By Clay Wainscott
How much is art worth? This is really a bunch of questions, and sorting them out should make any one of them easier to answer. What art is worth in the market might not be what it’s worth to you, and really only the second has real relevance. The prices we hear about occasionally on the evening news are astronomical and, like the price of an extremely rare baseball card, have everything to do with competitive speculation and almost nothing to do with art. The gigantic prices, for one thing, aren’t real. Chunks of wealth are moved around to satisfy tax accountants and using trademarked art like poker chips provides cover. The art part has suffered unless you like polka dots filled in by grad student apprentices – “no two exactly alike.” Except for the sensational prices there isn’t much to be excited about.
Art galleries one might visit when in a major city use a modified version of this consensus-mimicking mechanism we all succumb to in some degree –wired in you might say. When a prospective client seems to show an interest in a particular piece of art, he or she will be informed in friendly conversational tones concerning prior acceptance by important competitions and famous collectors, and that’s the reason, after all, we want so much for it. In order to buy a piece of art it’s formally necessary to listen attentively to four pounds of fluff recited like statistics in a racing form, and there are some who won’t hold still for it. Markets have their own imperatives, and still the most effective argument for buying a lightning rod for the barn is because your neighbor across the road just bought three, but it gets old.
Art might have real value to you, but chances are you’ll find it in the frame and not in its pedigree. Consider the art from your own neighborhood first of all. For a golden time, just as it’s beginning to gain acceptance, acquiring local art can be a bargain. Having passed through an era of neglect, some local art still exudes the authenticity of having not been made primarily for money. Art produced at genuine personal sacrifice, like the innocence of youth, expresses a sincerity difficult to fake, and that’s something usually lost to commercial success.
Price is another consideration. Art is traditionally handmade, and the value of a unique item from the hand of one individual is hard to gage, representing as it does an individual spirit and years of practice. When you do get to a major city check the prices in the galleries you visit and then try to assess your own reaction to a particular piece of art you find appealing. When you get home find something you like as well and check the price. There are some worldly folk who don’t take local art seriously because the prices are so low. They’re even better if you deal with the artist directly.
Buying a piece of art from a local artist could well be worth your hard earned cash. For one thing with your support they’ll have a chance to get better, and if they stay around you can watch their career develop. You’ll have an early piece. They make their art from the same general world you live in, and if you hang their art in your house you might find connections with others who like the work too. There’s also more of a chance you’ll see something by the same artist in someone else’s home, and it’s another reason to be friends. In any case, any original piece of art you buy now has every chance of attaining a personal worth to you over the years, so that if it becomes fantastically valuable someday, you wouldn’t sell it.