What defines fine art?
Ryan Summerlin November 11, 2012
I began collecting fine-art photography in the 1970s, when galleries opened in New York, and I was schooled by the earliest dealers in the field. Prior to the ’70s, there wasn’t much of a market for photography; Ansel Adams was an exception, as he was a good salesman and made work that was decorative and easy to comprehend.
The making of a great photographic object is difficult and was expensive relative to the early masters’ ability to earn and spend money, so photographers from the early 20th century made very few prints, as the market did not warrant making more. Early collectors and museums wanted to own these early, rare prints, and when the market began in the ’70s, those masters who were still alive saw it as an opportunity to finally make a living, so many took out the old negatives and made new prints to sell.
These newer prints were not mass-
produced, by any means, as the market did not warrant that, but they were less rare than the early prints made at the time the negative was exposed. The earliest dealers had to delineate between the early prints sought by serious collectors and museums, so the terms “vintage” and “printed later” came into being.
As a collector first and then a dealer for more than 20 years, I sought the vintage prints of whatever stirred my heart, but some images were so rare as vintage prints and seldom in museum and important private collections that “later” prints became desirable. Numbering prints back before the genesis of the market was not a concept, and I submit that someone such as Edward Weston – who died in 1958 and never sold a print in his lifetime for more than $200, prints that today can sell for more than $1 million – would have made another print if he could have sold it.
Contemporary photographers recognize that their art can be both historically important and financially a good investment and the market demands signed, numbered,
limited-edition prints. As a collector, I prefer very small editions, and this brings me to my personal definition of the term “fine art.”
Any gallery can claim that what it is selling is “fine art,” but to me, there has to be strict definition of the term; there has to objective criteria that a dealer can point to. Otherwise, the term is meaningless. The first question I ask when meeting a dealer and considering a work of art, whether it’s a photograph or a painting, is what museums have this artist’s work in their permanent collection.
Another question is: Are there any books published? Has the artist been exhibited in a major gallery, or has there been an article in a major art publication? What collections has this artist represented?
All these facts go together to determine whether the work is in the realm of decoration or fine art. To me, fine art is something that has value after you have taken it home. Will a major auction house want this on consignment? Is there an auction history of works selling beyond what they achieved at the gallery?
I was schooled to believe that there is a lot to love in the world of art – might as well buy something that stands a chance of getting more valuable. This being said, there’s nothing wrong with buying work strictly for its decorative value, but the price must be commensurate with the facts.
It goes without saying that a work that is considered mere decor today can in time become fine art, according to my definition, but the price you pay today must be in accord with the current facts on the ground. Another caveat: If you go into a gallery and the first words out of the dealer’s mouth are a discussion of price and how much of a discount they can give, you are in the wrong place. It’s about the work, the artist and his or her curriculum vitae. Price is the last thing I want to talk about.
Collecting art is about surrounding yourself with work that stirs the heart and the mind. Too often, even in the serious world of “fine art,” it’s about money and prestige. The great artists I have known did their work because they had to. Those are the artists whose work I want in my life.