Whenever I hear someone say, “buy watches because they’re art,” it often makes me think that they don’t understand why people buy art. And by extension, they probably don’t understand why people buy watches.
I say this as a watch collector and fanatic. I appreciate the craftsmanship, the creativity, and yes, the artistic skill that goes into watchmaking.
But when people say watches are art, I sense they are just saying “watches are cool” or “watches are beautiful”. It feels really shallow and unexamined. It’s an idea that is too often taken for granted and too self-evident for my personal liking. I have a theory why this idea – “watches are art” – has become so popular. But it’s not a pretty theory.
I think “watches are art” finds its footing in a deep-seated insecurity – both on the selling and buying side of the watch world. A lot of this, I believe, is because watches have lost their functional value. It’s a gentleman’s agreement between the brands, dealers, auction houses and collectors (and even average consumers) to conclude watches are art, because buying this stuff otherwise doesn’t make any sense. Only art can beckon wild premiums, waitlists, record-breaking hammer prices. “It’s gotta be art!”
I see this push toward art as a result of the spiritual crisis brought about during the 1980’s that the industry has recovered from economically, but not existentially. Quartz continues to shake the industry, only now in much more subtle ways. In an Indiana Jones-esque move, we replaced “function” with a sandbag of equal weight labeled “art.” But just like in the movie, I don’t think it really works.
To be fair, the art world has made it easy for us to co-opt art. I can already hear many of you say, “but what is art anyway?” Indeed, since Modern art and Postmodern philosophy have taken over, the definition of art has become increasingly broad and inclusive. From Duchamp’s Fountain to Ai Wei Wei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn and Maurizio Cattelan’s The Comedian (the infamous banana duct-taped to a wall), art is now more diverse in medium and conception.
But here is the problem: when we consume art, we participate in something much bigger than the artifact. And when we consume watches, we really only participate in the artifact.
We can break down art consumption into two, coexisting categories: (1) studying the cultural/social significance and appreciating the artistic skill, and (2) buying it as a financial investment and a great social signal amongst friends.
In the first category, art consumption belongs to everyone and its currency is in shared stories and histories. Thousands of books, publications, classes, and events are dedicated to understanding and engaging art. People travel far and wide to visit museums and galleries. We passionately debate its meaning and execution. Here, art consumption is a means of thinking and rethinking the world around us.
In the second category, art consumption belongs to the wealthy and its currency is in dollars. It appears in the halls of art fairs and the seats of auction houses. As Don Thompson observes in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, “Money itself has little meaning in the upper echelons of the art world— everyone has it… What the rich seem to want to acquire is what economists call positional goods; things that prove to the rest of the world that they really are rich”.
Unfortunately for the watch world, there is too much of the latter and too little of the former.
Though a small niche of true collectors might bask in the cultural significance of timepieces, the art is the artifact for a huge portion of the watch community. Its value is described in financial terms more often than not, and it has no accompanying community or culture. That’s not art, that’s real estate. And this is my point, the primary beneficiaries of the idea – watches are art – are the dealers, brands, and auction houses.
I want watches to be more than watches in the same way art is more than art. That means, we need to focus on building community, thinking more critically (especially on social media), and looking beyond financial terms. If we want watches to be art, we need to treat it as such.
Another day with the beast,