How Does the Art You Own Fit into History?

Regaining the Big Concept

So in the Blog titled “What Drives Us to Make Art?”, we covered the motivations for artists making art. On the other side is the person who buys an artwork: a collector. Collecting is a demanding thing to do, as not only are you examining yourself and your choices, but you are also, indirectly, engaging with another human, the artist, at an inner level that reveals much of yourself to you. Just as son Number Four revealed a piece of himself in his choice of Legos and his undeterred assembly of them, you are showing yourself and the world part of who you are by your choice of artwork.

Sometimes, it is simple to buy a work of art. More often than not, the person is shopping for a piece of artwork to compliment the décor of their home. Subject, theme, or design need to flow into the setting from the art so that some harmony is created. Shapes, textures, and especially colors need to fit into the situation, and the final judgment of all of those considerations is up to the buyer. Most often, the artwork will reside in that spot for many years. In fact, you will change your clothes, hair styles, car, food choices and so much more quite frequently, but that artwork will be there over time, rising to your expectations, or not.

If you’re a collector, your latest choices may get the stage, and the earlier choices may end up in the secondary art auction market. You will not forget the ones you sold or put in the closet, due to their ability settle into your mind, and more rarely, your heart.

Art Buyers with Expanding Motivations

While the majority of people buy an occasional artwork, their needs are dramatically different from a person who develops anything from a minor to an overwhelming passion for art. Once they go down that road, the need for the painting to fit into the décor becomes less important, the painting will outlast the furniture, and sooner than you know, the furniture and walls are changed and arranged to accommodate the fledgling collection of more than one or two artworks.

If you keep that up, you’ll run out of wall space and decide to occasionally rotate some art to the closet, and those in the closet back to the walls. You increasingly go to galleries, art museums, and learn more from publications and online. You become more knowledgeable and gutsy about speaking to artists and curators, and ultimately hope to get to know one or more of the artists whose work you own.

The artists are interesting, and often their lives are engaging, so you start buying periodically from one or maybe even a few of your favorite artists. Then a curator gets to know you, asks to see your still moderate or small collection, and congratulates you for having developed your own unique taste and interest in specific artists or group of artworks. Officially, you are now a real collector, even if you are buying very affordable art, and only through outdoor art fairs.

Even if you only own a single artwork, or something as inexpensive as a poster, you are already discovering your own uniqueness by reacting strongly to certain aesthetic things and not to others. Accepting this premise is crucial to a value you can get from my next story.

Art as a Lasting Tangible Object

The art world is varied, from artists having the most humble behavior and expectations to the most vaulted, to others who define themselves by a sense of self-superiority. Those three states are not just connected to the individual’s pocketbook. People and behaviors at the lower rung can also be distressing to the fair-minded objective thinker. It is true that art in museums is presumed to be great currently, in the past if that applies, and presumably in the long term future. We can more easily accept the judgments made by institutions when seeing the works of the past that still engage in the present.

Taking a theater example, Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” or “Romeo and Juliet” still vibrate the soul today for almost everyone, though they were written centuries ago. And while “Guernica”, Picasso’s famous mural depicting the horrors of war is less than a century old, one can easily understand why it too will still be sought after in another half of a millennium. A big question is, how will artworks of very recent or contemporary creation fare over extended time? Many will tank. A music example is helpful to our understanding the gap between appreciation now and in the future.

Handel’s “Messiah” found life in the 18th Century, and today can be heard performed and is recognized practically everywhere in the world. It speaks to ideas, spirituality, motifs, and metaphors that are generic to humans anywhere and at most anytime in history. It was popular when it was written, very popular now, and will likely remains say so for more centuries.

Handel’s contemporary, J. S. Bach, in some ways exceeded Handel’s depth of probing the music medium, and today they both compete for the world’s attention equally and are loved by billions of humans. Oddly, Bach’s several composer sons, though nowhere close to their father’s uncanny invention, got far more attention in Europe than their father did. Short of the efforts of two people who worked to rescue his brilliance from a dark attic, his music might still be buried, and those solo cello suites played by every cellist (and other compositions) may still be lost to the public of today.

The first savior was Anna Magdalena, Bach’s wife, who decided her husband’s hand-written manuscript was impossible to read, so she redid it all in her elegant penmanship. Currently, a majority of historians claim she “cleaned up” some of the manuscripts to sell, because Bach’s death and the laws at the time left her destitute. Nevertheless, one way or another, Bach’s original or his wife Anna’s versions did not go into someone’s trash bins, despite some writers’ claims to that effect. We all can see the importance of at least the storing of such artifacts.

One hundred years later, Bach’s collected compositions would eventually be seen as manuscripts and heard at performances by the whole world, because all of his manuscripts are contained in vast large bound volumes known as the Bach Gessellschaft. A society was created only to get Bach’s collected works published and they took the manuscripts and turned them into volumes, and published them in in 1851. For over a century now, the Gesellschaft can be viewed in the music schools of many universities and conservatories.


The other person was the almost equally famous composer Felix Mendelssohn, who in 1829 brought the German public’s attention back to J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) by conducting Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”, which elicited an overwhelming response, and the rest is history. Mendelssohn was only twenty years old on that famous day. And here is where the newbie art collector, possibly you, comes in to play.

As the Library of Congress explains it, Mendelssohn’s elders had collected various ephemera of Bach’s.

The details of how the very young boy Felix came to know how important his elders thought Bach’s work are flushed out neatly on the Library’s website. (Please see for details.) What we can learn from these stories is that great work can be ignored, even buried, but it is due to the care and interest of non-professional people who simply loved and cared about that artist that provided the work’s eventual discovery, to the point where it is an inspiration for the majority of the world’s population today.

Imagine that an artist you enjoy now is not anywhere in terms of local admiration, or market acceptance, or even reputation within the art medium. But you like that person’s work, are convinced it is special entirely from your own feeling, don’t care what other people think, and maybe you will want more of that person’s work. Somehow the art you collected survives a century, comes to light, and then is celebrated. Wouldn’t it be a fine thing? And though you may not be around at that time, just being able to imagine that possibility and your role in it is an amazing inner reward. So take heart from, and indulge yourself in, collecting a little or a lot, while refining your choices, appreciation, and understanding, as you go along.

The Newbie Collector Was Once Me

And here is a final story of myself, cast in the newbie collector role.

In the earliest years of my art career, I managed to make some images on a cheapo camera of city scenes in my neighborhood. They were ordinary, but surprisingly had something, so a gallery offered me my fist exhibit ever, a solo one in another state. Encouraged, I entered the Lakefront Festival of the Arts, a large, museum-run festival with many artists’ booths. In 1970, they added fine art photography to the mediums that could apply for a booth over their 3-day weekend.

I got in, exhibited outdoors (with no overhead protection), and won the first photography award handed out by this festival. Of course, I enthusiastically had a booth the next year too. The booths on either side of me were taken by two artists who were art professors at the University of Wisconsin, and very celebrated statewide (in contrast to me, the new beginner).

On one side was an artist who would go on to become known worldwide, have his art in the permanent collections of many U.S. museums, and be recognized historically. On the other was Warrington Colescott, the printmaker who had helped establish his university as one of the leading art departments for that media.

I like printmaking because, like photography, there is a little machinery involved in the form of the print roller and other tools. Like photography today, the art is made in editions, meaning a number of copies are made. I liked Professor Colescott’s imagery, and asked the cost, which was $150, framed. The price was sort of doable for the time, despite my very small budget. (That year average family income per year was less than $7,000.) I said I wanted one, and he said, which one?

Hmmm, I liked them all, but one called “St. Valentine’s Day” got my attention, partly because of its historical reference. The Colescott artwork held a wall space in our house for more than fifteen years and finally got rotated to a closet, where it resided in storage for another quarter century. But in early 2019, it appeared again and hangs at this moment in the front hallway.

Now and then, I wondered what became of Colescott, and if he had become more widely collected and known. I had last seen him in 2005, and he did remember that moment at the Lakefront Festival. Today, his personal history can be researched successfully on line, and yes, he did become more broadly known and collected.

A few years before the new appearance in our current home, I spotted a Colescott permanently hanging in the Detroit Institute’s print room area. This museum has a terrific permanent collection, a tribute to the automotive wealth and largess of the auto industry’s leaders. A Colescott at that museum means the Colescott I have, a print in an edition of hundred (and mine is an artist proof), is worth a gulp more than the inflated value of my $150.

Theoretically, a proof is worth less than a numbered one, because in the actual runoff the numbered prints may contain some small fixes after the artist reviewed the proof. Usually, artists make one or two proofs. In my reasoning, the proof itself is special, because it is only one of a few, and may look different from all the numbered ones. (E.g., do you know about the 1928 U.S. Airmail stamps that were printed upside down? A 1913 twenty four cent stamp sold most recently in 2018 for $1,530,000. It had been stored since new in the best archiving tradition and still is remarkable to see now a century later. The lesson is that we all should do what we can to carefully handle and preserve artwork we feel is worthy of careful attention.)

The value of the Colescott today is not the point for me. It is the story, my memories of meeting Colescott several times, that I liked his expression, and admired his influence on the print media expansion in the U.S. While none of this may matter to the next generation, it is my feeling that starting my tiny collection that way changed some things in my life for the better. And my conclusion is, this is a family heirloom that gets passed to our next generation of the family, and I hope they will understand the need to preserve it in some way.

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