What is art worth?
September 22, 2009
Adam’s post on marketing prompted me to comment, which prompted him to comment… and I think that time time has come for some of these comments to be seen by more people than just Adam & me. I know there are other artists/poets/etc. reading here and there, and I’d love to open a larger discussion on how the arts turn all freakishly weird once money gets involved.
“Prepare to Meet Thy G-d.” Incidentally, this piece was stolen from AS220 gallery in March 2007. AFTER it had been sold. If you have it, I’d really like it back.
For starters: How are you exhibiting this work in the first place? Are you in a gallery? Is this a show? Are you being published? How do you choose your venue? Your venue is going to decide your audience, and the right venue will bring the right audience. The wrong venue… well… it’s a waste of time at best.
Talking about the complications of spoken-word vs. visual art in terms of audience relations, Adam writes:
The work in the gallery may be funny, provocative, etc., but its primary criterion is Art. I think the verbally-performed work has a pretty high ratio of entertainment to art, and must keep people in their seats for the length of the show.
It’s hard fitting all the considerations in there; this show should be entertaining, or at the least, enjoyable, as well as profound, problematic, etc.
To which I respond:
Art has its own pressures – sure, you don’t have to keep an audience entertained, but if you’re going to try and sell your work, you have to think about whether or not someone is going to want to pay money to look at this crap day in and day out. And that’s after you’ve decided to “sell out.” Because oh yeah, there’s this romantical notion that making art is an end unto itself and that anyone who decides to make art based on what does (or even what *could*) sell has already signed a contract with Satan and isn’t a true artist in any sense of the word.
And yeah, there are a lot of “purists” in the art community who feel like work should never be sold and they’d never dirty their hands by exchanging filthy lucre for their art. And ok, I guess despite my obvious cynicism showing through here, that it’s a valid point of view. It’s not, however, a practical one. If you make stuff, you’ve got few options: keep it in your basement until the end of time, give it away, burn it, or sell it. I prefer selling it as then I know that someone is enjoying my work, which would otherwise be languishing in aforementioned (metaphorical) basement.
Book cover by Destructible Heart Press.
That’s right, you do have to consider who’s gonna wanna look at this thing you’ve created, day in/day out, don’t you? God, that’s wild. I obviously consider rereading, but the most part-of-the-visual-landscape time my books have to weather would be on a coffee table. And more likely on a bookshelf, the spine exposed.
This gets a little muddy when you break $1000 for most of us, I think, but the logic holds. When you break $5000 it moves from the object’s value to the individual into the realm of marketing value, where the sale is about the artist’s reputation, career, etc.
Because publishing is an art/industry of collections and reproduction, all parts of the formula are inverted, but the result is the same: will they buy it? What will they do with it then?
I guess what’s worrying me about the one man show is that folks will have to make an on-the-spot commitment to attend (for $15, $20), then another to buy a book (another $18 or so). Somehow, the thought of $35 on a moving performance-experience and a book is just as hard a decision for me as $50/month (for six months) for a collage I can’t imagine furnishing my apartment without. What they’re buying is the initial experience and the ability to relive it.
And I start getting a bit feisty…
It’s interesting to break down exactly what people are getting when they pay for “art” of whatever variety. People will easily plop down $35 on beers in one night, an experience that won’t be relived, but they get all tight-assed when the same amount is charged for art. I hate pricing shit, really hate it, and when someone tries to haggle with me, I want to poke my own eyes out. My favorite was at my Div III show when someone asked how much I’d sell one of the larger pieces for, I thought about it and said honestly “No less than $100.” She blinked a lot and said “Well, I was thinking I’d give you $20 for it.”
MY DIV FUCKING 3, PEOPLE. Yeah, art means different things to different people and I guess people don’t realize that when you buy original art (of whatever medium), you’re buying more than the net cost of the raw materials. You’ve got to pay for the labor as well. And whatever amount of the artist’s soul that may or may not have gone into it. I try to be reasonable about pricing my stuff, but if I’ve got something that’s hanging in a gallery, which means I had to pay to frame the whole damn show – and outside of Hampshire also means that I have to give up a chunk to commission for the gallery – you’d better believe you’re not getting it for $20.
Nor are you getting it for $20 when the show comes down, because that just sends the message “Like my stuff? Wait until I take it down! Then I’ll give it to you cheep!” Nope. No sir. Once it’s priced, it’s priced. End of story. Unless you’re like, my BFF or something. Then I just flat out feel bad taking your money. But that’s a different matter entirely.
(Sorry person who wanted to buy my stuff for $20. Yeah, there’s plenty of my stuff I’d be more than happy to part with for $20, but none of it has been framed and put in a gallery. Gotta recoup those framing costs, man.)
It goes in another direction, too. It’s them folks who Make It Look Easy, the masters, who inadvertently give the disastrous impression that there is no process. Of course you’re 200% right when you say you’re paying for labor, soul and materials. I’d add you’re paying for experience, craft, the work that didn’t make the cut, and frankly, that particular artist’s direct line to her particular muse. ALL OF WHICH ARE LEGITIMATE EXPENSES, and none of which we have any trouble rationalizing when buying a $50, gorgeously packaged bottle of booze. If only Dan Akroyd would shill my books.
I think this gets to a fundamental fear of art in post-WWII America. In the last 60 years, (and I blame Yoko for much of this) our artists were kicked off their pedestals and meat-tenderized into self-mocking, self-fulfilling clichés. When the art is so goddamn aloof (thanks again, Fluxus) that a generation of average citizens not only can’t see the relevance but can’t even get a foothold on what it is, they will tune it out. Meanwhile, the academic art community, with a stunning investment in the production of art only they can explain, will refine, refine, refine it until we’re left with two choices in their eyes: produce the unexplainable or sell out. (”A postmodern dialogistic hegemonic thrill ride” does not count as explanation.)
[painting by Mark Rothko]
And here is where I finally stop quoting our previous conversation and respond!
As much as I do love Yoko Ono, I think that Adam is dead on when he says that part of our culture’s current stance on art has to do with this idea that you have to be some kind of genius to either make or understand it. For example: Mark Rothko is my favorite painter, bar none. If you see his stuff in person, it’s nearly transcendent. I could stare at his works for hours, they’re almost spiritual to me. Now, it’s all about layering and what he does with color and how it flows together on the canvas, but to some people, it’s just blocks of color. And that’s cool.
I’ve had friends look at Rothko and say with total sincerity: “Give me some paint and a roller and I could do that.” Implying that because this doesn’t take any special talent, this isn’t “worth” it’s advertised “price.”
To which I have to say: WELL, GO DO IT! Not to say that you can’t, but that you should! If you think you can paint that, go! Paint it! Create something! Anything! If you think that modern art is meaningless because your four year old can do it, start framing your four year old’s work and putting it on the walls – or in galleries! If you don’t like Pollock because you think you can do better, please! Do better!
To go back around to Bill Hicks, it’s like when he’s describing the horrible fate of “rock” music in the 80’s and begs his audience to “sing from your fucking heart.”
MAKE SOMETHING. ANYTHING. Maybe you’ll sell it. Good for you. You do not have to belong to a secret club to be an artist and sell work. There is no cabal deciding what’s art and what’s not. There are no puppeteers pulling the strings on “artists.” This isn’t a game. You can get involved right now on the ground level and create whatever you want and participate in the process.
And if you’re not up for that? That’s fine, but please don’t try and get me to sell you my work for “cheap.” Blood, sweat, and tears man. Blood, sweat, and tears.
This rambling brought to you by “Hi. I spent four years in art school and didn’t walk out a better artist than when I started, although I am now at least ten times more petulant.”
(To tone down the petulance a notch: I’m really serious that if you think that you can make art that’s better than calling a urinal a “readymade,” go for it. I totally want to see more artists in the world, not fewer. And if you want to sell it? By all means, find your buyer. It may nor may not be me purchasing it, but I’ll be behind you with the pompoms cheering you on.)