Out of the blue…


I asked someone recently over dinner: when was the last time she had come across a work of Art she liked enough to see every day. She struggled to answer.

Many collectors today buy works without regard to display space. I have friends who frequently refer to ‘collectable’ Art; as opposed to “something to fill a space on a wall at the summer house but it must match the Sumba Ikat and the Louis XVI canapé…”.

What are the motivations to buy in an age when one is constantly bombarded with new images from a multitude of sources; when one can see, or reproduce, any image one wants at any time? Is the Artwork really reduced to no more then a collectible? Like an expensive version of those unfortunate Franklin Mint products? Is it buying rarity, just to boast you have it? It is hard to pretend you are ‘buying something you love’ when you stick it in storage. Perhaps some people still feel they are compiling that extraordinary collection for which every museum in the country will compete when they depart this mortal coil? Or is it just for the fifteen minutes; to be listed as a buyer, like the HK acquirer of the unusual Gauguin at Sothebys last week?

Someone please answer because I am suddenly at a loss as to why I should buy anything. Especially at today’s crazy prices.

7 thoughts on “Out of the blue…”

  1. Wonderful question- why buy art?

    If you collect to build a representative collection, museum fodder for the wing to be named in your honor, you’re a philanthropist How many of those are there? Who says their vision of a representative collection is a valid one?
    If you buy to invest, you’re a soulless capitalist who doesn’t understand art to begin with and whose buying sprees make jealous those of us who think we know better but haven’t got the financial means to back up our opinions on worthwhile art.
    If you buy for aesthetic purposes or personal pleasure you’re likely to be labeled as amateurish, without vision, and even worse, an old-fashioned aesthetician, the word by which some early 20th century art historians called themselves until everyone was made to feel embarrassed about the word aesthetic.

    It’s plain that nowadays buying art is an activity meant for a variety of people (of means) for a variety of reasons. But a particular point that always irks me revolves around contemporary collecting and contemporary art in general, which is, why is it silly to collect something because it’s pretty? or ‘visually arresting’, to make it sound smarter. Why not the aesthetic before the cerebral? The best artists combine both of course. Is it, as Ian suggests, because we are bombarded by the aesthetic?

    In the case of many ready-mades, installations and video art I’ve seen, it seems to me that if the artist is possessed of a clever concept, but does not have the means to execute it in a visual arresting or technically proficient manner, doesn’t that make him a thinker rather than an artist? A visual philosopher?

    Personally I wouldn’t buy anything that didn’t move my eyes first, and then my brain. If I wanted something different I’d go read a book or a manifesto.

  2. I continue to buy art even though all my walls were covered floor to ceiling (I’ve recently deinstalled our collection to be able to re-install again…the emptiness is refreshing, I have to admit). I also buy tons of work that needs framing, even though I know it will be years before I get around to that.

    Why? Because I want it. Because I want to support the artist who made it. Because I agree with the sentiment attributed to Warhol that the most sincere form of art appreciation is writing a check.

    Not that you should expect an art dealer to have a different opinion about that. :-)

  3. I must admit to enjoying the ‘cerebral’ attraction that comes from much totally un- or anti-aesthetic art work. One of my cherished possessions is a word piece by Carl Andre from 1972 in both black and red ink. This is not something that is visually arresting. In fact, on the face of it, it’s quite dull. Even the words, which offer a description of a trip in Mexico, are not particularly ‘poetic’. But I’m still fascinated by it, and I’m sure this has everything to do with my having been a student of Andre’s work for quite some time. What is more, I have almost no desire to “own” an Andre floor piece, not because I can’t afford it, or because I do not think it interesting or important work, but because, for me, it does not hold the same kind of intellectual charge. (Plus, I think to aestheticize the floor work, to pay too close attention to it’s visual properties, is to misunderstand its gesture.)

    All of which is to say that I don’t think it is somehow ‘wrong’ to put the cerebral before the aesthetic; and I mean the Andre example above to offer a corrective to the idea of owning, buying, or collecting this kind of work solely because it stands as a souvenir or some kind of memorabilia of the artist or of his or her oeuvre. (I can’t justify this kind of collecting, because what is of value is somehow not in the object or in one’s relationship with it.)

    But I’m not a complete conceptual fetishist: I would also love–LOVE–to own a Longo sun or nuclear explosion, but, sadly, those are a bit beyond my means, and they are works that are almost exclusively designed to seduce the eyes and to arrest–as in stop–the mind.

  4. At last. A thread not devoted strictly to the market. Thanks.

    Ian asks: “What are the motivations to buy in an age when one is constantly bombarded with new images from a multitude of sources; when one can see, or reproduce, any image one wants at any time?” Wasn’t this the impetus for a whole school of media appropriative art starting in the late 1970s? It seems the initial question of “why buy art?” can easily be extended to “why make art?”.

    In this regard, perhaps the best reason for collecting is to establish a continuum between creator and collector. Through ownership, a collector (at least one that I would admire) hopes to confront the same issues and enjoy the same spark that prompted the work. To share in a dialog engendered by the work. To enter into the spirit of the age, to experience something larger than commerce. The art object takes on a quasi-magical, spirit catcher status. This allows collecting to escape the taint of mere mammon and become an intellectually engaged activity, even as it supports the career of a particular artist and offers a vote of confidence. As Ed indicates (pace Warhol), patronage is the most sincere form of art appreciation.

    Of course, one need not actually purchase an artwork to enjoy it frequently and thoroughly. There are museums with permanent collections, available for daily pilgrimage.

    I tend to side with the conceptual over the purely aesthetic, and am partial to work which prompts my thoughts rather than being merely pretty. I am more willing to forgive a gauche execution if my mind is engaged by the subject. Of course, the best work satisfies on both counts. Jonathan brings up Carl Andre. I value both his concrete poetry pieces (typewritten on paper) and his sculptures. I own neither. In terms of size and price, it would certainly be easier to acquire the former. But recent shows in NY (a selection of paper work from the 60s at Andrea Rosen and, currently, a brilliant show of new copper and timber work at Paula Cooper) convince me that they are part of the same oeuvre, are inextricably linked. I derive a similar “charge” from both, aesthetically and conceptually. In Andre’s case, it seems impossible to separate the two.

    But to finally return to the market (from whence we all spring?), when a Koons Hanging Heart sells at auction for a cool $21 million after being purchased for $4 million just a year earlier, the very visible rewards for buying art are obvious.

  5. Right, Ian’s post is not entirely about the market, but is still implicitly bound up with the worries of a collector in a bullish period. As someone who simply can’t afford art in any shape or form, I prefer to fantasize about works that are beyond the reach of any of us, those iconic pieces that will never leave the museum wall or the art historical book jacket.

    As a voracious visual consumer of art, I too am falling prey to the whats-here-today-is-good syndrome. We all have to keep checking ourselves when faced with show after show of mediocrity and somehow hold out for the epiphany that comes from time to time. Interestingly, some of the works cited above in this category lurk dangerously close to pure concept art and thus (you would think) at the lower end of the price bracket. But as we all know, that lower end is out of sight at the moment, so I suppose Ian is right to worry about shelling out right now. My advice is walk around and keep trying before you buy.

  6. It is indeed a relief to converse about art instead of money. So why collect? Among the many interesting answers above, I go back to Steve’s: “to establish a continuum between creator and collector … to share in a dialogue engendered by a work.”

    Let’s push that notion: Collecting can be about more than just sharing in a dialogue. It is about creating the dialogue. Making it possible for discourse to exist. As such, it defines and sustains a community — the art world — and establishes membership in it, providing all the attendant social and psychological rewards. So construed, collecting, even at its least predictable or profitable, can have a recognizable function.

    I use the word “function” deliberately, because Steve’s comment called to mind the anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski’s research on rituals that are seemingly devoid of a utilitarian purpose or explanation. His study on the Trobriand islanders in New Guinea famously showed how their regular exchanges of jewelry, which involved perilous journeys across the seas separating the small islands, resulted in no economic gain whatsoever, but nonetheless had a larger function. These gift exchanges provided a reason for having interactions between the island communities, and they allowed the participants to satisfy certain social and psychological needs. In short, the give-and-take of symbolic objects sustained a culture.

    It would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine an art world in which objects were exchanged solely for their symbolic value. But I think that even in this resolutely commercial time, the art world has quite a lot in common with the Trobriand islanders. There may be no rational explanation for filling one’s walls with clunky representations of philosophical ideas; or for stocking one’s flat files with unframed images that may never be put on view; or for spending millions of dollars on large shiny objects made to resemble cartoon bunnies. But there is an explanation for being involved in a community that revolves around these things.

    The habit of art collecting may exhibit some features of an addiction, but if so, that would be what some have called a rational addiction — an addiction with a purpose. That purpose may be vague, or self-serving, or colored by financial interest, but it validates flamboyant displays of passion and consumption that may otherwise appear senseless.

  7. It’s interesting to view the phenomenon of art collecting through the prism of cultural anthropology. This thread might have begun with an examination of the aesthetic issues which (we assume) govern the sale and exchange of art objects, but András brings us to the consideration of an entire culture sustained by “the give-and-take of symbolic objects.” Perhaps this partially accounts for the arcane, ritualized behavior we find at Christie’s or Sotheby’s: the stiff armed swoops of the auctioneer, the upthrust paddles or imperceptible nods of the bidders, the phalanx of regional directors on their cell phones, the hush that falls over the room when new heights of consumption are being breached, then the applause once the hammer comes down. It’s not just a celebration of capital or connoisseurship. It’s the affirmation of belonging to a community, the call and response of worship in a temple, the heady recognition of participating in a culture.

    In ten days, this culture (or sub culture) will descend in all its sound and fury upon Miami. The attendant rituals of conspicuous consumption, of snubbing and embracing, of preening and prowling, of “perilous journeys across the seas separating the small islands”, might even give the Trobrianders pause. And one can only imagine what an observer with the sensitive antennae of a Malinowski or a Levi-Strauss would make of it all, trudging down Collins Avenue, notebook in hand.

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