How do we choose when it comes to buying art?

Stefano Pirovano

The eye is fundamental, yet not enough. Buying art implies a complex cognitive action whose real objective is the understanding of the artist.

How to buy art? John Berger wrote that when we look at art, we never look at just the object we have in front of us. As he puts it: “we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” It is indeed in this relationship, we would add, that we get to know ourselves and we “choose” the artwork. But what if our mind, when looking at an artwork, would seek to understand, instead of the material object or the concept in itself, the human identity who created it? In this instance our way of judging a piece of art would be clearer, as it wouldn’t be merely about choosing by following a certain cognitive response in relation to certain visual stimuli; we wouldn’t be that interested in the relation between beauty and mental pleasure aroused by observing certain artistic images (R. Ramachandran, 1987). Instead, we would likely talk about our ability to recognise an affinity, and that being so, to tend towards it. We would ask ourselves about the personality that the artwork implies. Exactly as it happens when people meet each other. By analysing how someone looks like, how they move, or by listening to what they say, we try to better understand who they are, were, or will be. Isn’t it true that ‘judging’ humans, hence ourselves too, is the fundamental measure of any human judgement?

Buonamico Buffalmacco, Triumph of the death, 1338/1341, detail, Camposanto di Pisa.

Let’s take a sidestep and try to observe what occurs when we listen to a song which is excessively dramatic, or ironic, or mushy, or overloaded, or solemn, and so on. Clearly the problem doesn’t lie in the drama, in the irony or in the sweetness as such, but in the ability of whoever is feeling the work to spot in such elements an exaggeration, that is a distortion from what our own judgement system recognises instead as balanced and, we could even say, considers anthropologically efficient. If the contrary takes place, thus if we are attracted, then we tend to the artwork. We choose it and project ourselves onto it. We identify ourselves in its elements, and we see in it what we would like to be. The harmony of a certain song, or its melody, is not our first concern. What we are really interested in is the human being that the song is attesting; or, to put it in other words, we look for the identity of the piece’s author, which becomes the message. T-shirts feature our favourite band’s name, not the title of a single song. We identify and define ourselves in the musicians, not so much in their works (John Waters, 2010). We never select the form per se, but our “relational” response to a given form, which could be visually negative, yet can’t be negative as far as its author is concerned. George Bush Junior’s artworks are first and foremost “by Bush,” before being good or bad paintings.

The concept appears even clearer if from music we move to literature. Besides form and what it expresses, what convinces us is the author as a person, even in the case of the so-called bad masters. It may happen that we connect to a single book. However, it is more often the case that we commit to an author according to the impression of them we developed through narratives, as well as through the narratives about them. The characters and their choices are, at the end of day, unimportant, for as much as the author tries to keep a distance from their own fictional world this would anyway be ‘anthropologically’ read as a projection of the author, and in this projection the author can’t really lie. They are what they are, were, and will be. As DNA is passed on from parent to child, so the artwork, biological child of a thought – or a ‘Meme’ if you prefer – bears the indelible mark of that same thought (R. Dawkins, 1976). Readers confronts themselves with those marks and then they may embrace them, thus transferring to the author’s universe a sort of vital energy. Or they can deny it, thus ‘killing’ that universe.

Going back to the core of our essay, the matter is not different for what we would here call visual arts. From Mark Rothko to Pierre Klossowski, from Joseph Beuys to Tony Cragg and, you may even add, from Michelangelo to Bernini, it seems that our deepest judgement regards ultimately not the artwork as such, but the author, whose piece captures the same author’s entangled vital fabric. We may want to unify with the thought the artwork stands for through a fundamental act of possession, even if only potentially (with regards to the concept of ‘unifying’ see both Pierre Klossowski’s Living Currency or The Baphomet).

At this point, however, a cluster of questions comes up. If it were true that we never ‘buy’ – now it should be clear which value this verb embodies in our context – an artwork in itself, but rather its author and what the artwork inevitably conveys about them, what would be the principle guiding our decision to buy? We are aware that talking about anthropological efficiency could be misleading – after all it is proven that not even economists take decision as economists themselves should do (R. Kahneman, 2011). Is this simply affinity, or should we grasp in this motion something more complex? Again, we are not only talking about your visual response, but about what you are willing to do in order to ‘own’ (or be owned) by the artwork. You could sacrifice money, or any other currency, including time itself, that is a fundamental currency in the arts. If our choice is placed within a temporal frame, and if we choose, for instance, Leonardo, it would be read that we are giving to Leonardo’s ‘intelligence’ energy to keep on living. And while carrying on Leonardo’s legacy we improve our way of living. The same Da Vinci’s code is Da Vinci himself. And the same goes for all those people who helped Leonardo to become what he was. Moreover, if we assumed that an art experience is generally driven by pleasure (as the art fairs’ flock knows), we would also agree that art must have some secret anthropological positive outcome, maybe linked to the preservation of thinking and objects. After all, isn’t God itself a piece of information?

January 18, 2022