can we own a work of art?

At a gallery, you linger over one of the works longer than the rest. Something in it appeals to you, holds you, fascinates you; sees you. You tell yourself you like the subject, the colors, the textures and so on. You pull yourself away to look at other works but find yourself drawn back. You size up the price tag, rationalize the expense or disregard it altogether. The artist is there. You ask and she tells you about the work. You like her story and commit it to memory to tell your friends but you had already made up your mind.

In the monetary transaction, something more precious is spent. The work’s lifeblood is drained until, stuffed and mounted, the penetrating gaze of its undead eyes wait for a witness. You take the work home and hang it like a trophy on your wall, slain in the conquest of commerce. You tell your guests the tale of the hunt. Not daring to look it in the eyes, you leave out the part about how the work saw you, held you, drew lifeblood and slayed you. You forget: a work worth having is a work that has you.

Buying a work of art is risky since the act of buying carries an invitation to reimagine the work as a possession. This is a half-truth. As soon as we buy into the idea that we possess it, we forget it first possessed us. The evocative, transformative power of a work is arrested when it is nailed to the ego’s narrative of commerce. Yet even if we refuse to meet its penetrating gaze and force its power to dwell in dark crevices underground this remains: we no more own art by buying it than we own nature by buying land.

What grabs us from that first encounter is a force of nature. It calls us to attend: to engage and listen. We can buy art and honor its power if we release the illusions of ownership, open to its claim on us and let the work work us over. Buying into it, we are invested. The purchase is then a reciprocal ritual act sealing the mutual bond and commitment to let the relationship take us where it will.

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