Some Art Market Psychology

We know what we like -- but not why. The part of us that comes up with rationalizations for what we like is not the same part of us that does the liking. The phrase “I don't know a lot about art, but I know what I like” might translate roughly into “There is little information about art criticism in my cortex, but plenty in my limbic system.”

James Elkins, one of our most fascinating writers about art and visual stuff generally, wrote a fine book called Why are Our Pictures Puzzles? about the fact that it's only recently, in historical terms, that individual works of art have been felt to require prolonged wordy explication. Tom Wolfe wrote in The Painted Word that “Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other words exist only to illustrate the text."

"Verbal” might be a better word than “literary” here. The word “concept” in “concept art” has some of the same connotations as the word “concept” in “high concept,” suggesting something not emotive and visceral, but calculated and blurby.

Don Thompson, in The $12 Million Dollar Shark, quotes some art dealer advice from Howard Rutkowski -- “Never underestimate how insecure buyers are about contemporary art, and how much they always need reassurance.” Can it be that these buyers do know a lot about art, but do not know what they like?

I will close with a passage from V.S. Naipaul's A Way in the World --

“The art collectors we know about and envy are the successful ones, like those who a hundred years ago bought Van Gogh and early Cézanne for very little. The people we don't know about from that period are the people who – perhaps with equal passion – collected works by contemporaries who have faded. I once asked a London dealer about such collectors. Did they get to know at a certain moment that they had been wrong? The dealer was unexpectedly vehement. Bad collectors, he said, were a type: they believed in themselves more than in the art they paid for.”

1 thought on “Some Art Market Psychology”

  1. Commenting on the London Tate's purchase of cans of excrement by the late Piero Manzoni, Robert Conquest wrote, "That this should be possible is not merely remarkable in itself. It may also remind us of the saying that the thirteenth stroke of a clock casts doubt on its earlier ones."

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top