Pick up an Emin for a song

This weekend's skill swapping and hard-nose bartering reveals the art that money can't buy, says Annie Deakin

"You give me your Tracey Emin painting and I'll sing you a song..." Swapping art for anything but cash is the hot topic of the creative world this week. For the next three days, high profile artists including Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk and Gary Hume will exchange their work for anything except money in a novel exhibition Art Barter.

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Acquiring art without cash, through skill swapping or exchanging a comparative item, forces us to question the distorted notion of value that we put on art. A Hugo Wilson sketch for a Spanish lesson? A Gavin Turk sculpture for a holiday home? A Boo Saville painting for legal services? The  hopeful public will pin their offers to a bulletin board at the exhibition in the Rag Factory in London's East End.

Bartering for paintings has long been a way of currency for artists; Andy Warhol once traded a self-portrait for a video camera while Picasso famously exchanged sketches for meals. But what makes this weekend's Art Barter special is the caliber of contributing artists and the hidden agenda of the exhibition. For the opening lots, there is a catch: the art will be presented anonymously so bidders will not know whose art they are getting until their bid is accepted. The identity of the artists and winners will be revealed on Sunday.

"We live in a world where the actual piece of work itself and its message or beauty often falls second to the hype or price that is attached," says curator Lauren Jones. "This event will encourage people to value the work themselves, not for the name or price tag attached."

Art Barter is a rebellion against the unsavory trend of pursuing artworks for a recognizable signature or financial value, rather than for aesthetics.

Without money as a means for purchasing, what will the public offer in exchange for art this weekend? Contributing painter Ian Bruce expects the public to offer sexual favours and trips to holiday homes in exchange for art. "However what I'd really like in exchange is the chance to paint someone I really admire, like Stephen Fry – for me to have two or three days of his time to paint him."

It has been hinted that a Swiss taxidermy enthusiast and admirer of artist Polly Morgan's, may offer up his chalet in Switzerland in lieu of her work. Meanwhile, "there's an anonymous artist who has been given a grant to build the actual wing of an aeroplane through his council flat in Fulham, and is offering it as his work of art," says Jones. "He is hoping to get a big house in Chelsea in exchange for it."

Bartering, rather than buying art with cash, opens up the market to a more diverse crowd, not just those with disposable income.  Ultimately,  it gives artists greater exposure and  opportunities they otherwise could not afford. The traditional art market, which relys on financial exchange, is closed yet bartering gives a wider audience the confidence to take part. Bruce embellishes, "I met this guy called Jonathan Quearney (a fashionable tailor trained by royal clothier)] at a dinner party and asked him where he got his incredible suit. I soon realised that I couldn't afford to pay him for it, so I offered him a painting to decorate his shop. For me these are collaborative exchanges, in the way that I try and understand his art through my own painting, and vice-versa."

Does bartering for art belittle the work itself? Artists strive to be taken seriously and respected in the industry; one wonders if by swapping pictures for holidays lowers the art's value. Yet exchanging their work for items or services shouldn’t mean the art is worth any less. Let's not forget that bartering was once a way of life and that money as the universal form of exchange is a comparatively novel innovation. Trading without handing over hard cash injects fun and character into otherwise soulless monetary transactions.

Getting a Tracey Emin painting for a song may seem a little insane. Yet the notion of exchanging without cash is a very sane wake-up call to the often-warped value of art. This weekend's Art Barter is a great reminder that you can't put a price on everything.

Annie Deakin is Editor of furniture and interior design website mydeco.com.

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