Years ago, when we were buying Northwest Coast limited edition prints, our main criteria was often whether our budget could stretch to buying one. That is still a consideration, since although we have more spare cash than we did then, we are still far from wealthy. Besides, I’m born of Depression-era parents, so getting value for my money is as reflexive as breathing to me. But, the limited budget aside, I am starting to articulate my philosophy for buying art.
To begin with, I will buy nothing that I don’t like. I am not buying for an investment, even if it is at the back of my mind that in four or five decades I might be glad to be able to sell a few pieces so that I can buy the necessities of life. I am buying to bring a new strain of enjoyment into my daily life, something that can catch my straying glance or surprise me with its line or color or concept when I rediscover it in passing. I suppose you could say that I am more of an aficionado than a collector.
Second, I am not much interested in safe art that does what I have seen before. Some people want safe art as a kind of wallpaper, and there is no shortage of artists to provide it. But I want art that challenges or provokes me in some way. For example, one mask by Norman Tait has long eyelashes of hair that cover the eyes, giving a disturbing sense of blindness, or, perhaps more accurately, the sense of someone peering out from behind the illusion of blindness. The mask unsettles me, to say the least. If I can ever afford the mask, I’ll probably buy it, just so I can wrestle with why it makes me uneasy – and I’m guessing that understanding my reaction will take years. I’m fascinated with the surrealism of Ron Telek’s sculptures for much the same reason.
These two principles lead naturally to a third: I will not buy a piece simply because of the artist’s reputation. For one thing, buying work by artists like Robert Davidson or Susan Point, as talented as they are, is like buying Sony hardware – you are paying a premium for the name (or perhaps I should say brand).
More importantly, buying for the name means that you are letting someone else do your thinking for you, that you are becoming a consumer. Seduced by the name, you could just as easily buy a good piece as a bad, and third rate art by a first rate artist is still third rate. I consider art the antithesis of consumerism, so I refuse to hunt for art by brand.
That’s not to say that I reject buying anything by well-established artists. Currently, I have my eye on half a dozen well-known artists whose work intrigues me enough that I might buy one of their pieces if I find the right one. But I would rather wait for that right piece than buy something that pleases me less – even if I never find that right piece.
As a corollary to that third principle, I would rather find small masterpieces by lesser known artists than buy a piece from someone with an existing reputation. In the same way that I would rather discover a small, ethnic cafe with superlative food than eat at the latest trendy restaurant, I would rather find a largely unknown carver with superb finishing details or a quirky piece outside what a famous artist is known for than buy something safe and famous.
It’s not that I want a bargain, because I could just as easily wind up overpaying as finding a strong investment. Rather, half the fun of strolling the galleries for me is to find the unusual and go beyond the commonplace. Northwest Coast is an especially appropriate field for this habit, because it is full of newcomers, all determined to make their names – and many of them are succeeding. The discovery of such artists and their works is one of the pleasures of appreciating it.
Looking back, I’m afraid that these principles sound hopelessly unaesthetic, to say nothing of overly-suspicious and in the worst middle-class traditions. Tell you what, though: I bet that they give me more pleasure than buying from the exhibit book does for a dozen wealthier connoisseurs.