Chinese painter Yang Fei Yun works on a copy of Velazquez’s painting Portrait of Felipe IV at the Prado Museum in Madrid on January 25, 2013. Photo: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images.
Why would someone buy a painting when they could just make their own? This is the query posed by an anonymous user on Quora, which is basically a website filled with the questions you ask yourself in the shower and then forget. At first, I was not sure how seriously to take this question since I think the answer is fairly straightforward. Like, why would someone buy a book instead of just writing their own Great American Novel? Because duh, that’s why.
But the comparison isn’t totally fair, of course. The actual process of writing, and the way in which books are mass-produced and sold, is different than that of creating art. If we indulge the question a little, we find that people have actually studied aspects of artmaking that can provide a bit more insight on this topic. And after all, there is no such thing as a bad or stupid question (or is there, asked one Quora user, who received a not-at-all-excessive 57 replies).
You’re No Picasso
A few clear reasons people buy instead of create works also happen to be the most monetary. For one thing, art by a big-name painter is treated by some as an investment, expected to accrue value over time. If profit is your goal, it is doubtful your DIY portrait of Scrappy, your pet dog, will find many buyers on the auction block. Another related reason people spend money on work by a famous artist is that they want to flaunt having snagged a $2 million Rothko at soirées where, I assume, everyone wears monocles. And often this boasting is equally dependent on the name and price of the painter as much as the actual physical object.
When we answer the question with something other than a calculator, more complex and ephemeral reasons emerge for wanting to own a piece by a historically significant artist rather than your hippy aunt Clementine or even one you painted yourself. People love to feel close to history. There is something intangibly special about being in the presence of an object that is hundreds of years old, that viscerally embodies the past we otherwise have to read about in the static pages of books. When it comes to art, people—museum-goers and collectors alike—want to gaze at “a piece of Picasso’s mind, a piece of his soul,” says Ellen Winner, a professor and researcher at Boston College’s Arts and Mind Lab. Looking at a piece, we want to think, ah, “this is real a Picasso sitting here, he touched this.”
You Can’t Make One
But the simplest reason is the best: People buy paintings rather than make their own because most of us simply can’t. And as Winner points out, people opt for the famous because they “actually really love the art, and you realize that you’re not capable of making something that beautiful and that perfect.” This inadequacy is very clear to most of us untalented, stick-figure-drawing mortals when coming face-to-face with a Picasso. But surely even our children can do a pretty good Cy Twombly? That’s just scribbles.
Winner has research that says otherwise. In a 2011 study, Winner and colleagues at Boston College tested the ability of people to differentiate between works painted by Abstract Expressionists like Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning and those by children and animals. The study showed that when those are put those side by side and people indicate which one they like the best, or which one is by the artist as opposed to the child or animal, “they can’t tell 100% of the time but they can do it significantly over chance,” she says.
Even If You Could
But Ken Perenyi, a self-described master forger, is good enough to make pitch perfect copies of Old Masters and other genres more dextrous, figurative, and seemingly difficult than AbEx. There’s a market for these pieces, which he openly sells as forgeries. If you’re at this skill level, making a painting in the style of a famous artist can be more satisfying than buying one, and Perenyi has certainly found happiness through his work. “All my life I wanted to create beautiful paintings like the ones I viewed when I was young in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.” he tells me. “I know now I can equal and—some say—exceed the masters I emulate. For me it’s a great satisfaction, it’s a great challenge.”
Those knowingly looking at an imitation by Perenyi may be less satisfied, and not necessarily because the painting itself is any worse than the original. Winner and her lab have studied forgeries, and they recently submitted a paper on the topic which is pending publication. The results lend weight to what many of us simply feel: We don’t like knowing we’re looking at a fake. It could be because we think fakes are immoral or because they’re not going to make us millions in profit. But the research suggests that the answer lies in our “magical beliefs about the artist,” said Winner. When people were shown two indistinguishable photographs and told one is printed by the artist and the other is a sanctioned print by an assistant, people tend to prefer the former to the latter.
But You Should Still Paint
Even if you can’t forge the perfect Picasso, there is good evidence to suggest that painting will make you happier. Jen Drake, a professor at Brooklyn College, has found that painting can be a powerful “mood regulator.” In a series of studies, Drake took adults and children and essentially made them feel sad before breaking them up into two groups. She asked one group to express their feelings through drawing and another to draw neutral, external items. After 10 to 15 minutes, she asked them how they were feeling. Across multiple studies looking at both children and adults, “we found that when we use drawing as a way to distract, as a way to take us away from what upsets us, we feel better afterwards. More so than when we use it as a form of expression,” Drake tells me. Moreover, “you don’t have to be talented in drawing to reap the benefits—it’s something anyone can do,” she adds.
So why would someone buy a painting when they could just make their own? Ultimately, there is no final answer, and treating this as purely a practical question is obviously limited. To make art, you don’t need anyone’s approval or validation, least of all mine or that of any other viewer. It doesn’t need to serve a tangible benefit, you can just do it if you want—or leave it in the hands of the masters. That said, next up in this critical series: Why would someone buy an artist’s painting when they could just have an elephant paint one?