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Why Art?

Art isn't about taking care of our physical needs--it's emotional and visceral and about taking care of our spiritual needs.


Let's get down to basics and answer some readers' questions. Why art? How should I look at art? How do I learn? How do I collect? All of the answers are ultimately intuitive, but are frequently clouded by irrelevant hype and noise.

Why art

What's so wonderful about art is that it isn't necessary. You could lead a whole artless life and never know what you're missing. Art isn't about taking care of our physical needs--it's emotional and visceral and about taking care of our spiritual needs. Art lends depth to our thoughts, context to our feelings, meaning to our foibles and glory to our triumphs. It leads the way, yet shows us where we've been. It documents our very existence.

For me, the very best thing about art is the non-linear thought it encourages. It's as if I can feel my brain experiencing, diagnosing and working to comprehend a work of art--a rollercoaster flurry of activity, neurons firing, pleasure mounting. I guess I'd call it a gut reaction--or maybe an interpretation of an emotional response. Regardless, it leaves me feeling not only wiser, but more capable of living, appreciating and solving the diverse array of problems and challenges that shape our lives on a daily basis. Without art, without the stimuli, without its catharsis, I would not be as competent as I like to think I am.

I also learn about myself by experiencing art. I learn my likes and dislikes. I notice how my taste changes over time. I learn about divergent ideas, an array of other cultures, concepts and contexts I would never have had otherwise. I am educated by art.

How to look at art

Just look at it. It's that simple. Don't pass (much) judgment on it. It's okay to conclude that you like it or you don't, but just try to experience it. Keep your head out of it as much as you can.

Start looking, and then after you've done enough looking to have forgotten the ones that are not interesting to you, ask yourself which ones were. What were the two or three favorite pieces that you saw? What, if anything, did they have in common?

Look at those commonalities. If there isn't any unifying element, don't worry about it--keep looking. If there is, acknowledge it. For now, focus solely on the things you like. In my mind, if you "like" 10 percent of the art you see, you are having a great day.

An adjunct way to learn about art is to look at art magazines. Same rules apply--just deal with what you like. Pick up a magazine, find something interesting and read about it.

Over time trends will emerge. Your knowledge will grow. Tangential interests will evolve, and you are on your way.

How to collect

You'll notice that nothing in the foregoing is about buying. It's about looking, learning and appreciating. Buying and collecting are a subset of that.

There are two initial ways to begin acquiring works of art: you can do it on your own or have someone help.

If you are going to do this by yourself, you are likely going to make some mistakes--i.e. purchasing things that are not as valuable as what you paid. This is OK, but protect yourself. Start low. Live with your purchases for a while. Learn from them. If a piece keeps on giving, great. If it doesn't, get rid of it. Give it to a museum (not likely), your temple or church or the kids. Move on to something that resonates. Keep learning.

You could also hire an art consultant, who can educate, guide, steer and protect you. You will make fewer mistakes, but what you acquire will not have as much "you" in it. For some people that's a good thing.

Acquiring art shouldn't be an all-at-once experience. It is about growth and education. Buying the work of a living artist gives you the opportunity to participate vicariously in that artist's career. Buying the work of a non-living artist is a different albeit parallel pursuit.

A good art dealer welcomes the opportunity to educate, realizes that a sale might not come for months, if at all, and still is eager to share his enthusiasm. Trust and confidence are very important. Look to establish a relationship with a limited number of dealers you like personally and trust. Allow them to educate you.

You are now learning from multiple sources; reading, listening and most importantly, looking. Make and keep the process enjoyable. It's about you and your interests. o

Paul Klein invites your input. You can reach him at paul@artletter.com

Published: June 01, 2005
Issue: Summer 2005