Eyes vs. Ears
In a fun article about what it feels like to place a $119.9 million bid at auction (yes, I'll definitely have to live that one vicariously for the time being), ArtNews editor and publisher Milton Esterow quotes competing views on what's behind the confidence it takes to lay out that much dosh for a work of art:
One or two generations ago, [Sotheby’s executive vice president and vice chairman of its worldwide Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art department,Charles] Moffett said, collectors were different. “The mantra then was, ‘I know what I like.’ They made purchases that in many instances they would come to regret. The new collectors are well advised and not making the mistakes of previous generations."
Thomas Gibson, the London dealer, has a different view. “The majority of collectors in contemporary and modern art tend to go for easily recognizable things,” he said. “Say you have the only Mantegna in private hands. To many people it’s just an old painting. It has no financial power on the wall. They buy with their ears, not with their eyes.”
Don’t tell that to [Amy] Cappellazzo [chair of postwar and contemporary development at Christie’s]. “The market is extremely savvy and smart,” she said. “When you have a smart marketplace it forces everyone to be better at what they do. Buyers are buying with all their senses, and eyes are chief among them.”
Forgive me as I savor a moment the image in my head of buyers licking, sniffing, and rubbing their hands over a $100 million dollar painting to ensure it's worth parting with that much money... :-)
Seriously, though, I do have to wonder about the notion that buyers (and I'm sure Amy chooses that word very carefully, rather than "collectors"), who I would agree are extremely savvy nowadays, became so chiefly via their eyes. If that were the case, there wouldn't seem to be as many consultants as we see taking even very well known collectors around. Yes, even the most seasoned collector may simply enjoy the dialog they have with their consultants, but that too points to "ears" being chief among the senses employed in making their decisions. And the amount of time it requires to go around and see enough, in order to develop confidence in one's eye, seems incompatible with the amount of time it must require to actually earn enough to be able to spend $100 million on a work. So I do wonder....
But let's not lose sight (pun intended) of why we need to hope Amy is right. In what I believe is his first column for L Magazine, AFC's always-excellent Will Brand reminds us why "looking at" versus simply "hearing about" art is critical in determining importance:
Contemporary art's holy grail is the irreducible artwork, the painting that can't be described or transmitted, only experienced in the flesh. The art theorist Rosalind Krauss described this as art's "will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse." The rule of thumb, for most of the art world, seems to be that if you can accurately describe a painting over the phone, it's probably derivative.
In my humble opinion, importance in contemporary art, as I've noted before, can be measured by how influential it is among other artists. Derivative art rarely is influential (in fact, by definition it's been influenced), and so one could conclude from that, if you can accurately describe a painting over the phone it's probably not important. I would extrapolate from that to suggest that if the only reason you're considering buying a work of art is that someone talked you into it, you're probably making a mistake you'll regret. No matter how many hundreds of millions someone else is apparently willing to pay for it.