Art can connect to something deep within you. Or appreciate in value over the years. Legitimate reasons to invest.
Buy what you like...
When software engineer G was in Mumbai, an art gallery owner friend convinced him to buy a charcoal drawing. “By an up-and-coming artist,” the owner had said. G liked minimalist art, thought it would hang well in his monochromatic living room. A visiting friend took one look, flew to Mumbai and bought a similar one. She agrees it was done on impulse.
That little story tells us why people buy art. Your interior designer suggested a colour-co-ordinated large painting for the big living room; you’ve been persuaded to part with a portion of your liquid assets by a good salesman, by people who run art galleries; because your friends have art. It’s a connection to a dream. In the highest stratum, it is affordability, a sign of a lifestyle. You buy for the “I can afford a Hussain” high.
If you live abroad, Indian art reminds you of home. Indian art lovers abroad keep track of artists back home and queue up at exhibitions of recognisable names.
Collecting art has a long history. No museum or palace in India is without its large halls of portraits captured for posterity in life-sized frames. Middle class Bengalis left behind paintings of Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinker Baij and Bikash Bhattacharya as family heirlooms. Many houses now proudly display Ravi Verma prints picked up from ancestral homes. Art in some form, even if they were god pictures, has always been a part of our interior décor.
The new patrons are the corporates. Hotels, business centres, industrial houses and government offices buy art in massive quantities —as investment, as endorsements of star-billing or to promote themselves as people with artistic credentials.
Mr. Shah of Focus Gallery, Chennai, has this interesting piece of information. “Art students routinely buy old Indian prints for their jewellery designs. The ones with elaborate ornaments get sold quickly.”
And yes, there are those who buy because, for some unknown reason, they can’t live without it. They carefully place their purchase in a prominent corner because they are in awe of that work. For those who grew up with an artistic sensibility, a print is preferable to a poor original. For many, the appreciation comes after the purchase.
“The answer to why people buy art is personal yet so public,” says Priyanka Gupta Agarwal, artist and curator. She too feels art is now more of a commodity. Once considered a privileged possession, art has become accessible and people have started paying big money for works by up-and-coming artists. “An artist’s work becomes desirable if they find potential in the piece and see him exhibiting at many places.” Gupta isn’t discounting the power games. “Many people collect big names for status, image and to stay at the top of the market. Art is an investment for them. It’s where the spare money goes.”
Artist Ilango’s perspective, gathered from being in the centre of the art scene for thirty years, has two distinct frames. “Abroad, people buy if they find the work interesting or if it plucks their artistic chord. In India, 40 years ago, art got acquired to elevate status; 15 years ago because they liked the work; in the past 10 years both the desis and the NRIs are buying for the ‘Investment Value’.” This shift, he believes is why the cost of art has soared (soured?) and galleries behave like brokers. The new Pundits of Art, he snorts, misguide people into buying substandard works. “They tell you the price of the piece will go up in two years. Aggressive gallery owners and dealers may even say that this artist is old, he will die soon, buy his work, the price will go up shortly after his death. Will the buyer wish the artist dead?”
Ideally, you buy art because you connect with what you see. Your cheque then is a very personal, emotional response. Wendy Hermann, a writer, reported that her painting of a Dalmatian jumping and kissing a girl wearing a spotted dress was bought by a man with a Dalmatian and three daughters. “He saw a ‘connection’ in the painting,” she said.
Should we buy art? Yes, without a doubt. Travel in India must tell you that art has lasting value, never mind Shelley’s Ozymandias. Every piece of art, even a dated, inexpensive one has its place, for someone. Buying art is an enjoyable experience, particularly when you buy from the one who created it.
Read up, do your research. If you’re going in for a name, investing big money in art for whatever reason, make sure it’s authentic. Knowledgeable connoisseurs have been ripped by shady dealers.
Are there set rules to buy art? You should be able to answer this question: Will I be able to live with it for the rest of my life? Of course, there are considerations of price and the greed of investment, but ultimately the smart move is to go with your gut. “Artistic value is a nebulous thing,” says Vidya Pradhan, who features artists on her community website. “Critiques are arbitrary, critics can promote an artist as the next best thing.”
She agrees some pieces of art do transcend criticism. But to judge a work of art aesthetically — if the work is not an abstract — you need to know about perspective, light and shade, clear message. Can you do it? Judge by how you respond to it. If you enjoy it, why not? Buy art and mould the house around it. Or buy it to suit the furniture. Then fall in love with what you have. “ ‘I’ll look for the best one’ should be the motivation,” she says. “Then that piece of art becomes a reflection of your personality.”