John Berger published this article many years ago but it is still relvant even though zeros have been added to the numbers. With all the hype that exists a lot of potential buyers are confused about why they should even want to be involved in an opaque and exclusive market that doesn't seem to welcome them and how they might even begin to make decisions about bringing art into their lives. This answers those questions eloquently and succinctly.
"Paintings are unnecessary – As unnecessary as jewellery, flowers or presents. But just because they are unnecessary, one’s attitude to them can be more spontaneous and more personal, freer of preconceived considerations than anything else in the house. Good paintings cost quite a lot of money – though not so much as many people probably think. With that money, we buy what is best described as a sense of increased identity.
The pleasure we get from having paintings at home is of two kinds. First, there is the pleasure of choosing work: the excitement of backing our own judgement by selecting a particular painting out of thousands of good, bad and indifferent pictures which exist. This pleasure continues after one has acquired the work, because it then becomes pride of ownership.
Secondly, there is the pleasure – which can never be got in any gallery or museum – of actually living with paintings: of looking at them deliberately, when you happen to be in the right mood, of catching them out of the corner of your eye as you move past them, of noticing how they change in different lights and from different viewpoints; of speculating about the artist’s exact intentions, of growing familiar with them and, so, looking for what you expect, yet also discovering something new and unexpected; of suddenly finding a scene or event in everyday life, leaping vividly out at you, just because it reminds you of one of your own pictures. All these experiences emphasise and give body to one’s personal ideas and feelings. They extend the scope of one’s own life in one’s own environment; and it is that extension which brings a sense of increased identity.
In this room in which I am writing, there are six pictures, all of which I know well: a nude, landscapes, a watercolour of a girl on a horse. All of these offer views, ways of thought, associations. It is an old but true commonplace that pictures are like extra windows.
But this is not all that they do. Besides extending the room, besides breaking through the walls, they do also emphasise that particular character, that enclosed difference, the – for you – unique existence of your room. You have chosen them. They blend in with all the other familiar features; and, so, they increase your consciousness that this – unlike everything outside – is your home. Dogs before they lie down turn round several times – a habit that goes back to the day when they were wild and had to smooth down the grass or bracken. As I look round this room, the pictures, reflecting my own taste and personality more intimately than anything else, confirm that this is the space which – like a dog, but in a more complicated way – I have cleared for myself. The obvious corollary of all this – but something I consider less fundamental – is that, to other people, pictures give a house ‘personality’; far more people notice the pictures than the furniture.
I have dealt at considerable length with the meaning of owning pictures, because it very much affects the practical business of how to choose and buy them. Because pictures are essentially personal things, there can be no set of rules about acquiring them, the only golden rule being that everyone should develop, and become confident about, their own personal taste.
The best way to develop one’s taste – and this is often mostly a question of discovering it – is to spend time looking at paintings. In the West End of London there are at least 20 galleries constantly showing and changing their exhibitions of contemporary works. (In this article I am only considering contemporary art because, to most people, contemporary art rightly seems more relevant than the minor works of the past, and the old masters are obviously out of their reach.) Contrary to popular belief, one can wander around these galleries without the slightest obligation even to consider buying a painting. The variety of works shown is huge. They range from pictures which may strike some visitors as outrageously ‘modern’, to others that are good but quite conventional. Some of them will be by well-known artists, both English and foreign; others by younger, relatively unknown painters. Works by lesser-known artists probably offer a better opportunity for learning about one’s own taste, because they cut across any snob-values or the prejudice of reputation. Incidentally, buying paintings primarily for investment is a very dangerous business unless one knows a great deal about the art market. On the whole, it is much safer simply to buy pictures which one likes and sincerely believes are good. If they are good, they will then in the long run keep their original value.
Having looked round the galleries and noted the sort of paintings or the names of artists you like, it is a good idea to go with the friend who calls himself an ‘expert’, because by arguing with him you will clarify your own ideas. But always remember Blake’s saying – ‘Every man ought to be a judge of pictures, and every man is so who has not been connoisseured out of his senses’. Having done this, how should you set about buying a picture? Should you decide that you can spend £5, or £15 or £50 (with each of these amounts one could buy something very worthwhile) on a picture for, say, the bedroom, and then go out and look for it? Or should you wait until you come across a picture that you really fall for, and then decide whether it is suitable for the room in question?
On the whole, I advise the second method. If you go out to buy a picture, rather as you buy a lampshade, you will be tempted to get something in order not to come back empty-handed. But, in fact, one should never hurry oneself about buying a picture. If you see a painting you like, get it taken off the wall so that you can see in different positions. Then think it over well before you decide. Most galleries will ‘reserve’ a work for a couple of days.
Also, if you go out with the fixed idea of buying a picture for a particular place on a particular wall, you will probably be inhibited about it ‘going’ with its surroundings. You will buy it for the room instead of for itself. There is a special kind of painting – essentially decorative painting – which must be considered very much in relation to its setting. But in all cases you must consider whether the mood of the picture is suitable (you won’t want bitter satires in the bedroom, or voluptuous nudes in the kitchen), but on the whole it is best to choose pictures on their merits – which means according to whether you like them for themselves. Nearly always, by moving things around a little or changing the colour of a frame, you can find a place for any picture you enjoy.
Should you spend all your available money on one picture or on several? There can’t really be a definite answer to that. It depends on how strongly you want the single expensive picture. Generally, and especially when you haven’t much experience, it is probably better, and you will probably get more pleasure out of buying a number of works. There is a sort of superstition that oil paintings are ‘better’ than the watercolours, and that large pictures are more ‘important’ than small ones. This is quite false. So-called minor works, including drawings, lithographs and etchings, are more likely to suit the scale of one’s house and one’s bank balance – but one is also more likely to enjoy them. Small works are usually far more intimate in feeling than large ones and, as I have tried to show, the pleasure of collecting pictures, as we live today, is essentially an intimate pleasure. Patronage as the proof of wealth, a method of impressing, a way of glory, requires Renaissance palaces – and an attitude of mind which we haven’t got".
This article was originally published by House & Garden Magazine.