Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Is Collecting Art Healthy?

The strange compensations of the artful life.

digital buggu at pexels
Source: digital buggu at pexels

Art and the quest for beauty can leave you sleepless. A patient recently came to me with an unusual complaint: art-collecting induced insomnia.

He could not stop thinking about modern and contemporary prints, what he possessed and more possessively what he further wished to have. A universe of potential desire awaited him each night. The prices, places, avenues of acquisition, bidding strategies, and the potential profits all negated the calm and comfort of his night-time life. “Is my art collecting healthy?” he wondered.

I tried to mark out a path where it might be.

The Four-Fold Path

What is health? The WHO definition is complete physical, mental, and social well-being. When it comes to art you should add purpose and meaning—the spiritual dimension; that’s how you get to what I call the four-fold path.

I told my client he might apply each arena to solve his art-collecting insomnia, as you could any diagnosis from cold to cancer.

First, physical. Chances are he would not be exercising a lot buying prints over the phone, even if he were nervously pacing bidding overseas at auctions slowed by the mighty internet. But walking, strolling, meandering were all forms of physical activity, including the happy French cultural practice of flaneurie, self-mobilizing through a metropolis observing its endless idiosyncracies.

He liked visiting galleries and museums. Not all that traveling had to be by car or public transport. Art districts are generally easy targets to penetrate by foot, and art could get him out of the house. Data from Rush Medical School demonstrated Alzheimer’s rates declining three quarters when people frequently left home to experience new environments. Sufficiently alluring destinations might coax his less art obsessed spouse to tarry along.

Next, mental. Viewing the world relentlessly in terms of solutions as opposed to problems can instigate a special cognitive set possessing multiple healthy outcomes. New ways of seeing and understanding the world are thought to be a particular province of art and the art world. I suggested he consider not only the different perspectives and fictional universes created by artists he liked but the specific technical ingenuity and ideas they used to make what he loved. It’s one thing to enjoy an image, another to recognize how it was made, or why.

Artists often need considerable grit and innovative capacity to produce work, make others aware of it, and fiscally survive. Plenty of new answers to my patient’s daily anxieties might arise contemplating their creative solutions.

Third on the list, social. People like to make art. They like to get together and talk about it, a lot. For many collecting is not a solitary addiction but a means to meet others with similar inescapable passions, a proclivity art dealers and museums are more than happy to propel. Art in the 21st century has turned relentlessly social, where at the most exclusive global art fairs billionaires park their planes and yachts, better to engage their economic equals. At these mushrooming confabs, aspiring collectors can meet similarly “emerging” artists along with models, actors, and the occasional “rock star” painter/multi-media creator arrived by jet carrying her own entourage.

My patient did not possess a personal plane. He did like art parties, though, including those given at local art centers, and was happily surprised how many he met there shared his interests.

Fourth, the spiritual. If we can believe historians, the first cave paintings were made for mystical and religious reasons. Ideology and art are constant, continuing companions, and much of the world’s greatest art is infused with spiritual feeling. If purpose and meaning can be furthered by connecting with forces or ideas larger than oneself, art provides such experiences. The Monuments Men who accompanied Allied Forces at the end of World War II felt they were preserving western civilization, what was best about human beings. For many, art is the finest expression of what humanity can do. For others, art acts as a kind of religion, providing an introduction to a higher reality.

So what happened to my patient? I told him that before he bought another print he should buy the book. Know about the work he was buying: who made it, how they made it, why they made it, what they thought they were saying, what he experienced in a work’s presence. I pointed out a famous seal of Chinese scholars, often affixed to them to paintings they appreciated: “Once I see it, it’s mine.” Mine in their eyes and minds, their writings and posterity. Connecting with ideas larger than oneself may be easier when enjoying artworks that may last many lifetimes, telling different stories to follow generations.

He’s sleeping better now. He’s learned what many readers know well: that written works, artful or not, may bring on a state of calm, relaxed repose easily progressing to sleep.


About the Author

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.