Op-Ed

Read This Before You Go to Art Basel

Art Basel in 2017.

©ART BASEL

[Follow all of ARTnews’s continuously updated coverage from in and around Art Basel 2018.]

Got your attention? Good.

Readers, I try to stay away from broadsides, but the following passage in a recent article on art collecting cut me to my core.

[Doug Woodham, managing partner of Art Fiduciary Advisors and author of the book Art Collecting Today] advises collectors to use their ears as much as their eyes. “They do not know enough yet to know what they really love, so they can waste a lot of money on infatuation,” he writes on his website. Before buying something that is financially meaningful, a collector should seek input from those with more knowledge and experience.

“Input can come from many different places: a local museum curator, other collectors he has gotten to know, an art adviser. He needs to listen carefully to what is both said and implied, because most people are reluctant to ‘call a baby ugly’.”

Mostly it’s these phrases:

— …advises collectors to use their ears as much as their eyes

— “They do not know enough yet to know what they really love. so they can waste a lot of money on infatuation.” [emphasis mine]

Despite being a woman, I’ve heard few more infantilizing things in my life.

Remember as recently as 2007 when people were talking about “buying with your ears” as a bad thing???

People: set yourself free! Go to Basel, which opens today. Go to Liste, which opened yesterday. Look with your eyes! Turn off your phones! And, unless sound is involved in the artwork, stuff cotton in your ears!

Yes, yes, ok, “financially meaningful.” But, still, a test: Does an artwork take everything you’ve ever read and seen and heard and thought— and thought you thought—and smelled and tasted and prized and despised and do something to it? Does it muddle the waters of your inner life? Is it like a perfume the contents of which you can’t quite identify but that seduces you? Does it pluck some inner string, producing a song you’ve never heard but somehow have always known?

But hey, after all that, if you still feel you need to consult someone, what can I say other than that you don’t know what love is.

This may well be a bridge too far, but aside from strictly financial advice—here’s how you write your name on a check, here’s how you keep yourself from getting ripped off—having some adviser whispering in your ear about every little thing you might do is not so far from watching nothing but Fox News and nodding along like a robot.

No. Not this. Not in the art world. As Bruce Nauman once said, “Get out of my head. Get out of this room.”

Don’t get me wrong. I know a lot of great art advisers. I think some of them truly are connoisseurs. They can put together a great collection. But please at the end of the day don’t forget that they are not you. Informed, independent thought is the way out of so many messes at the moment.

Sorry to go all Walter Pater on you, but I say to you, collectors, if the artwork involves sound, yes, by all means, use your ears as much as your eyes. But otherwise use your entire inner apparatus—every novel, every film, every conversation, every piece of music, every dream, everything that makes up what you think of as your self, and then buy the things that burn it to the ground. The things that get under your skin. Hey, maybe read some art criticism! And if you forget all that, just remember this: Provided you are not literally a baby, you know enough to know what you really love. As for “wasting a lot of money on infatuation,” if you don’t think love starts with infatuation, call me, and we can have a long talk about oxytocin and pheromones.

Do you think that when Gertrude and Leo Stein bought Cézanne’s portrait of his wife Gertrude said to Leo, “You know, Leo, we’re in our early thirties. We might not know enough to know what we really love.”?

As a dealer I very much admire reminded me this morning, “Wasting money on infatuation” is in fact how great collectors all got started, and many enjoy talking about the “mistakes” they made in order that their eye and taste be developed.

Now, I know what a lot of people reading this are going to say. “Sarah, you’re being naive.” “Sarah, the art world has changed.” “Sarah, you are not thinking about the investment factor.” As those of you who know me know, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking and writing about the investment factor. I know all that, and I’m still saying all this. If you’re an adviser, you might say, as a young male French art collector said to me at a very established older male French art collector’s party during the Venice Biennale while he was trying to sexually harass my friend, “Stop pointing that fork at me.”

Think of it as a gentle pointing of the fork. Think of food being on the fork and my not shaking the fork.

It’s your aesthetic life, folks. Don’t waste it.

That is all.

Sarah Douglas is Editor-In-Chief of ARTnews

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