Sotheby's Talks

Popular Culture Has Demonstrated the Power to Redefine Luxury in China

By Peter Sabine

Inspirational Living: How Popular Culture Has Redefined Luxury in China was a virtual conference on 8 April presented jointly by Sotheby's Talks with Jing Daily, a publication devoted to analysing China’s luxury market. Jing Daily’s Editor-in-Chief Enrique Menendez moderated the discussion on the intersection of luxury and popular culture, a panel joined by Yuki Terase, Sotheby's Head of Contemporary Art in Asia; Daniel Arsham, New York-based contemporary artist; and Ted Gushue, Editorial Director of Type 7, the official Porsche magazine. The panellists examined China, popular culture, and the new established paradigm for luxury.

Here are ten insights we garnered from the discussion:


“Chinese audiences had some difficulties reaching some of the editions-based work that I was creating in the US.”Daniel Arsham, Contemporary Artist

Customers are passionate about contemporary art but sometimes certain editions are not available on platforms such as WeChat, which prompted the artist to create a specific platform called Archive Editions for WeChat and the Chinese market. For Arsham, they are a mirror of offerings in the US that allow for uniqueness and innovation; the artist created red packets during the New Year for the Chinese market as an example.


“People have started to say ‘new luxury’, and we've started to use ‘popular luxury’, which feels like a logical jump,”Enrique Menendez, Editor-in-Chief, Jing Daily

At the intersection of popular culture and luxury, a paradox has formed of establishing both a sense of exclusivity and yet being able to sell a high volume of goods. This has led to the creation of the term ‘popular luxury’. Jing Daily's sister publication, The Popular Times, uses this definition to define how luxury in all its forms is for all people of the time.


“We now almost have an out-of-body experience as a brand to see these things consumed through people that truly have not been exposed.Ted Gushue, Editorial Director, Type 7

The opening up of the China luxury market has allowed brands to engage in a ‘hyper new experience’ in terms of being engaged with consumers that have never encountered them, offering an opportunity for a redefinition of sorts. “Because of the way in which the world has opened up and become global, now we're seeing that Porsche's largest market in the world is China,” says Gushue.


“Twenty years ago the only art that people were buying were Ming dynasty vases. There was no KAWS. ” Ted Gushue, Editorial Director, Type 7

The globalisation of culture has made a large shift in the market. Chinese consumers are buying from across the world, and international collectors now value all types of art from China. How does the luxury discussion fit into this new paradigm? The pattern of collecting, which has expanded to popular art, will mirror patterns in the luxury space. Arsham sees new consumers perceiving value not just in price. "For me, it's really about two things: the level of craft and scarcity,” he says.


“Ninety-nine percent of Chinese clients that I deal with are age 45 or under, use mobile phones to look through art, and decide on purchasing without really seeing the artworks in person. ”Yuki Terase, Sotheby's Head of Contemporary Art in Asia

Young and digital is the way forward in this market. Browsing artworks is now done through jpegs, PDFs, or other digital formats especially with COVID-19 still in full effect. In 2020 with just about the entire world under lock-down from the pandemic, new bidders and buyers accounted for close to 40% of the total for Sotheby's in Asia, according to Terase. While China has been a massive growth area for many years, the last year or so has only expedited the process.


“Work is created independently of the audience.”Daniel Arsham, Contemporary Artist

While China is showing a huge growth in collectors, artwork should function cross-culturally and cross-language. Arsham rejects the notion that his works should be created in a localised way. The point of art is that it functions as a language that can be expressed without any need for translation, according to Arsham. “It's really focused on the ideas present within it. It should work if I show it anywhere in China or in Europe or the United States,” the artist adds.


“The demand and the collector base growth is rampant in Asia, and it’s just not comparable to the rest of the world.” – Yuki Terase, Sotheby's Head of Contemporary Art in Asia

In 2020, Sotheby's held more than 500 online auctions. Looking at just the top 20 most expensive artworks of the previous year, Asian (predominantly Chinese) clients bid on ten of the top lots, nine of whom were the winning bidders, according to Terase. Now demand in Asia is strong for both Western and Chinese artists. She compared the Sotheby's Hong Kong's contemporary art sales in 2017 with comparable auctions from recent years. Whereas in 2017 there were few Western international artist works offered, in just four short years the proportion of works by Western artists to Asian artists have become about equal, Terase says.


“Luxury was created by luxury conglomerates, and that basically has been completely thrown out the window or it becomes much more difficult to differentiate elite versus popular.”Enrique Menendez, Editor-in-Chief, Jing Daily

This process has been seen across all fields of creativity, including fashion, music, and art. The rise of sneakers as a luxury item is evidence of how traditional notions of luxury have been overturned and reimagined. This means that perception of value will also change as innovators enter the space. “It's definitely going to open up space for younger designers to enter that space. This is certainly something interesting in thinking about how time influences the way that we think about objects and also give them value as well,” says Arsham.


“One of the big shifts in the past ten to fifteen years is that consumers can take power into their own hands.”Enrique Menendez, Editor-in-Chief, Jing Daily

In the digital world, NFT (non-fungible tokens) are bringing back the power to the artists and creators themselves and linking up directly with the owners. And that is just one of the more interesting developments. How exactly NFT, still in its early stages, will alter notions of popular art and luxury remains to be seen. “In terms of the NFT space, the thing that I'm looking for, is the use of the medium in a way that can create something that didn't exist before. There's a lot of potential in the smart contract capabilities on the Ethereum blockchain that haven't been used yet. When the medium becomes part of the work, this is where it will get very interesting,” says Arsham.


“It is the most fascinating phase shift that any market will ever see in the history of humanity.”Ted Gushue, Editorial Director, Type 7

The process Gushue is referring to is the rise of important art collectors in mainland Chinese. Who are these new collectors? For some insight, Terase places them in two general markets. First are the second- or third generation of wealthy families behind Asia's business empires. Many of the younger generation who have reached the age where they can spend their wealth freely. The second category includes entrepreneurs who have built their own corporations and have become billionaires.

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