The Affordable Art Fair is here, but is there really such a thing as affordable art?

With prices ranging from $100 to $10,000, the art on sale at the Affordable Art Fair isn’t exactly cheap. But then, should it be?

Fran Beallor, Three Citrus, Watercolor, 9 x 12 in. $125

Fran Beallor, Three Citrus, Watercolor, 9 x 12 in. $125 Image: courtesy Julio Valdez Studio

As an art critic, I’m sometimes asked if I have any tips for buying art, and my answer is always the same: No. No, I do not.
Let’s start with the fact—or rather philosophical issue—of what it means to assign value to something as completely nonfunctional as a work of art. Where do you start? With the cost of the paint that went into, say, The Piano Lesson by Henri Matisse? Do you prorate Matisse’s labor by the hour? Both are silly questions. Putting a price on art is a highly subjective process, though as a technical matter, a market for art certainly exists, and there are presumably useful ways for navigating it. Knowing them is simply not my area of expertise.
Yet the demands on me for offering tips persist, most recently with regards to this year’s Affordable Art Fair, which is on view at the Metropolitan Pavilion. Here again, I have no advice to offer, but I do have some observations. First, most of the works on view range from $100 to $10,000. If you can afford that, by all means, knock yourself out. But know going in that the possibility you are purchasing a future masterpiece is slim to none. Second, if you’re worrying about how much a work of art costs in the first place, or whether you can afford it or not, you probably have no business trying to collect art.
This isn’t to say that price guarantees quality in art—far from it, even at places like Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Nor is it to say that you can’t buy a work of art for relatively little money from an unknown or unappreciated artist who goes on to become a giant of art history. You can, but it would take an extraordinary eye on your part, and an even more extraordinary amount of luck, to pull it off.
The point here isn’t to dump on the Affordable Art Fair, though its premise—that if you have some money you don’t have to settle for posters to fill your walls—does try to thread a weird needle between elitism and populism. The truth is, real collectors don’t buy at the Affordable Art Fair, and that matters in the short term, because rightly or wrongly, the benchmark price for any artist’s work is set by the number of the “right” sort of people collecting it; it’s that simple and that fucked up.
So sure, you could shop for art at the Affordable Art Fair, or you could try a yard sale. Or better yet, if you have an artist who’s a friend, buy his or her work. Your chances of hitting the art-historical jackpot are the same whichever way you go, but at least with the last option, you can feel good about yourself, knowing that you’re supporting a pal.
Still, if you’re going to keep bugging me for tips on buying art, here are a couple:
1) Don’t ever, ever purchase something unless you are absolutely in love with it for whatever reason.
2) Always keep in mind that affordable art is an oxymoron.

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)

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