooks.


This aside, the whole concept of Fine Art is about creativity and self-expression, and the creative act starts with identifying things and experiences that excite you the artist, and which you can interpret and present to an audience in your own inimitable and unique way. There is nothing creative about copying someone else’s self-expression or experiences and then by some facile trickery pretend that sufficient changes have been made to call it one’s own. How naïve. How insulting to anyone with a modicum of intelligence.


Now I get back to my original question. Is the art community becoming no better than prostitutes, and some of the galleries and marketing structures little better than their pimps?


If the answer is no, then all we need to do is go back two or three years. There are few of you who won’t recognise the name because it is even now on every news forecast, on radio and TV in South Africa. That is the name Brett Kebble. It was not as if everyone didn’t know he was a crook way back then. The fact was all over the place and just about everyone was talking about the nefarious activities in the gold mining industry, and every time something devious or nasty came up Brett Kebble had some part in it. Yet, as soon as he announced that he was setting up the highest-profile exhibition, possibly ever in this country, with huge publicity and big prizes, the fact that the man was a rogue and not to be trusted, was ignored. The rush by many of our artists to get on board was positively indecent.




No we do not, and the answer to my friend’s question is also ‘No we do not have to prostitute our work to survive’. We do however need to get rid of those who abuse the industry and bring it into disrepute, and right here is a prime case for naming and shaming. I believe that when people are found to cheat the spotlights needs to be turned way up and trained on them, and if people are crooks and steal artist’s intellectual property they must be pointed out. If artists cheat by having photos printed onto canvas and then doctoring them and passing them off as original paintings with inflated prices this also must be revealed immediately. Galleries aiding and abetting these practices must be identified too. Let us know what they look like!


If prints are made and doctored this must be made very clear.


I feel if we can clean up our own front (and back) yards, the arts industry and our art will prosper. Like anything if we close our eyes to it things will only get worse.


Albert Einstein said something to this effect “Clearly identify the problem and you are half way to finding the solution” Let us clearly define the problems here and then we can sort them out. We can solve them one by one.


Do we really need the likes of a Kebble to fund our exhibitions? One also then has to ask where all our corporates are in funding high profile exhibitions. They seem to be noticeable by their absence, that is until they need a free hand-out for one or other of their charities. It is always then that the artists are remembered. I am amazed that they, Industry and Government, show no embarrassment at all when asking for free paintings or other artwork to make them look good. Generally at these high-profile shows the artist is scarcely remembered or mentioned. Shame on you corporate SA! Those that can generally least afford it (The artists) giving handouts to those who can well afford to pay?


If there was more honest funding and support of the arts there would not be such eagerness to embrace nefarious funders like Kebble and his ilk.


Is this not at least some of the reason for the prostitution?


It is so difficult for artists to get recognition, to be advertised or promoted these days that they will do almost anything to have their names and work mentioned in the media. The life of an artist is so precarious and tenuous that many live from hand to mouth. Is it not surprising then that they will do anything to survive so that they can carry on with their chosen and very valuable careers?
Frankly fraud and cheating are not the answer. Education and exposing those who exploit and abuse art and the artists is the way forward.


It is strange that the prostitution and cheating seems to be far less evident amongst professional career artists than those working on the periphery. Is this the case with other professions or does it just appear that way in ours?


Is it that the pro artists are aware of the damage that nefarious practices can cause, and the delicate balance of their survival, and that they know that any infringement can put paid to years of very hard work and study?
How often have we heard that Art emulates Society? Art is a reflection of our society in so many ways. Perhaps the way to change the situation is for honest artists and an honest industry to map out the way for Society from now on rather than the other way around? I believe it can be done if there is the will. There is great power in art and in artists and perhaps it’s about time that power was understood, embraced and exercised.


Do you believe what I have said is correct or is it better to go the way of the brothel?


Think about it!


Till next month….


Written: September 2010


  • Jose

    This is an amazing qestuion and I am stillt hinking about it but honestly historically it doesn’t have to be an either/or. There are a number of MoMA collected artists or visiting exhibition artists who were also illustrators. (love the have your cake and eat it too aspect of this.) Maybe not children’s books I’m honestly not sure but the likes of Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and Tim Burton. Wish I could have been with you!!!!

    • John Smith

      Thanks for the response

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