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January 13, 1998

You Are an Art Collector

by Fred Marchman

You are already a collector. Folks collecting stuff is just natural. We collect sorts of things anyway, so why not collect art? People collect. We collect books, records, discs, friends, buttons, clothes, plastic gizmos, toys, gimmicks, cars, boats, coupons, shoes...We collect dust. We collect all manners of things. Some folks collect money. Some collect mugs, plates, commemorative stamps, stadium cups, knickknacks, Mardi Gras throws. There are those who collect antiques. And then there are those who collect art.

Decorating and collecting art are not quite the same thing. They can be the same, depending upon the tastes of the connoisseur. The notion of decorating involves relating the various components of a home or other dwelling as to the harmonics of its interior or exterior design. Function, tastes, trends, visual appeal, visual fashion. Architecture is the design of shelters and spaces for human beings to live inside of and to relate to from the outside in some aesthetic manner which is also functional.

In the visual arts we have the functional, the practical, the purely decorative aesthetic and then we have the notion of art as a pure expression or aesthetic intention in itself outside of its function as merely decorative. In that nether-world of trendiness which interior decorators inhabit, their needs to please their clients are subordinate to the role of the "pure artist," who is exploring new worlds of aesthetics and design, of social comment or personal expression or angst. An interior decorator's client or an art gallery client may not wish to participate in the expression/angst of the artist -- though he may. Nor may he immediately grasp the intention of an artist's newest or most recent inspiration. Though there were times when it seems to me that more of the public were following the latest groove of trip that the artist was into. And there are artists and collectors out there who are still doing this. They want to follow the crest of the wave of the avant-garde. Or, the collectors are willing to trust their inspiration or gravitation to a particular artist's development or message or style or whatever mystique it is that causes them to want to collect certain artists. Some collectors, like some artists, enjoy being on the cutting edge of "The New." For in American culture in general, newness is part and parcel of the progressive ideal.

For some art collectors, angst is hip. Hipper than this year's color trends. The angst of Van Gogh has a perpetual appeal that goes beyond the trendiness of interior decorating. The angst in Picasso's mural canvas, "Guernica," in its tones of gray, tan, black and white art appropriate to the serious elegy it narrates. The angst of Soutine, Utrillo, Modigliana, Pollock, Dali, Kline, de Kooning, Kienholtz, Gorky may or may not be obvious to the viewer. It depends on which of their works one is looking at. But in general, these artists are known for their angst. And their works have become highly collectable. And, I would suggest, even have become highly decoratively desirable as well. These are artists who may well be termed "museum artists" in contrast to conservative collectors who perhaps do not choose to live with works of angst

Can angst be decorative? Apparently so. Especially when such art represents a good investment. Now we come to another motive for collecting art that has less to do with decorating or aesthetic and more to do with speculating on the value of an object of art, in hopes that it may increase in dollar value with time. Looking at art in this way is no different than playing the stock market. And here we approach one of the major stumbling blocks in Art for the living artist: The value and collectableness of the dead artists.

There are some persistent myths about Art in the collective unconscious of humanity that are highly detrimental to the welfare of living artists. One of these myths has to do with the dollar value of an artist's work during his lifetime. This annoying and persistent myth states that an artist's work cannot truly receive the assessment of its material value until such time as that artist passes away to the Other Side. But what props up this fraudulent myth? (For it does not always work this way. Picasso was a millionaire during his lifetime as have been some others.) It is illogical this myth of the dead artist's work only gaining value when he or she is deceased. Certainly this lag does not occur in technology. The public is quick to glom on to the latest trends in mechanical, electronic, automobile design, new tools, updated software, clothing fashions, music trends, and the endless array of consumer stuff hawked at us through television, print media, radio and the endlessly quirky hustles of advertising's frantic charades to attract our attention and our money.


Next issue: What separates the collector of art from one who is merely viewing art for its decorative value.


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