The London art fair looked very promising for the start: there was posh totty and free booze. Posh girls fall into two categories – there are the hot ones, who I like to imagine are still sexually ravenous from boarding school, and the ones that look like the horses they’re so fond of. I saw one woman whose front teeth seemed so keen to stand perpendicular to the conventional attitude that biologists would probably classify her a relative of the unicorn.
The art was unexpectedly exciting too. I’ve really only ever experienced two kinds of art: very good and very bad. As has been noted so often before they sometimes bear an uncanny similarity. Somehow the show joined the dots between these two extremes. Previously the idea of buying art was opaque for me. Where was art bought and sold? What sort of person ‘bought’ art? I’ve see art in trendy pubs and bars, and its frequently less than impressive, especially when the price tag is in the hundreds. I can imagine the artist, but I can’t imagine the buyer of ‘pub’ art.
At the other end there is the art you see in museums and big galleries, and, of course, I have no idea how the dizzying values of the paintings contained therein are arrived at either. Sometimes I can see the art’s merit, sometimes I can’t — I sure as hell can’t imagine it over the mantel piece.
That’s where the Fair illuminated me. Here was a mass of paintings with a clear purpose: to be bought. Not by me, but some of the works were ‘affordable’. You could pick up a 1 of 10 print for £600. Not only that, but the paintings often appeared, even to my inexpert eye, fantastically well executed. One of my slightly-arty-friends-who-often-makes-their-own-Christmas-cards couldn’t hold a candle to the paintings on display.
Even more importantly, if you had one of these in your living room you can bet that everyone who came by would ask you about it. There were many, many paintings on display that I would be delighted to see every morning. Here’s a test that I’ve thought of to decide if art is any good or not: Imagine burglars break in and see your painting, it’s big, and it’s a bit of hassle to steal. If the art is really outstanding then I reckon that uncouth burglars ought to be going “shit, what’s that?”, even if they don’t know anything about it. If it’s good, they’ll nick it. Ok, it’s probably not a test they’re going to be using at Sotheby’s any time soon, but applying this test to the paintings on show I think buyers would be wise to get some insurance.
It sounds ridiculous, but as I continued to explore the fair, the concept that art is made to be purchased and enjoyed occurred to me for the first time. That’s not so obvious when you go round some international museum. Purchase there is off the cards, and by the very nature of being the ‘best’ it’s often the least accessible. It’s a rubbish introduction to art. I don’t want to sound mercenary about the purchase of art, it’s just that I could suddenly see it as a practical item, not an intellectual exercise.
Another thing that surprised me is how much collecting the stuff appealed, even though that’s clearly not much of an option. Obviously collecting something that costs thousands of pounds per item is off the cards for a lot of people, on the other hand how many people do (or did before the era of the download) spend thousands on music each year?
Sadly there was more than a little evidence that some people with a poor money/sense ratio were getting their wallets out. Ten people had already purchased a picture of Amy Winehouse at £2,500, (there were 100 prints of this image available). Maybe I misunderstood, maybe it was a great picture, but I just wince to imagine some early 20s city types trying offload some of their cash on culture and then finding a picture of Amy Winehouse. Fair enough if one person wants one, who wants to be the 10th guy on the list? The show had only been open about 2 hours.
I’m sure it’s not only rich idiots making purchases though, if only I could spend all my nights out at openings with free booze I could probably save enough for a painting myself…
Illustration by Thomas Doran