Thursday, July 12, 2012

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.


Anonymous Kate brown said...

here here!

7/12/2012 09:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please don't take this as a criticism, but how do you write everything here while maintaining your gallery program? Amazing.

7/12/2012 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

Haha, funny, because these are things that many of us said (and keep saying) years ago. Except we used the word 'read' instead of hear, I guess because we don't have advisers, so we must read statements etc... Finally the 'art world' is catching up to what many artists said long ago - that visual art is not the same as music, is not the same as writing and thinking. There are many parts in the brain, of course the brain is one and whole and all parts contribute to the one, but different senses activate different parts of the brain and through those parts penetrate the whole. We all know that music affects our emotion through the hearing sense, it activates the hearing part of the brain and through it thoughts and feelings arise. There is no value to music if we don't feel it. We may be told jazz is amazing and how smart the scales and harmony and rhythm are, but if we don't hear it we won't get it, and if we don't feel it nothing will convince us to like it.

The visual cortex is one of the largest parts of the brain, it activates the brain faster than sound or any other sense (the visual has to be compatible with the speed of light maybe?). Sometimes it acts so fast that we miss the processing stage, it goes right into the subconscious and affects our body and emotions in ways we are not even aware of. For that reason, it can be helpful to 'explain' art, so that we can be aware of those subtle nuances our slow conscious processing can miss due to the speed of the visual. However, there has to be a component of seeing, and that component has to be the most important activator when it comes to visual art, otherwise it isn't 'visual art' per se. It may be using the visual along with other elements, but it may be mainly intellectual art, or whatever one wants to call it.

7/12/2012 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Iris said...

Oh and I forgot to mention: there's also the element of the investment and the money question. The market has become more established, grounded. Investments are protected by all participators, including dealers, advisers, investors/collectors/buyers, and of course artists, in order to avoid repetition of mistakes of the past. Art that was invested in is going to be protected, and an example for this is how MoCA was taken over by an investor, who put his own people to run it, in order to control what the museum shows, thereby protecting his investment. This is what's going on all around, there are barricades around the world of art, therefore any major shift now would be difficult. Still it's interesting that slowly we hear this trend, we heard about it forever from artists, and now gradually from critics, and even art world executives and dealers!...

7/12/2012 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger John said...

I may step on toes but that's okay I'll try to do it in the most educated manner possible.

Parting with any amount of money is something that should be done with some degree of thought. Large amounts of money require more thought and in the case of art a certain level of provenance. The dollar amount shouldn't be very surprising unless the artist is still alive. Dead artists work becomes a bit of a commodity, there is a limited body and demand from wealthy can be a powerful force, so can absence of demand.

I think that well to do collectors use consultants because of their exposure level and broker/marketeer type qualities. Consultants have their hands on a lot of information and can see trends, artists, and collectors and help you make the best possible decision. NOW, if you don't like the way something looks, nobody is forcing you to buy it.

Buying art as an investment is different than buying art one appreciates. If you have great taste then perhaps you can kill both those birds with the same stone but most people don't have great taste or the time to devote to sift through galleries and webpages to find art they like. If you're working 16 hour days at the company you own, maybe you're better off using a professional to help you filter good from bad until you develop an eye for art yourself or a relationship with some artists that you do like and trust. If you would beat yourself up over a 20 or 30 thousand dollar business mistake, why would make the same mistake in your personal life?

It's interesting a lot of this still hinges on very subjective qualities (personal taste, gallery stature, artist stature, trust). I guess it's best to just be a good person and work hard at your end whatever that end may be.

7/19/2012 10:57:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home