Are watches really art?

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

– Edgar Degas

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,

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  • Meh. I say it, i mean it. I will continue to say to me watches are art. ;-). I am not the super-complication guy , though i do enjoy them. I prefer the LM1 to the L M perpetual (lil too busy front view for me) and have no issue with my three highest $ pieces being time only. My closest non-social media friends have no clue of my craziness, i am not a fan of the 5711 nor multicolored bezeled subs ( prefer unique to herd pieces) So if not art, than what is it to me?

  • Though a small niche of true collectors might basque in the cultural significance of timepieces,
    > Bask, not basque… and no true scotsman!

    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.
    >The accompanying culture is that of capitalism, which is global, pervasive, and all too real. Don’t like the scoring system? There are always other games, eg. China’s Social Credit System. Is one more dystopian or perverse than the other? Depends on your frame of reference.

    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.
    >All in good time! Video art and digital art are also in their infancy and not nearly as widely appreciated as sculpture or painting, for example. The horological arts are only a few centuries old compared to the millennia we’ve had to appreciate more traditional forms of art. Isn’t it ironic that the solution to the acceptance of time-centric arts is… time itself?

    • Euskara on my mind 😀 Thanks for the catch!

      I think my response to both the second and third point overlap. That is, a lot of the blurry definition of "watches are art" probably does have to do with this idea being quite new – you’re right! We’re still trying to figure out what that means exactly and how to handle it from many different perspectives (consumer, collector, journalist, brand, dealer, auction house). Obviously, some have caught onto its significance and made use of it earlier than others, namely the sales side of the watch industry. The buy side, the community is still very much training its eye, myself included, of course!

      I have a broad question for you on this matter of the maturation of "watches are art," what role do you think writing will take in its development?

      Thanks for the comment, as always! Appreciate it, Pete!

      • What role will writing take in the development of watchmaking as an art form? Being a lover of text in a predominately visual world, I’m certainly biased on this point, so I can’t help but see a complementary role for the written word alongside visual communication. There’s so much that can’t be expressed in pictures. We need words.

        As Jony Ive recently mentioned in his IG Live interview with the Royal College of Arts, the more he matures as an artist, the smaller his pictures get and the lengthier his text gets. Likewise, the best architects understand how important written specifications are to the realisation of their rendered visions, and how important it is to enforce those specs against less-than-scrupulous general contractors. Words matter so much when achieving a vision, whether building a building, building a culture, or building a community. Making the implicit into the explicit is a hugely powerful means of communication, which is one of the things that Virgil Abloh has figured out so well.

        To bring it back to watches, isn’t an auction catalogue description arguably the most important piece of the puzzle for prospective buyers, providing context as it does to the two-dimensional (and potentially doctored) images? Those who are unable to see the watches in-person rely on nothing but the reputation of the auction house and by extension the perceived accuracy of the description. Without these all-important words, a 30mm watch looks identically proportioned to a 50mm watch. The picture is 2" tall on your screen regardless. Again, we need words.

        So in the midst of this health/economic crisis, it should be as evident as ever that we need. Words of support, words of understanding, words of empathy, words of expression, words of meaning…

  • If we find something beautiful, then surely it classes as art to us…

  • Hi there. When will you be writing more articles?