Doug Casey on Art

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(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)

    Editor’s Note: Skype rings, I answer; it’s Doug, calling from Punta del Este.

L: Doug, how are you? And how were the holidays? Was Punta hopping?

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Doug: Actually, yes. Especially Christmas. I went to Christmas dinner at the house of a Jewish friend down here. At midnight, even though dessert hadn’t been served, we went out to his back yard, where he set off a professional quality fireworks display – skyrockets, explosives, the same stuff you see at stadiums in the U.S. Then one of his next door neighbors started, then another, then another. Everyone was in competition for the best display.

L: What? In their backyards?

Doug: I love the smell of gunpowder on Christmas; it’s the smell of a free country. I like a place where everyone is expected to have stuff that they’d call in a SWAT team for in the U.S. But that’s just some local color; everybody from Buenos Aires comes over to go to the beach this time of year. But, actually, I called to talk about art. Partly because Punta has scores of art galleries.

L: Well, last week I said we should talk about something more positive, but why art?

Doug: Perhaps because art is one of the most positive things about life itself. It’s really about aesthetics, a very important part of human existence. We talk a lot about philosophy here, and that’s important. Aesthetics is actually a division of philosophy, and art can make philosophy…concrete. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then art can visually describe the way you see the world. The kind of art you like can describe the way you think the world is, or should be. A good sense of aesthetics is as important as having a well-developed intellect, in my opinion.

L: Or it should be. Okay, let’s start with a definition. My Webster’s says aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. Why is this so important now, with the world in a deepening crisis of historic proportions?

Doug: Humans have always placed a high value on aesthetics, even in the worst of times. There’s plenty of evidence the hunter-gatherers of prehistory took time out of their fight for survival to create art, and that has continued throughout history and continues today. This pursuit of beauty is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. One of the main purposes of being wealthy is to be able to live in an aesthetic environment. The reason notorious misers like Hetty Greene are considered so shameful and bent is that they didn’t have a clue what to do with their money; they confuse the means – money – with the end: an aesthetic life. Warren Buffet is almost in that class; he’s an idiot savant generally, but he certainly appears to have no sense of aesthetics. On the other hand, some of the poorest people in the world strive to be as beautiful as they can, and to own what small pieces of beauty they can; this alone makes them worthy of respect. A brute with no sense of beauty, nor appreciation for it, can barely be called human.

Really good art distills an intense experience or emotion. The ongoing crisis will create many intense experiences for many artists, and may result in some very powerful works of art – although that’s just conjecture on my part. I’m not sure what correlation actually exists between various world crises and great art. A sure bet, though, is that the Greater Depression will probably put all sorts of art on sale, as belt-tightening cuts non-essentials from people budgets. Maslow’s hierarchy will become much more apparent than has been the case in recent years.

Food and shelter are essential, of course, but art is also essential – if you don’t have any beauty in your life, what’s the point?

L: I’m with you there. Life without beauty would be a torture. Death would seem like a reprieve, in comparison. So, do you consider yourself an artist? Or just a connoisseur?

Doug: The latter. I’ve always been interested in art, though I don’t have any real skill at producing it. I wish I did! I’ve taken art lessons – painting – from several teachers both in the West and the Orient, but I’m not at all satisfied with my technical ability. A man’s got to know his limitations…

L: So, what makes one a connoisseur? Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to say what’s “good art” and what is not? In speaking about movies, books and especially music, we’ve said that art is a highly individualized experience. Doesn’t it rub your anarchistic soul the wrong way to have some snooty expert from the Louvre or the Royal Museum tell you what’s good art? Some of those clowns pay huge sums of money for blank canvases – or ones literally smeared with shit.

Doug: There’s a lot of genuine garbage out there masquerading as art – but that tells you right there that there is such a thing as “good art.” Going to school to study art or art history is a complete and total waste of time and money; these are things that you can, and should, be able to teach yourself, through reading and observing. As we observed in our discussion on education, there are very few Aristotles teaching in colleges today. So-called “higher education” is a veritable magnet for second-raters and actively destructive parasites bent on promoting unsound ideas to the inexperienced and gullible. They concentrate in areas like social studies, literature, and art – where opinion reigns supreme. And I find their opinions almost universally appalling.

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I would never tell you what you must see as good art. De gustibus non disputandum est. Although I’d bet you and I would agree on most of it, simply because we share a very similar view of life, and what’s important. It bears repeating that aesthetics is a division of philosophy, so what a person finds appealing usually offers a window into their soul. That means something. Every educated person should cultivate a practical education – familiarity, background, understanding, judgment – in various types of art. We’ve spoken about the value of literature, film and music, and this includes visual arts, like painting and sculpture.

L: I remember looking at Picasso’s Cubist paintings of women, as a child, and thinking they were ugly and Picasso was overrated. I liked da Vinci more, and romantic 19th century painters even better. My dad is a real art-lover, and for some time, we used to go to art galleries almost every weekend – this resulted in my teachers’ great astonishment in high school, when I could identify a Picasso, a Miro, or a Giacometti on sight. Anyway, I later saw some of Picasso’s early drawings, done in simple pencil, but with photo-realistic detail and perspective. Could have knocked me over with a feather – the man really did have talent; he just chose to use it to express something that was over my head, when I was a child.

Doug: He had immense talent and versatility. That said I’d never pay the premium to own a Picasso; like everything else in the material world, it’s a matter of value, and cost/benefit ratios. The point is that if you know enough about art, you can start separating the poseurs from the real artists. After that, it gets pretty subjective.

L: So, what do you like?

Doug: I’m very particular about the art I buy. I personally like things that have a message of some significance, that tell me something about the way the world works. I’ve great respect for high technical ability as well; if the artist doesn’t have excellent technical skill, he doesn’t make the first cut. But technical skill alone is not enough. There are draftsmen, graphic designers, and commercial artists with excellent technical skills – but they’re not actually artists worth buying, because they don’t make a philosophical statement, they’re not really trying to tell you how the world works, or ought to work. They’re not taking a metaphysical position.

What this means, in practical terms, is that I tend not to buy landscapes, or simple portraits – things that could be done better by a skilled photographer. Which is not to say that a photographer can’t also be an artist, but he has to capture reality, as opposed to create it from whole cloth.

There’s no limit to the amount of art you can buy, other than your pocketbook and your storage space. So you usually wind up specializing. I’ve always been drawn to, and specialize in, surreal art, with a smattering of other approaches.

I’ve accumulated so much of this stuff over the years, I have a trailer full of it headed to Argentina right now. I’ve got lots of tall walls in all my places down here, so I’ve finally got room to display my art. I’m really looking forward to opening the container – it’s going to be like discovering the art and buying all over again. Although I’m sure some will turn out to be disappointing, since I’ve become more discriminating over the years, and I no longer have to really look at the right side of the menu. Although, it must be emphasized, there’s only a limited, even accidental, correlation between quality and price.

L: You get the excitement twice. Did you have this in mind, as you bought or built homes – you need lots of hallways or extra walls, just to have room to hang art?

Doug: I’m not big on hallways, but all my places have 12- to 14-foot ceilings, and wide open walls. Most of the paintings I have tend to be large. They probably average three by four feet, or larger. I hate little kitschy things…

L: Bathroom art?

Doug: Yeah. Small stuff tends to be non-dynamic and… kind of cheap-looking. Clutter. I like to go big or go home, generally, and in art too. I prefer things that I can look at from a distance, rather than be forced to scrutinize like a postage stamp.

L: Let’s take an example. In the living room of your flat in Buenos Aires, you have a painting we’ve referenced before, the war painting. What’s the story there?

Doug: I bought that in BA, a few years ago, just after the height of Argentina’s financial crisis. I don’t know the artist, and don’t really care who he or she is. Although the price was absolutely right, that wasn’t a factor, as I didn’t buy it for an investment. And certainly not because I’m a fan of war. I do tend to like things that are intense, even disturbing. You’ll never find one of those mass produced paintings of a house with a chimney in a forest vale – Thomas Kinkade – in my collection. The guy gets like $25,000 for them. Not because they’re any good – I suspect even I could replicate them – but because he’s a great marketer. Selling art isn’t nearly so much about quality as it is about marketing. The same is true about investment advice, or almost anything.

Doug’s “War” painting

L: I don’t think anyone could look at that image in think it was pro-war. But that’s interesting about art and marketing.

Doug: An observation I want to make about buying art is that the price of art is totally arbitrary. The cost of production of something like that war painting, which is about five by five feet – including the canvas, wood, paints, might be a couple hundred bucks – simply not significant compared to what you pay for it. But when you sell it, it’s all about how badly the buyer wants it. You can sell a piece like that for anywhere from less than the cost of materials to over a million dollars.

L: So, why pay millions for a Picasso, when you can buy something by an unknown for a thousand bucks that makes you feel just as strong a response?

Doug: Exactly. Especially for me, in that I really don’t give a damn what the public in general, or art critics in particular, do or don’t think. I, therefore, generally don’t buy established artists. People who buy recognized artists impress me as the same kind of people who buy Ralph Lauren shirts, just to show they can afford Ralph Lauren shirts. Or, Goddess forbid, buy Tommy Hilfiger crap, where he displays his name boldly, because they somehow think it shows they have good taste – which, in my opinion, is just the opposite of the case.

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L: Do you ever buy art as an investment?

Doug: No. Art prices are, much more than the prices of almost anything else, arbitrary and subject to fashion, promotion, and chimerical opinion. I don’t buy art to make money on it; that’s a real long shot. I buy from unknown artists whose work I just like. I’ll never, ever be able to resell the stuff unless lightning strikes, and the artist becomes popular – which usually happens because some clever gallery decides to promote him or her. It’s a lot like buying real estate, but much worse. Even though it has speculative potential, I really only buy stuff I like myself. You can never be sure of a sale, so you better take pleasure just in owning it.

That actually applies to almost anything, even stocks. Don’t buy something because you hope a greater fool will materialize. You must already know exactly who the fool is, in advance. It’s like a poker game: If you can’t pick out the fool at the table in five minutes, then you’re the fool. It’s very dangerous to buy on the “greater fool” theory; it’s almost always much easier to buy just about anything than to sell it.

The last large purchase of art I made was in Zimbabwe, a couple years ago. I bought about 30 Shona stone sculptures, a small shipping container full of them. The Shona are renowned for their tradition of stone sculpture. Not marble, more like soapstone, but harder, and these are large pieces, typically a several hundred pounds. I paid about $30,000 for those 30 pieces, including shipping. That’s a great price – I got ‘em dead flat at the bottom when Zimbabwe’s currency collapsed. What could I sell them for? Who knows? I could ask anything – put on a show, tell the story of the artists, if they caught on, they could easily go for $15,000 each. I could turn my $30,000 invested in Zim into a few hundred thousand dollars. But I’m not going to do that, because I actually like them. And I don’t want to get into the business of hawking art, if only because I hate dealing with the public. Although, I have to admit that I don’t have enough room to put 30 large sculptures.

L: Maybe you could add a sculpture garden to your new house in Cafayate?

Doug: [Chuckles] Maybe. In fact, definitely. And some will make extraordinary gifts for certain friends. Another thing I did – which is usually a very bad idea – was to commission a work of art from my friend Barry Johnson in Washington D.C. He’s a very competent classical sculptor, and some years ago, I had him sculpt a three-foot image of Lilith, and one of Icarus rising, gripped by a female figure who represents Mother Earth. Both in bronze, really beautiful. I paid about $1000 for one, and $3000 for the other, which was a lot more money then than it is today. Now, today, just casting costs would be several times as much, never mind his fee.

I remember buying a couple of paintings by a well-known Brazilian artist about 15 years ago, when Brazil was in one of its cyclical lows, back when you could also buy a nice apartment on Ipanema for $50,000. Brazil is in a boom now, incidentally, and I wouldn’t touch it – it’s unlikely to stay up where it is for long – but that’s a discussion for a different day. I bought two large paintings, about four by four, for a thousand dollars each, including shipping to Colorado. I really love those. And they were a tremendous bargain, almost as good as one of those Ipanema apartments. You can find great art cheap, if you go look for it. It’s best to go to a country in economic crisis.

These people who sit in New York and bid hundreds of thousands of dollars against each other, sometimes for total crap, are just not right in the head. They’re unsophisticated buyers with no taste, but too much money, too recently acquired.

L: But it’s trendy crap.

Doug: Very trendy crap. And a lot of it that doesn’t end up in a landfill, should. Actually it will. And I don’t say that just because eventually everything gets folded into the mantle. And that’s before the planet itself is subsumed into the sun. It’s simply good to keep these things in perspective. [Chuckles]

L: Okay, but these are unrealized gains. Have you ever actually sold any of the art you’ve bought?

Doug: No, even though I have enough to open a gallery. But I’ve never actually tried, if only because it would likely be futile for the reasons we’ve just discussed. I thought about it, however, and not as just a small scale hobby, but as a substantial business. Many years ago, the early ’70s, before the government totally destroyed Haiti – which happened well before the earthquake destroyed the government – Haiti was a famous source of great, cheap art. Most of it was crap, of course – Pareto’s Law is always with us – but also good stuff, and the good stuff was very good. My idea was to use this supply as a source for restaurants that wanted real art in their décor. That would provide distribution on a scale to make a business that mattered. Now it’s commonly done…

One other thing from a business point of view, is that when I go to a city for the first time and need to get to know it and the key players in town, I check out the art galleries. I’m interested in art anyway, and knowledgeable, so I’d go to the galleries, meet the local people, and it was a very good way to get introduced to the local culture – and the local movers and shakers in society. But this only works if you have a sincere interest in art.

This was part of my standard MO when I didn’t know anyone in a city – which isn’t true for many cities of any size or significance anymore. The other things we’ve talked about before, include making appointments with lawyers, who were always happy to talk to foreign investors, real estate brokers, and, of course, I’d always go to the polo club. That pretty much covered all the bases. After a couple days, I knew all the people I’d need to know to move to any of those places and live comfortably, if I’d wanted to.

L: Makes sense. But let’s back up a bit; why is it a mistake to commission art?

Doug: Because you never really know what you’re going to get, or if what you’re hoping the artist is going to deliver is what’s actually on his or her mind…

    Editor’s Note: Due to the length of this interview, the remainder, including material on the relevance of art markets to larger markets and trends in today’s world, will be published in next week’s installment of Conversations With Casey.

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[In The Casey Report, every month you can read Doug's candid thoughts on the economy and markets – in the current edition, he talks about "Making the Chicken Run" and why investors need to act NOW to internationalize their wealth. Try it now for 3 months with full money-back guarantee… details here.]

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avatarDoug Casey - Conversations with Casey posted Thursday, January 13th, 2011.

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