As I wrote a few months ago, how a building is used can create an atmosphere. A hospital, for instance, nearly always make you uncomfortable, even if you are not involved in anything going on there. After thinking for a couple of weeks, I can think this same truism helps to explain the appeal of buying art.
For me, buying art is not an investment. Nor is it a hobby like collecting coins or stamps, in which you try to collect a complete set. Still less is it a sense of ownership; I firmly believe, for instance, that you should not buy art that you have no room to display properly, which is why we wouldn’t buy a Northwest Coast button blanket – even if we could afford it. We simply don’t have the fifty square feet of wall space to display one properly.
Instead, buying art is an effort – a slow, piece by piece one, in our case – to transform the atmosphere of our living space. Consciously or unconsciously, everyone does something similar if they live in one place long enough.
But, in most cases, furnishings are chosen because they are comforting or show an awareness of the latest trend. You find very few people, even interior designers, who create rooms that are a bold statement of personality or aspirations.
About the closest you usually get to such a declaration are the people who buy an antique house and spend years living with sawdust and the noise of construction until they have refurbished it into as close a replica of the original as modern tastes can stand. In effect, such people make the house itself a work of art.
Living in a townhouse, I’m not in a position to do that. Nor do I have the tolerance for breathing dust and living with table saws and lathes for years on end. But, what I can do is decorate my living space with what I think is the most inspirational or provocative art that I can afford.
Some of the art that we have bought or hoped to buy is not comfortable – some of it makes people whose idea of decorating is pretty pictures very uneasy. But what it all has in common is that it is the product of the human mind at its best, If some of it is challenging, that is all the better, so far as I am concerned. I want to be challenged and inspired by the best as I go about my daily business. I don’t want merely pretty pictures.
In fact, I am convinced that you are better for surrounding yourself by art. Where a prison or a hospital upsets, art soothes and relaxes. It makes you more observant as, living with a piece day by day, you slowly unravel the secret of why it is a triumph of design. It also, I find, inspires you to live up to it, not only in little ways, like trying to keep the place neater so it is a suitable environment for the art, but also in large ways by challenging you to do your best in your work or pastimes, to make yourself worthy of your surroundings.
That is why those who think that art is only the concern of a small elite, as well as those who mistake art for fashion are both wrong. Art, like exercise, is good for everybody, and you can’t replace excellence with conformity. Really, it’s as simple as that.