People buy fine art for only 2 reasons

Stephen Colbert and Larry David

Professional artists seek recognition, enough compensation to sustain production, and above all else, attention.  In fact, attention must be the artist’s first priority. We might hope to capture the attention of civilians, collectors, consumers, journalists, and gallery owners, depending on what type of art we put out, but only after we have people’s attention can we reap recognition and compensation.   Salable art accomplishes at least one of these two goals:

  1. Broadcast the patron’s high status to onlookers (the patron being the individual who pays for the artwork)
  2. Provide for the patron (or audience) a state-altering, emotionally evocative experience

Every artist must abide by one or both of these directives, because without exception, all successful art goes down one or both of these paths, and a work’s value directly correlates to how well it achieves one or both of these objectives.  These are the end results of art that most people don’t talk about. As economist Theodore Levitt said, “People don’t buy quarter inch drills, they buy quarter inch holes.” The reasoning behind these ultimate goals of art comes from evolutionary psychology, which generally indicates that if art did not (1) project status or (2) arouse the emotions of an audience, then our ancestors would not have passed down the human drive to create art, which diverted valuable energy from protecting and providing for the family and tribe.  Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate further explains how the instinct to make art gave our ancestors a reproductive advantage, but that evolutionary back story falls somewhat outside the scope of this article.Where Andy Warhol and might glean success and (usually) positive reception by excelling at broadcasting a patron’s status, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo are masters of moving their audiences.  An artist like Frederick Church might achieve both.

Goya – 3rd of May 1808

What happens then to the Social Critic artists?  They absolutely must emotionally stimulate the viewer to create successful work.  No social commentary-~in fact, no message of any kind-~can compensate for a work of art failing to fulfill both directives.  I’ve seen plenty of passionate painters who produced passionate social, political, or religious commentaries.  Every one of these painters holds his subject matter dear, but if his artwork does not bring to the viewer an emotionally evocative experience, that artwork ain’t selling.  On the other hand, artists who have produced marketable social criticisms have (perhaps unknowingly) followed one or both of the paths.  The most famous examples include Goya’s Third of May 1808 and Picasso’s Guernica.

Because a work’s value hinges partly on the degree to which it broadcasts it’s patron’s status, scale matters.  A painting’s large scale denotes the patron’s high status AND makes the patron/viewer’s experience more stimulating.

Also, all things being equal, polish matters.  Highly polished painting or sculpture denotes the patron’s high status.

For a painting or sculpture, meaning and content are less important than picture.

Notice that the artist/craftman’s reaction to his own work is not relevant here.  All things being equal, deeply personal work has no more inherent value than impersonal work.  This point may dishearten some who would wish art to be the unfettered expression of geniuses and dreamers.  The reality, however, is that creating high-value art is hard work, and emotional investment (that which the greatest geniuses, dreamers, and visionaries inject into their art) enlivens the work.  If an artist intends her work to be personal, she should keep that work in her personal space. On the other hand, an artist intending her artwork to stand in the presence of other viewers must consider thoroughly the value it offers to those other viewers.  I’m offering this success formula to rescue artists from falling into the trap of creating inspired but low-value artwork.  I believe that any artist can inject these two goals into her art-making and thereby earn attention while compromising little.  Some artists might have to spend years or decades developing the requisite skills to create high-value art that flaunts a patron’s status or high-value art that alters a patron’s state, but at least they’ll know where to aim.


Further Reading: Pinker’s THE BLANK SLATE

People buy fine art for only 2 reasons

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