Archive for January 26th, 2008

My friend Bob Ley has been an art collector as long as I’ve known him. The office where he practices psychology is carefully decorated with unique paintings and antiques – mostly modernist, with a tendency to primitivism and abstracts, but all of them a welcome change from the endless reprints of 19th century impressionists or the bland corporate art visible elsewhere. “I’ll never understand why my friends will pay $100 for a print of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and then another $400 for the frame,” he says, “When for the same price they could get an original work of art.” After my purchase of a custom West Coast bracelet a couple of weeks ago, I know what he means.

Buying original art may be expensive, but it’s also very satisfying. For one thing, in West Coast art, at least, it means experiencing another level of quality. I’ve long been aware of the vast difference in quality between the bracelets and masks in tourist shops in Vancouver and the true art galleries; you don’t need the price difference to see the difference in quality. But when you enter the world of custom art, you discover a new standard altogether. It’s not that the art galleries are full of shoddy work, or that you can’t find quality pieces in the tourist shops if you search carefully. Rather, there’s a freshness in custom work that you don’t usually see in designs knocked off for the tourist shops, or even for limited editions. Custom work tends to engage the artist in ways that other work doesn’t, simply because it’s unique.

For another, when you commission an original piece of art, you experience the pleasure of being a patron. Besides the beauty of the piece itself, you have the pleasure of knowing that, if not for you, the piece wouldn’t have come into existence. The artist, of course, is the primary creator, but, as patron, you have a minor secondary role. On a small scale, you can glimpse why Lorenzo de’ Medici was such an enthusiastic supporter of artists.

Even more importantly, you can view new art with a clean eye, in a way that’s rarely possible with works firmly enshrined in the canons of great art. Short of a radical step such as the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, I doubt that anyone can appreciate works from the high renaissance like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the same way that people in the sixteenth century could. We’ve not only seen these works too often, but we’ve been told too often what to think of them. While some appreciation can be gained by seeing such works in person as opposed to in a print or an illustration, for the most part we’ve lost the power to see these works for themselves. With newer, less familiar works, we can still see the accomplishment for themselves.

This ability is important, because living with art enriches and relaxes us. A room designed by an architect of genius is simply a comfortable place to live or work, although many people would be hard-pressed to notice or tell you why. A room decorated with art that you can still see with fresh eyes has much the same effect. Both are at the opposite end of the spectrum from public institutions with deliberately mediocre art. What’s more, such rooms become more comfortable as people spent more time relaxed in them; the way we use room really can create an impression or aura that we can respond to (which is why I don’t frequent the coffee shop in the old gatehouse of the BC Penitentiary – there’s been too much misery, however justified, in the place for it ever to be a place I’d care to linger).

In the same way, with my new bracelet, I walk a little straighter and my stride has a bit more of a bounce because I am always aware of its weight on my arm, and the way it catches the light. Moreover – even better than an artistic room or a room full of art – I carry the bracelet with me, and can enjoy a closer look at the design whenever I want.

That, really, is the ultimate pleasure in commissioning a new piece of art for yourself: You not only have a unique relation to it, but your life is broadened by an appreciation of something breathtaking and new.

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