The Wrong Way to Buy Art

We should first expand on what we said in the introduction about a ‘wrong’ way to buy art. On first view, it would seem naive to suggest that there are wrong methods. After all, buying art appears to be a subjective enterprise. However, when we talk about such faults, we mean them in relation to a condition, of course. Our goal is to buy art for the purpose of inducing positive mental health and well-being. Some methods do not lead in that direction. They have other objectives. However, our goal is as laudable as those objectives because there is no categorical purpose for buying or collecting art. Sometimes people in the art industry confuse the idea of an unconditional criterion with what appears fashionable. This is because of the complicated nature of historicism, as we touched upon in the previous chapter. However, such people rarely claim that the superficialities of a present fashion indicate the spirit of their time. Instead, they tend to generalise about the fashionable as a type of eternal idea, based on a history of fashionable movements. As it can only be a guess at best, this so-called eternal idea of fashion becomes an imaginary criterion of value. As a consequence, it is vague and fallacious. Fashion is indeterminate due to historicism. It is bound up with other factors too, such as the history of historical writing and marketing, which means that what is seen as fashionable does not necessarily signify the actual spirit of an age. We have a case of some people in the industry, then, naively believing that they are writing history in real time, when they are actually creating sophisticated marketing copy, much as we saw with early twentieth-century art dealers. We should keep this in mind as we discuss six erroneous methods of buying art.

The first may appear self-evident. Purchasing art without knowledge about art often leads to problems and will very likely cost us money. Paying more for a product, when everyone knows its real price, makes us look foolish. We may have read about some collectors paying huge sums for vacuous artworks. Part of their boast, of course, is to advertise their financial prowess through prodigality. However, this is often little more than an excuse to cover up their earlier ignorance. In fact, they believed that the art was worth what they paid. They probably even thought it was a good deal. We definitely do not want to purchase like this, even at the high-end market. By contrast, we want to be informed as much as possible about what we are buying, especially when it comes to the price. So, the first thing to remember is that art has no monetary value until someone negotiates a price. If you see a label with a price on it, it is mere speculation or even wishful thinking on the part of the seller. However, if we are dealing with a living artist directly, we can check a number of fixed costs. This provides a method of quantifying the value or at least working out the objective part of a price. Artists frequently overprice their work (galleries and auction houses are worse, of course), but it is rarely because they are greedy. Rather, quantifying an artwork is complicated because it is often perceived to be intuitive, subjective, and potentially valuable over time.

A second erroneous way is to buy according to an extremely narrow criterion. This is exclusively a rational method of purchasing. The buyer starts with an ideal that outweighs any other form of assessment prior to viewing art. For example, some art collectors have specific ideological boundaries and only try to collect objects that fit within their parameters. Such ideology is often based on a theme, historical period, or artist. They start with an abstract and rather arbitrary set of rules then. This is why their domestic interiors usually look scattered, not to mention anal-retentive. The difficulty arises because we do not experience abstract boundaries or rules in an immediate or visual way. So, after the rules are applied, the sensory effect is random and lacks perceptual coherence, even relationship in most circumstances. Their art collection, visually speaking, is unmethodical and accidental. They are far too concerned with meeting the requirements of their system to think about collective design. Imagine being surrounded with artworks centred on a single theme or element with little thought about sensory relationships. This kind of conceptual repetition is uninspiring and banal. It is like people who collect everything pink or green coloured. It results in monotony. The method is fine for exhibiting antiques and memorabilia (stamps, badges, Victorian dolls etc) in a dedicated room, but it is clumsy when buying to decorate a home. The interior of a room should be the leading factor behind what art we purchase.

A third wrong way, and very much connected to ideological buying, as outlined in the previous paragraph, is purchasing for investment. It is associated with ideological buying because (at its best) it is often identified with a ‘valuable’ period or artist in the history of art. Positively, we should at least admit that a collector has minded to learn something about the artwork and its historical context, often becoming knowledgeable, even expert. But it is still clumsy to decorate a home with such pieces. They exhibit the collector’s narrow fixation, rather than a careful judgement regarding interior decoration. At its worse, and this tends to be normative, sadly, the collector is uninformed about the artist or historical period and purchases because an agent told them it would be a good investment, like buying stock on an exchange. Would they really invest in a business without first reading the company brochure for themselves? Sadly, the same level of care is not expended in art buying. Here we arrive at the artwork as status symbol par excellence. Yet, ignorance about what is hanging on our wall mocks us. Purchasing power does not confer ‘ownership’ of art. Instead, it must be in collaboration with informed buying. Purchasing simply for investment, then, ends in a poorly designed home interior. Indeed, it is not hard to spot when an art collector has attempted to ‘pull’ a collection together visually, usually in collaboration with an interior designer, because it results in a bizarre and unfortunate decorative scheme.

Another wrong way is to let someone else buy the art for us. It may come as a surprise but many of the most famous art collectors know little about what they are buying or have bought. This is because they often depend on art agents to do the research for them. Subcontracting in this way is not limited to the high-end market. It is common at mid-market too, where galleries or interior designers perform the role of agent. To some extent, we can understand why collectors do this at the high-end market. The art collector is usually an entrepreneur or high-level business individual, spending most of their time and energy focussed on business assets. They possess little knowledge of art history or the philosophy of aesthetics. There is little time to read journal articles or opinion pieces about the latest fashions. As a consequence, the collector hands over the decision-making process to their agent. Yet, in so doing, they also abrogate responsibility for their living space. However, the two main reasons why collectors waive decision-making is because they do not understand, firstly, why they should buy art, and, secondly, the important connection between their home and business life. Inevitably, an art agent purchases artworks according to some of the reasons outlined above, which results in a scattered interior.

Purchasing art simply to be fashionable is the fifth wrong way and connected to the previous fault. It sometimes runs in tandem with buying art for investment. In the past, a common occurrence on high streets was the sandwich-board person. This was an individual who walked the street with a placard advertising brands. When we observe people with branded goods, they are the unconscious modern equivalent, participating in viral marketing. Ironically, though we take online privacy seriously when it comes to advertising, few consider how companies use us like billboards. There is an equivalence with art in the home. Some people refuse to buy any kind of art unless it is the most branded or fashionable, even if the art is the worst example by an artist. It must be understood, of course, that all artists have good and bad days. Their oeuvre is rarely equal. Yet, the talisman-like quality of a brand often clouds rationality because it proceeds with a certain mystique, conferring, in our imaginations, special qualities or ‘powers’ on an object. It is an overwhelming illusion. In most instances, an artwork is worth little more than its materials and production costs, but, due to the ‘magic’ of a logo, we overstate its value. Homes decorated in this way, to put it mildly, are quite deplorable. Why turn the home into an advertising parade? In contradistinction, we should care little about the maker or brand name. They are incidental. What is important is whether the art fits into a decorative scheme and relates to other objects in an arrangement. If the art has not been considered in that way, it is best stored.

The last error is to buy what we like. We can think of this as an empirical method of purchasing art. It causes the buyer to select works randomly, often because something in the art piques their interest. At any level of market, it is probably the most common reason why people buy art for the home. Obviously, we do not want to display loathsome items. However, simply purchasing what we like is to buy without a decorative scheme in mind. Also, just because we like something does not mean it should hang in our home. We have to find a balance between liking an object and our decorative scheme. However, the latter should be the leading factor if we care about our mental health and well-being. It may seem unusual to suggest that we should not simply buy what we like, but it is a counterintuitive approach with extremely important consequences. Let us say, for example, that our decorative scheme has a lead colour of blue. It would not help our goal to display fluorescent red items, regardless of whether we think they are fun and playful. The shape of the artworks might be right, but the colour is not. Instead, we need to find pieces that have an equivalent shape but a different colour. In connection with this erroneous way of buying art, it goes without saying that we should not display souvenirs. We are all guilty of displaying these, believing that a wonderful holiday or memory is ‘encapsulated’ in an artwork. Indeed, when we look at them, we are reminded of the past. Yet, they have nothing to do with the decorative scheme in our living room today. Souvenirs may affect us emotionally, but neglecting the interior space misses a greater affective opportunity for influencing our well-being. It is just another example of a ‘negative trap’, produced when unhelpful motives determine what art is displayed. Alternatively, we must consider the interior scheme and formal role of art.

The reasons discussed above are some of the unhelpful ways to purchase art for the home. Remember, identifying them as ‘wrong’ is not meant universally. It is in relation to a decorative scheme and for the purpose of supporting our mental health and well-being. There is nothing wrong with buying art for investment, for example, just be mindful that it results in a poor strategy for decorating the home. Let a museum display the artwork instead, which is probably better for increasing its value anyway. Despite the unsuitable methods outlined above, there is perhaps one more that we should mention. It may seem contradictory, given that we have criticised buying according to a narrow criterion, but we should never buy art without a plan. Let us explain what we mean to avoid confusion. When we purchase according to a narrow criterion, we are buying without considering where the artwork will go and how it relates to anything else in our home. By contrast, purchasing art must always be done with a decorative scheme in mind and in relation to other objects. We should buy deliberately, not randomly, and according to a plan for our room. When we buy art, then, we should already have an idea about what we need. Instead of stumbling across a painting that impresses us at an art fair and buying it, we purposely try to find a specific type of size and colour, guided by the plans for our room. When people do the opposite and buy according to a rational or empirical method, they end up with problems in their interior space. It can look scattered and pointless, lacking unity. If we only search and buy works to fit a rational proposition - ‘I am just going to buy works depicting a certain subject’ - the artworks tend to jar in the home because there are no decorative connections. When we buy for empirical reasons only - ‘I will buy what I like or as a reminder of a place’ - a similar thing happens. The best method is a fusion where the interior space plays the lead role. We will now turn to this method and its techniques in the following chapter.

Extract from A Guide to Buying Art by Dr C G Barlow. Copyright © 2022 C. G. Barlow.

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