Marcel Duchamp’s definition of art or how John Smith became a collector
Marcel Duchamp, photograph published in Les Peintres Cubistes, 1913
- Last month, I bought my first artwork in Argentina.
- So you are starting a collection?
- A collection? No … yes. I don’t know. What does it mean to start a collection? Does buying one piece of art make me a collector?
Many questions followed surrounding the notion of collecting and how one becomes a collector. I felt the genuine interest of the person in front of me in the possibility of becoming a collector, a possibility and an opportunity to gain a new status. To keep his anonymity, I will call him John, John Smith.
John is an entrepreneur who started his company 20 years ago. His start-up was slightly different from the corporations which were trending at the time. Still, he shares the same mindset and entrepreneurial identity as the founders of the mega-companies of his age. John created an evangelical church which now has 70 branches worldwide. He is an inspirational speaker, life coach and mentor of a community of tens of thousands.
Last month, John went to Argentina and bought a painting from a gallery in Buenos Aires.
- How did you choose the work?
- How? - he laughed - I loved the piece and I bought it.
- Did you know the artist?
- No, but I did some research on her work after I came back from Argentina.
John bought a painting by a young female artist born in Buenos Aires who is now based in New York. He showed me images of the work, the artist and the gallery where he bought the work. It was a small gallery representing emerging artists from South America. The painting is truly stunning. A distorted face occupies the centre of the canvas against a backdrop of distressed buildings painted in electric green.
- There is something about this green. It’s different. At first, when I saw the painting I didn’t even see the face. All I could see were the electric green buildings.
John was shining. He was explaining the oeuvre of the artist with ease and passion, fascinated by the architectural setting and exaggerated colours. He was analysing the composition, making subtle references to Argentinian history and culture.
Somehow naturally, John, the inspirational contemporary priest, became an articulate advocate of emerging Argentinian art. This transformation made me think about the capacity of art to generate new identities. Any art history textbook would tell you that by observing, interpreting and/or acquiring an artwork, the spectator takes a new role, actively participating in the artistic process. This transformation is made easy by the natural, fluid relationship between art and its audience.
John’s excitement was contagious. (I found myself researching this Argentinian artist later that day.) After he finished his inspirational speech on Argentinian emerging art, we turned again to the question of collecting.
- Am I a collector if I’ve just bought one piece of art? What are the defining features of a collector? - he was asking. I felt the seriousness of his voice and the need for an answer. John’s questions are not novel (at all) but his personality and commentary made me see them in a new light. My brain was exhilarated. All the pages on art history and collecting I’ve read were storming in my head. “It could be that I don’t have an answer for John, the priest, entrepreneur and, since recently, an owner of an artwork.”, I thought and then …
- Do you feel like a collector? – I asked.
- I think, I do. Maybe. - John started with hesitation but quickly regained confidence. – Yes, I feel like a collector.
I owe Marcel Duchamp for helping me find an answer to John’s question.
Something is art if the artist says so, M. Duchamp said
Duchamp’s approach to art history was very much centred around the artist. His famous words “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists” keep resonating and shaping how we view art today. Thanks to Duchamp I had an answer to John’s question.
- Someone is a collector, if he or she says so.
This story is about how John, the inspirational priest and entrepreneur, became a collector. He said he was.
The future belongs to a more diverse perspective on collecting. Emerging art, the act of its discovery and collecting, is changing the dynamics of the art market. Thanks to collectors like John Smith.