Forgive my beginning this piece with what some may consider a dig, gentle reader, but a review in this morning’s online edition of the Torygraph made me think about what horrible things people have hanging on their walls. The television film being reviewed considers why some works of art fetch astronomical prices, and questions the motivations among a class of new elites for paying such prices. However what also needs to be questioned is whether these collectors are really all that different from the middle classes, when it comes to wasting resources on objects which are meaningless to their owners.
The Daily Telegraph’s James Walton discusses a film , “The World’s Most Expensive Paintings” that aired over the weekend in the U.K.: a sort of countdown of the ten most expensive paintings sold in recent years. Walton describes how the presenter, Alastair Sooke, takes the viewer down a different road from the usual fawning over the lives of the very wealthy which audiences perennially enjoy. Sooke believes that the people paying extraordinarily high prices for art are doing so out of a sense of exclusivity and a celebration of wealth, rather than out of an appreciation for the art they have purchased. Walton concludes his review by asking a hypothetical, “is this really a new state of affairs, or does it represent a return to a centuries-old aristocratic tradition?”
In many cases, the goal of the private art collector buying at the high end of things is to be considered a man of sophistication and wealth by his peers. The social class of the high-end players in the art market may have changed, from lords and ladies to financiers and entertainment moguls, but the game has basically remained the same. No doubt many well-to-do collectors appreciate the art they are spending fortunes to acquire, but many others simply want to be well-thought-of by their peers, and so buy what everyone else is buying, or what an art advisor tells them to buy, without really thinking about what they are doing.
Now let us look a bit further down the tax table. There are few things I loathe more than the meaningless, reproduction “decorator art” by unknown artists that one can pick up in bulk, pre-framed, in almost any shop carrying housewares. Such things are often featured on do-it-yourself television programs, where the interior decorator does a before and after on a room. I inevitably cringe as they gesture to the “art” (untitled and by an unnamed artist, natch.,) purchased specifically to match the drapes or the upholstery. This is generally where the middle class collector, regrettably, purchases the art that decorates his home.
Unlike the man of infinite wealth, the bourgeois is not trying to join an elite club with a high price of admission when he purchases a piece of art. However, if he fails to hang something over the sofa, his friends and neighbors would make comments about his walls being bare. This would somehow reflect badly on his taste, or his ability to afford something to hang over the sofa in the first place. Thus, the price points between the economic classes may differ, but the motivations really do not.
It is particularly irritating to see that this attitude toward art is so ingrained among the bourgeoisie in this country, who are usually more possessed of common sense than the newly rich. For the same price or less than what one paid at an establishment when one picked up new sheets and vacuum cleaner filter screens along with one’s art, one could purchase an actual, original work of art from an artist, a market, an online auction, and so on. It is not so difficult a task as people seem to think, so long as they collect what they like, and not what is being flogged to them as being hip or trendy, a kind of “must have” for those who have no idea what they are doing.
A goal of mine in these pages, gentle reader, is to try to convince people not to be afraid of art as something being solely the realm of intellectuals or the extremely well-off. Some of the rich may waste their enormous resources in buying paintings which they do not care about in order to fit in with their peers, but there are plenty of average, everyday people who, in their way, do exactly the same thing. Both groups need to make more an effort to educate themselves, and to collect better.