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.

Adam responds:

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.)


9 Responses to “What is art worth?”

  1. amy Says:

    I love Rothko. And Duchamps. And I even have a soft spot for Yoko, haha.

    But one thing I find interesting about the narrative of 20th century art is that is *not* meant to be elite and exclusive. Very many of these artists (Duchamps, definitely) were actively working to take art *out* of the academy… they were horrified by artists who worked only to impress the judges at the Salons or at quite literal art academies. They felt that the old style — representational, “realist”, classicizing, what have you — was self-perpetuating and incestuous and alienating to the masses/proletariat/bourgeoisie who couldn’t give a crap about how Eurydice looked at Orpheus, or an image of a sunbeam through a crystal bowl.

    So these 20th C artists were like, screw all that. Let’s throw out the rule book and use a whole new vocabulary of art, a vocabulary that’s made up of things everyone knows: advertising slogans and comic books and readymade objects. Let’s use electric lights and machines and video and neon! Or let’s just play with colors and shapes and lines, because everyone understands that!

    And it… kind of breaks my heart how badly they failed. I mean, they didn’t completely fail, because they made a lot of beautiful and important and funny and awesome stuff that is loved by people like you and me. But the people who were meant to “get” this art… they’re busy sneering at the whole thing.

    • Sonja Says:

      Everytime I think of Duchamp and the readymades, I think of the irony that the Ivory Tower praises his work for being so counter-establishment and everybody else in the world thinks that it’s a statement on the sad state of affairs in the “art world” that a urinal is put on a (literal and metaphorical) pedestal. Ah, Duchamp. How could you have known?

      And yeah, the people who were supposed to “get it” are either sneering at it or think that they’re missing something because they don’t get it, and instead of realizing that there’s nothing to “get,” they decide that it’s just because the art is elitist and they’re not privy to the joke or whatever.

      Which, yeah, is entirely antithetical to what the point was supposed to be. Modern art has created an establishment of its own out of people who “get it” when really, the whole point was supposed to be the complete lack of “getting.”

  2. amy Says:

    also wth I know how to spell Duchamp. argh.

  3. Adam Says:


    And it… kind of breaks my heart how badly they failed. I mean, they didn’t completely fail, because they made a lot of beautiful and important and funny and awesome stuff that is loved by people like you and me. But the people who were meant to “get” this art… they’re busy sneering at the whole thing.

    Bam. Exactly. But there were a lot of reasons for that, and I think a lot of it can be summed up in Duchamp’s urinal. His response was clever, profound, mocking, and above all AGGRESSIVE. The futurists’ and dadaists’ tactics were so diametrically oriented to everything else on stage that they didn’t actually involve the audience. I think they were more interested in snubbing the academy than inviting the audience into the act, even where the art broke the 4th wall. (See Duchamp’s International Surrealist Show contribution of cables in the gallery, making it impossible for viewers to see the show without contorting their way through the room.)


    Again, Duchamp comes to mind, with this doozy: “Art is whatever an artist says it is.” I love the paradox. Wanna define art? Be an artist. Wanna be an artist? Make art. It’s so elegantly problematic it shuts down my brain EVERY TIME. I stop worrying and just do the thing.

    But then, what of the people who do take up the challenge. What of them? Most of the time, like all of us starting out, they produce the crappiest crap in all of Crapland, and realizing how hard it is to make a compelling document of human expression, and decide either to continue or revere a little more what they can’t do. Maybe both. But occasionally, and we hate dwelling on it, we do get folks like Jonah, or Simon Grim, who bumble into art and more perplexingly into instant success.

    It brings me back, inevitably, to my own work. I’m no art crusader. I think the decision to create one must come to terms with at any and all hours: at home, in bed, on the subway, in line at the café. And while I’ll forever advocate the option to explore it, I think ultimately it’s not my business whether someone else must take up the call — until they put their wack-ass poetry in my face. 😉

    And then, thank god, the question is not whether or not to create. Then the question is whether what you’ve created moves me — qualified only as someone other than you — at all.

    • Sonja Says:

      Dude, I still produce some of the crappiest crap in all of Crapland. I think really, the “calling” or whatever to be an artist comes down to the fact that those of us who have “received the call” continue to keep going despite producing crap and with total knowledge that we will continue to produce crap. To me, that’s the essence of being an “artist” as opposed to a hobbyist.

      And again, that’s totally subjective. You can consider yourself an artist if you paint with your butt. Good for you. I think that a lot of people confuse appreciating art with liking it. I appreciate your butt paintings, man, but that doesn’t mean that I LIKE them.

      • Adam Says:

        Like any lifetime commitment, it’s the faith that the good days outnumber the bad that keeps me going. We all have license to produce crap, but I like to hold it there, at license; I need to believe that the majority of what I produce (over a reasonable timetable) will be worthwhile.

      • Sonja Says:

        Oh, definitely. My hope is that over my life time my crap:art ratio will eventually reach 1:1. Right now I’d say I’m at about 5:1 on average – 3:1 on a good day. That is to say, for every three pieces I produce, there is 1 that *I* can live with.

      • Adam Says:

        Hm. That’s a little scary to me.

        Going by the what-makes-the-book figures, mine’s about .6:1. That is, I produce a little over half as much crap as stuff I’m happy with. If we’re going only by what I can live with, that number is even wider, maybe .2:1.

        But if you count the warm-ups, which I don’t think of as poems, but the literary equivalent of stretching before working out, then it’s 1.1:1 all the way.

  4. Adam Says:


    Most of the time, like all of us starting out, they produce the crappiest crap in all of Crapland, and realizing how hard it is to make a compelling document of human expression, they decide either to continue or revere a little more what they can’t do.

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