Reviews & Articles
收藏藝術的藝術 | The Art of Art Collecting
at 12:03pm on 22nd May 2018
2017年參觀香港Art Basel展覽的觀眾，檢視台灣藝術家石晉華的《行路一公里》，這是一次概念的行為表演，畫作並附設解說的視頻短片。/ Visitors to Art Basel Hong Kong in 2017 inspecting Taiwanese artist Shi Jin-Hua's A 100km Walk; a conceptual performance and drawing with an explanatory video.
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這個周末，數以千計的藝術家、藝術策展人、博物館人員和藝術行政人員從世界各地飛抵香港出席Art Basel，是全球其中一個最大型的藝術展銷會。香港的Art Basel與在瑞士巴塞爾和美國邁亞美舉行的展銷會焦點一致，為參與畫廊向主要受眾––藝術收藏家––出售藝術提供有利環境。
The Art of Art Collecting
By John Batten
Thousands of artists, art curators, museum staff and art administrators flew into Hong Kong this week to attend Art Basel, one of the world’s largest art fairs. The Hong Kong edition of Art Basel joins similar editions in Basel, Switzerland and in Miami, USA. Each fair has a focus to provide a conducive environment for participating galleries to sell art to their main audience: art collectors.
The art market, as explained by art galleries, auction houses and art fair marketing departments, breezily refer to ‘art collectors’ as if they are a homogenous, like-minded lot. Galleries will refer to “our collectors” and will reference this anonymous group to explain, for example, art market trends. Artists may refer to “my art collectors” as if they are a supportive group of individuals with whom they have a long-standing and friendly relationship – and in some cases they might. Usually, however, galleries and auctions houses keep the names of art buyers secret and collectors are unknown to artists.
Newspaper and media reports of high-priced art sales rarely name the purchaser of an art piece. Not surprisingly, buyers at the high-end of the market wish discretion. In such sales, the buyer – despite being nameless – is still honoured by such a high-priced sale. Giving lip-service to secrecy, juicy media speculation can be embellished, but still not be confirmed, with the words: “it is believed that the buyer is….”
But the esteem for art buyers is through the twisted simplicity of being referred, not simply as an art buyer, but as an art collector. An art collector has social status and is seen to be contributing to the cultural health of a place.
In art’s long recent history, art was predominantly produced and art collections were built through a patronage system of support. China’s imperial dynastic workshops produced art objects, paintings and beautiful ceramic pieces by artisans on order for the ruling Chinese court and their influential retainers and administrators. Likewise, aristocratic ruling houses and religious institutions across Europe contracted artists and patronized their work in the 15th and 16th-century. The opening of dedicated sailing trade routes around the world after the 17th-century and the rise of more sophisticated banking systems saw guilds and business leaders become the patrons of generations of artists whose work now fills museums around the world.
Under these patronage systems, an artist’s work was predominantly religious, memorials of events (e.g. military victories) and of people (group, individual and ancestor portraiture). However, the Chinese literati class had a significantly longer history of pure aesthetic appreciation. A similar European appreciation for beauty and landscape (and later, art experimentation) evolved with the industrial revolution in the 19th-century and, in tandem, a diverse free market allowed a more fluid and freer relationship, rather than just tutelage, between artist and art patron.
The beginnings of an art market, as we know it, began around this time: through primary market art galleries and dealers exhibiting and selling the work of living artists alongside auction houses dealing in secondary sales. Art collecting was still seen as a privileged activity – but a capitalist free market allowed variety and different price points for art to be bought by anyone that loved and wished to buy art, rather than just by the aristocracy, royalty and religious orders.
That is generally the situation now. Anyone can be an art collector. But, not everyone is – simply, everyone has their own interests, priorities and choices on how and how not to spend their money.
Buying art is a recreational activity, similar to attending a musical concert, a sporting event or just walking for exercise. The intensity of involvement in art collecting is not determined by wealth, but by interest. It is determined by a commitment to visiting art exhibitions, reading about art, and making an individual and intellectual assessment of what is seen. A collection of art is best built over time (never quickly) and focused in subject, or concentrated on a period of time, an art movement or a particular artist – this approach can lead to an art collection of significance.
A factor that muddies much debate about art and art collecting is ‘investment’. Despite the persistent efforts of telephone cold-calling art investment consultants (who should be firmly told not to ring back), art is not an investment. Art is a fickle, illiquid asset with no intrinsic value.
Art - its beauty, anger, and expression of a moment in time or of universal emotions and of ideas that it expresses - should be the motivation for collecting art. An art collector should be immune to fashion and ignore an art market’s noise about ‘hot’ or ‘name’ artists. A collection of name artists suggests a lazy approach to art collecting. It is merely trophy hunting for a trophy art collection.
Much more admirable and challenging is to build a considered art collection by judging artists on their ability and sense of originality. This is a challenge (in an age when almost everything is derivative of an earlier art idea), but not so difficult when a collector has an open mind, and builds their knowledge through an astute sense of art history. Through this process, art collectors are a layer of the art world (alongside artists’ friends, and museums and other institutional support) that also contribute monetary backing for artists to achieve their continuing creativity.
This article was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly on 31 March 2018.