The art school degree show season has just kicked off and last week I went along to the first of the ‘Big Four’ in Scotland -Dundee (DJCAD) where I studied many moons ago and wow was it exciting stuff! I never tire of witnessing a new wave of talent emerging with sparkling fresh ideas. This made me think about what buying ‘good’ art means and I thought I’d share my thoughts with you fantastically creative homemakers.
This year, I’ve carefully planned my degree show visiting schedule with a few private views because last year I packed in too many crowded opening nights, trying to get round each one in a couple of hours. I burnt out and had to head home to lie in a darkened room after only two of them – lightweight, I know!
If you’ve never been to a degree show, make this the year you attend at least one. Even if you don’t go to buy, they’re so much fun and if nothing else, will open your mind to new possibilities of what art can be and better still you can meet the new hatchlings in person and chat to them about their work.
If the thought of going alone is daunting, take a friend to gasp with (and ok possibly have a giggle with) and go along on the opening night. Be prepared for crowds but you’ll be able to peek at work without anyone noticing too much ( if you’re self-conscious) and you can always go back on another quieter day once you’ve shortlisted your favourites – remember the best stuff goes quickly though! You might even get a glass of wine or a bottle of beer…or two and before you know it you could be skipping down the road with the next ‘Damien Hirst’ under your arm but without the shocking price tag!
But How Will I know What’s ‘Good’ ?
So you’ve picked a degree show to go to but how will you know what is actually any ‘good’? Well, although art is a very personal thing, there are definitely things to look for which I’ll come to but first I want to say that I’ve lost count of the number of times people say to me they know nothing about art or that they wouldn’t know where to start. I always say ‘What’s the big secret you don’t think you know?’
As with so many things just start with your own instinct. You are the most qualified person to decide what art goes into your home and the best advice I can give is always to buy with your heart not your head (i.e not for investment!) Yes you will find artworks at a degree show for a fraction of what they could be worth in years but there’s no guarantee and then you’ll be living with it anyway or it’ll be rotting in an attic and what value is there in that? If you buy with your heart I can guarantee you’ll never regret a single purchase of original art.
So what makes ‘good’ art? Well art is about ideas – it’s that simple. When an artist makes a piece of work they are putting forward their ideas of the world as they experience and observe it – whether it’s a self portrait, the beauty of a scene, a social or political comment or an emotional reaction caught in colour or texture. Drawing, painting, screen print, sculpture, sound installation or active performance, it’s all based on an idea. It’s up to you to decide if you are interested in the idea or not – that’s what makes buying art so subjective because we’re all interested in different things. When that idea connects with you, it’s like magic and it creates a little spark. Every time you look at the artwork, the connection will recharge and you’ll know that it holds within it someone’s personal message that you received in your own way. How exciting is that?
The problem for me is when the idea isn’t that interesting. For example, we’re taught as kids that a drawing or painting is ‘good’ only if it looks like the subject, be it a bowl of apples, a building, a face etc. But once you’ve mastered this ( and don’t get me wrong, good drawing skills are important) what then? What are you going to ‘say’ with your drawing? What does your style of art bring to the proverbial ‘table’, because personally, there’s only so much I find interesting about the message ‘I CAN DRAW REALLY WELL!’
A body of great work at a degree show stands out when there’s a strong idea behind it, presented with skill and consideration and with the artist’s own ‘voice’. Buying good art is like inviting a guest to dinner, they don’t have to be loud, clever or funny but if they aren’t saying anything or they’re just repeating what everyone else is saying, they’ll be soon be ignored and that makes for a very boring night! The same is true of the art you bring into your home.
Learning to see
Opening your mind and eyes to buying art in new forms can take time and of course you have to be convinced of what’s ‘interesting’ about it before you’re persuaded to buy. I would say it’s a bit like choosing a partner (stay with me, this is going somewhere). I think we can all safely say that our tastes and what we’d look for in a partner now is quite different to what we looked for in our teens and twenties – cue mass cringe while we all think about it. How did that happen? Well, life experience (never stung twice and all that), wanting to be with someone who shares your outlook on life and with maturity, having the skills to ‘see’ and understand what lies beneath the surface is definitely part of it.
It’s the same with art. Sometimes by not allowing ourselves to be seduced by the same old things just because they look like something we recognise (cue boring, soulless landscape consisting of field with straight-from-the-tube ‘blob’ flowers and cottage on hill or the ten millionth highland cow with multi-coloured hairdo – is that just a Scottish thing? Well beware, boring comes in many forms!) we open up to new ideas and start to see and actually seek more unusual art that stimulates us in a different way than just being pretty to look at.
If you take the time to understand what might lie behind a certain style of painting, drawing, sculptural technique or other art form, how and why an artist uses certain materials or presents a subject in a certain way, then you will start to ‘see’ the value in art you might never have looked at before and you’ll find yourself buying art in very different styles to what you’ve been attracted to before. Your home gallery will take off into the stratosphere because suddenly it’ll reflect a very personal journey of discovery!
Oh, You Better ‘Know’ Yourself!
No, we’re not embarking on a trip down memory lane to that episode of Big Brother. That personal journey of discovery I just mentioned? Well it’s more important than you think in terms of buying art. To continue the analogy, if we get better at choosing a partner for life, it’s probably because we know ourselves better – what our needs are and what makes us tick.
One of my first lessons with new art students was often to get them to do a self portrait. Before they were let loose to create, I would get them to do a brainstorming/mind map exercise called ‘Me, Myself and I’. It involved them drawing out a wheel with a centre and spokes made of words and images which kept increasing as they added linked words & phrases – they went from very obvious observations, to the deepest (and sometimes darkest) most complex thoughts they had about themselves!
It had a kind of cathartic effect. Sometimes tears were shed and the whole thing could have been mistaken for a surreal episode of Oprah. The students loved it because they came out realising things about themselves they hadn’t considered before – one went as far as to say it saved her life (!) and knowing exactly what they wanted to get across in their self portraits beyond two eyes, nose, mouth and getting their hair ‘right’. The portraits were a thousand times more interesting than they would have been and individual styles were instantly born. The moral of the story is that if you know your personality inside out and what makes you tick, you’ll find it easier to choose art you connect with and that better reflects something about you.
Trends and Motifs
I do think that exploring individuality is quite a complex process and it’s not quite as simple as saying don’t follow trends, just trust yourself. We all have so many decisions to make in life it’s stressful enough without always trying to be unique. That’s why I think it’s ok to dip into trends even with art as long as you love the pieces and are not just buying art that you think everyone else loves. Ooh and be aware of the difference between buying art versus ‘motif’ too.
Trends and motifs drive sales – simples. Motifs are decor, there’s no idea beyond them other than that they look pretty and they’ll sell well = profit. You’ll know them when you see them, currently think monstera leaves, ferns, bull skulls, flamingos, pineapples, human skulls etc. but of course as trends do, these will change. When you buy an image of these you’re generally not buying art, you’re buying on trend, decorative motifs but as long as you know that then they can be great for filling gaps in the gallery wall ( see my tips on curating one) and helping you bond with your interiors ‘tribe’ and hey, a bit of bonding never did any harm!
Letting Go of the Edge
So with that I’ll say get ye to a degree show near you! It’s easy to find opening dates online. I’ve got three more to go to which is about as much as I can stretch to at the moment but I’ll report back. They’re a great place to start buying art for a personal collection and the prices you’ll pay will be much lower than when those same artists have to factor in gallery commissions etc. (that’s a separate post all together)
I hope I’ve encouraged you to think about buying art and that from time to time you’ll lean out and maybe let go of the edge to explore art you’ve never considered before. Having the confidence to step away from the masses takes courage, especially as we’re naturally flock creatures but if you can try it every so often you won’t regret it. Who knows, you may just enjoy the exhilarating solo flight!