3 min read

The Point of Buying Art in the Age of Artificial Scarcity

Today I've been thinking about Lewis Bush's thoughts on editioning. He posted the following tweet, linking to a pithy little statement which I broadly agree with:

I am pretty obsessed with photography's tortured relationship between value and reproducibility, as anybody who has ever suffered through a dinner party in my company can attest, and Lewis hits the nail on the head here. Editioning is nonsense because in reality unless you're buying a piece of craft (a hand print with unique characteristics of its dodging and burning, for example, or Lewis' example of a silkscreen print) you're just buying a print, like a poster but on heavier paper. Conversely if you are buying a piece of craft then it is, by dint of its craft nature, intrinsically editioned.

I love 'original' prints where the photographer has personally had a hand in the work's production (Jim Mortram, Jon Pountney). Yes, I'm a sucker for a bit of aura. This is of course as opposed to the biannual stockbroker's mantlepiece-toppers of decontextualised exoticism and misery that is the Magnum print sale. However I have never yet bought a print as an investment, or rather, I never bought one in the expectation that its value would ever be redeemable by me in any other currency than pleasure.

Lewis' blue moon on the wall. Note the unopened Belastingdienst envelope on the shelf, waiting to burst open and fill the household with love and light.

I am presently reading William Deresiewicz's The Death of the Artist. He bluntly states that 'people don't deserve to get paid for doing what they love (...) but they do deserve to get paid for doing something other people love'. And that's the bit I think Lewis' statement misses out. He rightly points out that editioning represents a submission to the endless financialisation of everything, in which even a pretty picture for your wall is only justifiable if it's an investment. But he doesn't then say the next bit, which is that there is still a pay-off in buying art, and there still is an investment, it's just that the investment is in ambient happiness. I think the next sentence should have been:

"If you want to buy a picture, buy it to enjoy it, and buy it to support the person who made it. There is no shame or guilt in paying for something whose only purpose is to brighten your day, and people whose work achieves that deserve to continue their joyful work no matter how high the bastards put the rent. Not everything needs to make business sense."

I'm reminded of a story a Japanese friend told me some years ago, about the roaring Japanese economy of the seventies and eighties. (*Caveat- I may be horribly mis-telling this story so please let me know if you know more/otherwise)

During that period, when businessmen were making small fortunes as Japanese firms dominated the new tech booms, many people invested huge sums of money in antiques from the era of the Shogunate. They did so because they wanted to own 'real' things, old things with true value and history and, because a chunk of Japan's recent history was seen as tainted, the pottery, calligraphy and paintings of the nineteenth century and earlier became sought-after objects commanding eyewatering prices.

Fast-forward to today and many of those businessmen are now dying off, leaving their children to sort and dispose of the collections they left behind. To the dismay of families hoping for healthy inheritances, it turns out that many of the collections on which people had lavished fortunes turned out largely to be at best mis-labelled, and at worst totally fake. They had bought objects because of their auras, and they had bought them as investments, and in the end neither turned out to be the case.

My friend told me this story because he was sorting through the estate of his recently-deceased father. His experience was similar to that of many of his contemporaries- the family fortune was imagined to reside in these scrolls and bowls, collected and cared for and hidden away from dust and harm, and in the end it was worthless. After an appraisal by an auctioneer confirmed this, all he kept were a few small things which reminded him of his childhood, or which pleased him visually. The rest, a heap of junk, was disposed of.

That is what photographs will mostly be. Of course, a few stars will leave their trails behind them and those will rise in value astronomically. But the rest will just be bits of paper covered with ink or crystals. Buy them because you enjoy them, and because you wish to support their maker. Any talk of investment is foolishness.