When I was up at the Fred Diesing School Student Art Exhibition a couple of weeks ago, one of the main attractions was the paintings of Sean Aster. I bought one myself, and joked that I had traveled north just to see how he was coming on the commission we’d arranged a couple of months ago. However, the way that the reactions to his work changed over the afternoon taught me something about the way that people view and buy art.
Before the graduation ceremony, when people were gathering in the studio, very few of us gave Aster’s work any particular attention. However, during the ceremony, Aster won two scholarships, including one that master carver and senior advisor to the school Dempsey Bob gave out himself. Twenty minutes later, staff could barely put up the little red stickers indicating a sale fast enough. Suddenly, everybody wanted one of his works.
This change had nothing to do with the quality of the works. Aster is a promising artist, especially for someone still in his twenties, and his work deserved the awards and the attention he got. But his work was no finer after the ceremony than before. Nor were people necessarily buying the biggest or most original pieces.
All that had changed was that the school instructors had got up and said very publicly, in several different ways, that he was a young artist with a future. Apparently, most of the guests had missed the fact before, until recognized authorities had emphasized it to them. Those of us who had recognized his skill by ourselves were morbidly amused (to say nothing of pleased with ourselves that we had arrived at our conclusion unaided).
A week later, I repeated the story to a Vancouver director of a Northwest Coast Art gallery. He didn’t get what I was saying. How else, he asked me, would people have known what to buy?
Listening to his question, I realized, more strongly than ever before, that there were two reasons for buying art.
The first, and perhaps the most common, is based on reputation, and, much of the time, on the hopes of a profitable investment. Beyond a very limited extent, it has nothing to do with an artist’s ability. For example, it is no reflection on the ability of either artist than an original canvas by Robert Davidson can sell for seventeen times the price of one by his current apprentice David Robert Boxley; Davidson sells for so much more because of his reputation, not because he is seventeen times the artist that Boxley is (although, quite obviously, he is his elder in their craft). This was the sort of collector I saw buying Aster in Terrace – for the afternoon, at least, Aster was the one with the reputation.
The second reason to buy art is because it moves you, or because it is well-composed. This reason owes nothing to reputation; those who buy for this reason will buy a $100 sketch from an unknown as happily as a $10,000 one from a master artist if it has the right qualities, and let the potential investment take care of itself.
These two types of buyers can talk amiably, and may even wish to buy the same piece. However, the motives for buying are really quite different, and quite irreconcilable. Secretly, an enthusiast like me can’t help thinking that those whose buying decisions are based on reputation are unimaginative, even a little crass, and buying for entirely the wrong reasons. In turn, though, I don’t doubt that the reputation-buyers dismiss us enthusiasts as arrogant in our naivety.