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5 Reasons People Buy Expensive Art – the Psychology Behind the Purchase

For eons, people have encountered works that touched them on a profound level. What started as a basic form of communication has, over centuries, evolved into a deeper way to connect with others.

Art has entire communities dedicated to countless artists whose work and stories helped to shape history and enrich many cultures as displayed in awesome art galleries. It seems essential to civilization, a language we all speak, as if in our blood.

Or perhaps this language stems from the brain, differing from mind to mind. Why common folk like art may seem obvious, if somewhat inexpressible, but the motivations behind connoisseurs are less so.

Here we will explore this deep obsession with artistic masterpieces through a lens devoted to the psychology behind art consumerism. Here are five reasons why people buy expensive art.

Money

It seems obvious: people buy expensive art because they have money and that’s what the well-off do. But this portrait is slightly reductive when one considers the vast industry of art consumerism. Money plays a huge role, but to what degree may be more complex than one thinks.

Investment drives much of the industry and is done by people who may not even like art. They only see money and would never display art because it immediately depreciates the value and risks deterioration and robbery.

The overly patient die waiting to re-sell; the overly eager gain a slimy reputation among righteous connoisseurs. Whether these investors appreciate art for “good” reasons is debatable; their obsession isn’t – and it’s primarily concerned with capital.

Now, art is subjective – but so is price: for some, “expensive” isn’t millions; a hundred-dollar painting easily suffices. For these modest connoisseurs, investment isn’t the motivation for purchase: owning something nice, yet reasonable, is.

For them, the psychological relationship between money and art still exists, but to a different degree. The working-class admirer may assign value to art through capital, but it is not the primary focus; reasonable luxury is.

Belonging

It’s been mentioned that art connects people; and though big spenders are economically disconnected from others, they still desire belonging. The question, then, becomes: belong to what?

Consider that when one goes to an auction or a fair, they may participate in bidding to feel connected. Some say leaving without spending causes emptiness, that buying high-class art gets them high and even fills a spiritual void.

The nature of this language suggests addiction, which, it has been suggested, is a response to disconnectedness. Though it may seem reductive on-face, all humans innately desire to belong, and this plays out differently depending on the context.

But not everyone who spends extravagantly on art has a problem: some purchase works or join organizations for charitable causes. Fundraisers for and through art are incredibly popular and generate a ton of money, likely due to art’s transformative potential.

In this way, expensive art is given a noble purpose to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. If the psychological efficacy of giving back is hotly debated, it at least moves mountains of dough to positive ends.

Emotions

One down-to-Earth reason to purchase art is for its emotional value. Humans need tangible outlets to express complex, ineffable emotions and experiences to make sense of them and gain perspective. And art sweetly, though not always neatly, delivers. Expensive art may or may not be more “emotional”– it’s subjective; but nevertheless, it’s fascinating to explore!

Works like Picasso’s Guernica and Munch’s The Scream are widely loved for how they invoke emotion. But they weren’t always dug: these paintings made risky statements about the world, garnering much unflinching criticism at the time.

They defied conventions to speak on what the status-quo considered unspeakable, and for this exact reason, they are now renowned. Though no price tag discerns greatness, great art challenges minds, and one can often distinguish it via a blocked path.

And surely works of art don’t have to be famous for them to be thought-provoking or inspiring. That Van Gogh died unknown should remind us all one never knows how time will judge a piece. If you don’t “get” a famous piece of art, it doesn’t mean you’re broken; art speaks to us all differently. But if a piece does speak to you, that’s invaluable, period – it’s your mind’s eye looking back at you.

Prestige

One of the more seemingly superficial reasons people want to buy expensive art is because it is associated with prestige. Let’s examine the psychology behind this desire.

It’s already been mentioned that belonging drives certain curators into purchasing, but it’s worth mentioning that exclusivity does as well. People want to feel like they’re special, and in some cases, more special than others, which is a psychological need.

For them, spending more means gaining more prestige, and with it comes social validation, cultural superiority, and social distinction. The cost of this coping mechanism may seem high, but for these connoisseurs, prestige is the key to happiness.

To many people, Modern art (1870 – now), for example, is inaccessible – and perhaps that divisiveness attracts certain connoisseurs. In this way, being able to decode the aesthetics of a piece of art gives them a sense of prestige.

They want to feel like they are understanding something others aren’t, and this psychological need stems from insecurity. Of course, there are plenty of people who genuinely love Modern art and encourage everyone else to do so as well.

History

Art is like a snapshot in time in which the artist painted with their perspective as well as their brush. And some collectors seek to preserve the invaluable artifacts of history through carefully curated collections.

The historical significance of artwork is therefore a huge motivating factor for whether an expensive piece is purchased. And a psychological desire to be part of a larger movement for the greater good is usually at the center.

Often, the more expensive a piece of art is the more historically significant it is regarded. Consider the lost Da Vinci painting, Salvator Mundi: it took the world by storm, selling for $450 million in 2017. The painting broke records because it was both a Da Vinci and because it was newly discovered.

Thus, the more historical allure a painting has, the stronger the psychological need to shell out money becomes.  Authors have mused that history is written by the victors, and this seems equally true for art. What is popular in art history textbooks – big names like Da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, Goya, etc. – motivates value.

Unfortunately, this means young or unknown deceased artists, regardless of quality of content, are brushed under the historical rug. On the market, what is historically significant is proportionate to historical popularity, and so recognition, a psychological action, drives purchasing.

A Final Picture

Many people buy art, but the market for expensive art represents a world of its own. By looking at the psychological motivations, we can understand the inner workings of the upper echelons of the art world. But we can also face the basic human desires at the core of these pursuits and ponder the human condition. In this way, all art is fundamentally the same, reflecting who we’ve been and who we’ll always be.

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