The Intrinsic Quality in Painting:
Guide to becoming an art collector as a value investor
Trends, fashion and hype can be quite overwhelming, and, at times, they sweep us away and thereby make us blindly chase them like a herd of sheep moving from one grass field to another. This notion was epitomised, notoriously, by the collapse of the US subprime mortgage market in 2008 when it was not clear whether people actually knew the toxic nature of, for example, collateral debt obligation (CDO) or other mortgage-backed securities.
Perhaps, the same question needs to be asked in art. If collectors blindly believe in what their gallerists say, they might end up like Lehman Brothers. Warren Buffet is astronomically successful because as a value investor he understands the intrinsic value of companies based on financial reports that every company is obliged to disclose. So it is important to do our fair share of the homework so much in the world of investing as in the art world.
Michael Findlay, a respected art theorist published the highly celebrated book in 2012, “The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty.” So insightful and informative as is the book, however, that unfortunately, it is posited upon a false premise that there is no intrinsic value in art. This view is utterly misleading.
From the formalist point of view, the intrinsic value of art is the aesthetic value, which is verifiable to a certain extent. Akin to assessing the intrinsic value of a company, assessing the aesthetic value of an art piece seems to be an elusive task at the first glance. Yet, to think that there is no intrinsic value is to ignore the history of art that has perpetuated since the dawn of humanity and all the progress that has hitherto been made by our forebears.
Such ignorance is perhaps due to the toxic nature of post-modernism whereby any values that came before it were all deconstructed and relentlessly demolished for decades since Marcel Duchamp’s urinal piece. In response to that, the following provides the basic guide to help collectors analyse paintings at the most fundamental level.
At first, let us ask ourselves a basic question. What exactly are the fundamental aspects of painting?
The answer is; (1) composition, (2) colour, and (3) detail execution.
With regard to composition, Picasso once said that 80% of whether a painting is successful or not is determined by its composition. Think of music. Anyone who has learned how to play the piano knows the basic compositions of classical music. They often follow certain compositional patterns that create harmony and emotionally evocative effects. Think of great novels like War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Moby Dick. Great stories are always built upon certain structures that leave a profound impact on our emotions and intellect. And painting is no exception. While there are a wide variety of compositional patterns, there are some basic ones. They are; (1) S composition, (2) T composition, (3) Z-composition, and (4) the spiral. For more information about these, please refer to another post under the title: Basic compositions.
The second aspect of painting to pay attention to is colour. Again, whilst there are many possibilities, it is important to find out if the artist actually has a comprehensive understanding of colours. Just as in the world of investing, many painters often rely on intuition and gut feelings without really knowing the science behind it. No wonder they eventually get lost.
The paragon of the masterful touch, romantic opera and an exemplary genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the consummate adept of elegant tone and colour, which are often expressed through melody, pace and rhythm in music. It is impossible to imagine, though, that he was composing those masterpieces without having a deep understanding of chord progression, melodic balance, harmonic composition, and so on.
The third most important point in painting is perhaps detail execution. As in business, if composition and colour schemes are the equivalent of strategic management in business, detail execution in painting is the implementation of strategies and execution of ideas in organisations. Inasmuch as in business, execution means everything in painting. In contemporary art, there are so many paintings that are executed poorly, yet ostentatious gallerists and curators hype them up, and so convincing does the tone of their voice sound that people are often persuaded by them. In the face of such an unsustainable approach ubiquitously exercised in the art world, it is advisable, therefore, to verify the aesthetic value of artwork by asking simple questions: ”Is it executed well?” “Is enough attention paid to details to be called a masterpiece?”
The division of art and craft is a mythologised propaganda and there is nothing wrong with a perfectly executed painting with a solid conceptual ground. One must be cautious as to deceiving stories and obscure concepts that gallerists and curators concoct and speak into your ears. In the age of fake news and “post-truth” politics, people can say anything without knowing its provenance or fact-checking and make us believe in blatant lies and misinformation. It is paramount, therefore, to conduct “fact-checking” verification by asking yourself a simple question. “Is the painting going to retain its shine in 50 years time?” If it’s masterfully executed, it will surely retain the value. The sustainable aspect is precisely the intrinsic value of painting.
Understanding the intrinsic value of a business has been the cornerstone of Warren Buffet’s success. Whether in stock shares, furniture, or artwork, quality never wanes.
Michael, Findlay (2012). The value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty. Prestel