Art Collecting: Learn While You Earn*
“The only time life allows for happiness is the present. Right now. In this very moment.” – Michael Masterson
Investing in museum-quality art will make you richer financially as the years pass, but owning that art will give you a richer experience of life every time you look at it.
Like literature, art can make statements and tell stories. Like music, it can stir up strong emotions. And like dance, it can elevate your notion of beauty.
This is the softer side of art collecting – and this is why I like it so much.
I won’t try to convince you of it now, but I believe that the three best ways to enjoy life are through loving, working, and learning.
To enjoy the people you spend time with, you must love them. Loving them – not being loved by them – is what provides the real pleasure.
To enjoy what you do in life, you must find work that is meaningful to you or you must find meaning in the work you do. Then you must work long and hard at it with purpose.
And to enjoy the things in your life, you must acquire things that are meaningful to you or find meaning in the things you have. Then you must devote your time to learning about them and from them.
It is that last secret to enjoying life that we will be exploring here.
Art can describe things…
One type of art that I love looking at is what I call, for a lack of a better term, descriptive art. By that I mean images that describe events and situations in vivid detail. I learn from that sort of art by studying the details and trying to put them together to arrive at an understanding of what is actually going on.
For example, I love the work of the early Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. I like the imagery in his murals and triptychs. I particularly like his grotesque depictions of hell, showing the many ways sinners will be tortured for eternity. (To see one of my favorites, do a Google search for Hell 2 by Bosch.)
I love looking at 15th-, 16th-, and 17th-century Flemish paintings of everyday life, as well. Van Eyck… Brueghel… Rubens… give me a window into a different time, a world that no longer exists. I like to see what the people are doing, how they are dressed, and the tools they work with. (For a few examples of what I’m talking about, do a Google search for Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden, The Moneylender and His Wife by Quentin Matsys, and Hélène Fourment in a Fur Cloak by Pieter Paul Rubens.)
Art can tell a story…
Do you remember how, when you were very young, you could read a story over and over without any decrease in the pleasure it gave you? That’s how I feel when I look at the work of figurative painters like Andrew Wyeth.
I call this narrative art (again, my term) because it tells a story. And like literary fiction, I don’t like every narrative painting I see. But when I do like one, I am able to get never-ending pleasure from it. Each time I look at it, I slip into a reverie that feels both fresh and nostalgic.
For me, the best narrative art is not explicit in its storytelling. There is a story there, but it is not obvious. Its value for me lies, interestingly, in its lack of detail – the opposite of what pleases me about descriptive art.
When narrative art has too much detail about the story, my pleasure wanes the more I look at it. Thus, though I like Norman Rockwell, I can’t get the lasting pleasure from looking at his work that I get from a painting by Andrew Wyeth.
Art can make a statement…
For as long as art has existed, it has been used to make social, political, artistic, and even personal statements. I think of this as rhetorical art because its purpose is to persuade. Examples that pop to mind are Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, George Grosz’s Grey Day, Frida Kahlo’s Diego and I, and Ai Weiwei’s Law of the Journey.
Then there are the genres: the nationalist poster art of WWI , the patriotic illustrations of Norman Rockwell and his imitators, WPA art, the Mexican muralists, the Chinese communist posters, the Chinese anticommunist realists, the American graffiti artists, etc.
In terms of medium, style, and expression, they run the gamut. But their purpose was the same: to promote an idea, ideology, or view of the world in a didactic way. Their work was meant to inform and enlighten, not to inspire or please.
And yet, many of them were masterfully done and have entered into the heights of the most sought after art.
I am fascinated by poster art but I don’t collect it. I do invest in the modern Mexican muralists and many WPA artists. The best pieces are out of my range. Those I visit in museums. I do not enjoy them for their messaging. I dislike overt messaging in every realm of art. What I like, usually, is the bold imagery and the colors. Yes, they are making statements. But if you enjoy the art, as I do, you can ignore those statements.
Art can stir up useful feelings…
In my collection of paintings and sculptures, there are a fair number that move me in ways that I can’t quite understand. Most of them are either abstract or impressionist, not realistic depictions of dramatic events or scenes. But the emotions they provoke are strong and consistent. One painting may stimulate a vague nostalgia. Another painting may prompt a bright feeling of hope or optimism. Yet a third painting may evoke a feeling of dread. I don’t know why.
I do know that I tend to look at these paintings on purpose – not accidentally. On another day, I might pass by an impressionist view of a silhouette of a black boat in a green lake against a yellow sky, but today I stop to look at it because I know, subconsciously, that I need a dose of the feeling it always gives me.
I might look at a small sculpture that I own by Henry Moore when I need the stimulus to be more serious about my work, or look up a photo of a sculpture by Umberto Boccioni when I need an aesthetic injection of emotional strength.
I’m quite sure that most people that rarely look at art would think that what I’m saying here is absurd or fabricated. But I’m equally sure that people that look at art regularly know exactly what I mean.
There are drugs that can probably do the same thing. But I prefer art.
Art is accessible…
As I said in the first installment of this series, you can get the emotional benefits of art without spending a nickel. Art is everywhere. Not just in museums but in restaurants and retail stores and public parks and even in the homes of your friends.
Art is also accessible in terms of education. You don’t need a college degree to benefit from it. The street sweeper in Florence, Italy, has the same capacity as the CEO of Ferrari to enjoy Michelangelo’s David. The laborer cutting grass on the Florida millionaire’s estate has the same capacity as the estate owner to admire the Fernando Botero sculpture sitting in that very garden.
Wealth, in fact, can actually be a hindrance to the enjoyment of art. I know more than a handful of wealthy people who buy art and pretend to enjoy it. They believe it gives them prestige. They fill their homes with “limited editions” from well-known artists, such as Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall. To that same end, they fill their garages with Porsches and Lamborghinis. I sometimes wonder if – aside from showing off their trophy pieces to visitors – they ever even look at them.
Having a college degree (even a graduate degree in art history) might help you talk impressively about art. It might provide you with the vocabulary to describe the technical aspects of a piece or explain its historical context. But it doesn’t give you an advantage when it comes to really seeing art or enjoying it in a personal way.
And you certainly don’t need a college degree to invest in it.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll tell you why my art collection has appreciated as much as it has. It’s the primary reason so many ordinary, amateur art lovers have acquired amazing, multimillion-dollar collections.
For now, I’ll leave you with this:
Five Good Reasons to Invest in Art
- If you buy smart, art can bring you very good returns, as proven by several indexes, including the MMAA.
- It is not hard to understand… especially if you limit your collection to a handful of artists whom you can study in depth.
- Investing in art – even museum-quality art – is something anyone with a middle-class income can do.
- As I pointed out in my last essay, art has benefits that you can’t get from a stock portfolio. It is, for example, tangible, portable, and insurable.
- Most important, if you love art, it can give you ideas, thoughts, and feelings that will enrich your life immeasurably.
* This series of essays gives you an advance look at a new book that I’m working on, based on my experiences over the past 40+ years as a collector and investor in fine art.
This essay and others are available for syndication.
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