Art is subjective, just like music and other creative arts are subjective. Art has hundreds of genres and styles. Everyone has a different definition of what’s good. This is a beautiful fact about art – a piece of artwork can speak to different people in different ways; it initiates the act of comprehension, both emotionally and intellectually. Like book critiques and critiques on music, art critics run the gamut when it comes to this super-subjective medium. What one person likes, another does not. This is where we encounter our first problem.
For those of you who are artists and you have not yet dipped your toes into the pool that is the commercial art world, please listen closely. The commercial art world is composed of galleries, exhibits, juried art shows and commissions. It has been my observation over the past thirty years that talent rarely enters the frame when an artist is chosen as the “next big thing.” If you doubt the art world is about politics and who you know, visit a gallery. Visit an exhibit. Better yet, go to a juried show and see who placed. Yes, some pieces are superb, but I have been confused more than once when these bizarre politics come into play. More often than not the recipe for success in the art world includes knowing the right people – and by right people I mean those with money who follow the latest fad – quantity over quality, accepting commissions from elite sectors, and last but certainly not least, expounding upon your personal woes. The following is a true story:
I spent two years working in a very wealthy, very elite community within a large city – one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the US, in fact. I was all over the art there – trying to discover the art and artisans within their community. (A community’s artisans are often the soul of that community – their art is a legacy and a reflection of their area.) A very popular gallery took artists’ works and marked them up 300% – a common practice. (If an artist wanted $100 for an oil painting, it sold for $400 and the artist got their original $100. I affectionately call these Art Pimps.) Art collectors in the community were excited about an invitation-only exhibit for a particular artist and my friend had an invitation. I had heard about this artist and his paintings were coveted. I wanted to see his work. With a bit of timing and some happenstance, I went the day before the opening and saw his work before it hung on the walls. I was shocked! The piece to be auctioned off was messy at best – a painting smeared in muted colors and portraying semi-human figures with abstract tendencies. Good or bad? Depends on who is looking at the art – but that is not what got to me. I started asking people why this painting was so coveted. The answer was both consistent and shocking. Patrons shared the tale in hushed tones. It went something like this, “The artist is gay and his father never accepted him. He and his father have not spoken for years. He found out his father was dying with cancer and went to visit him, to try to make amends before his death. The father would not even acknowledge his presence. When the son (artist) left the hospital, he drove down the interstate at over 100 miles an hour, and finally attempted suicide by veering off the road to wreck his car. THIS PAINTING was in the trunk of his car when he attempted suicide! The emotion of it is incredible. He just got out of the hospital himself – they don’t think he’ll be at the gallery but we’re hoping…..”
That is a true story. Not once did I hear anyone say anything about the painting and its compositions. It was sheer sensationalism from the start. That painting sold for over $8,000. The artist came to the gallery on crutches. He signed autographs. I have witnessed this type of event several times since – where people are more interested in the human story than the actual work. I have seen this happen in the music world, as well. A singer cannot sing and the song is not great, but the clothes are flashy and their personal life is a tabloid sensation. This phenomenon, which I call the “Freak Factor” has a whole lot to do with how some artists ever get in the limelight. The more bizarre the artist and his/her life, the more expensive the painting will be. My advice: suffer for your art. It definitely pays.
Let us take a moment to discuss art shows. Every city and most towns have art shows, and there are judges. These judges should be qualified to handle these shows, and by qualified I mean educated in the world of art. They usually choose art professors, artists of repute, and art historians to judge these events. Do not be afraid to ask about their qualifications. If they are affronted by your curiosity, be wary. Warning: if you think toddler infused beauty pageants are a disgusting display of human emotion, enter an art show! I have seen artists tear into one another, spread rumors about one another, accuse each other of cheating by stating their works aren’t original….the list goes on. Sadly, most of these people do not have a life outside of these events and they are desperate for some good old-fashioned recognition. Not all artists are involved in this embarrassing display, but I have witnessed it too many times to discount it. If you enter a show, be genuine and let your work speak to patrons. Be gracious. Observe. Visit other booths and offer compliments to those whose works you admire. Art shows need sincerity like children need hugs. Do not participate in gossip. BE HUMBLE. Know above all else that your status or lack thereof in the art show is NOT a reflection of your talents. I have another true story.
There was an artist who was a realist and did portraiture. Her works were incredible. She was an empty-nester who picked up a paintbrush after spending 20 years raising children. She had a natural talent. A friend (me) convinced her to join a local art association. She met other men and women whom she believed shared her passion for the creative process. Then it happened. The group decided to compete in a large juried show out of town. This woman was new to the show arena, so she simply packed up her paintings and displayed them without any fanfare. (Most artists create “booths” which emulate a miniature gallery atmosphere.) This woman won a blue ribbon in four categories and sold every single painting she took to the show! A museum curator approached her at one point and expressed great interest in her works. What she didn’t notice were the other members of her group. They were seething with jealousy. In the following month, they rescheduled their meetings and did not inform her, made NO mention of her successes in their newsletter, and excommunicated her from their association. It was ugly. The woman was crushed. The disillusionment was rampant. How could this happen?? Remember the beauty pageant allegory? While not all artists are pit bulls with paintbrushes, please have your armor handy when you do encounter the jealous types. If you still want to delve into the art world, it helps to have a very thick skin.
There is a valid reason for the starving artist theory. The other day I had coffee with an incredible artist who is a friend of mine. He is virtually unknown in our community, and yet he is a treasure! He is world renowned for his magnificent watercolors paintings of birds – especially pigeons. He has done commission work and even book covers. A Vietnam vet, he is reclusive and humble. He paints because he doesn’t have a choice. Inspiration is his muse and he answers whenever she calls. He is a purist when it comes to artistic talent. By this I mean he paints only that which he is inspired to paint, and he has even denounced commission work. I see him two or three times a year – when he’s ready for a visit. If I am blessed, I get to see one of his beautiful paintings! He was expressing his personal convictions concerning art, and here is what he said:
“A woman asked me the other day, “Look at your hands! They do not look like they could hold a brush much less paint!” I told her the painting – the art – doesn’t come from my hands. It bleeds from my heart, from my soul, through my fingers and onto the paper. I am so sick of people, when they see my works – which you know the paintings are like my children – they say “If I could paint like that I’d be a millionaire – you should sell your work!!” Well, I have sold my work, and it breaks my heart. Each piece is so personal, so intense, I know its meaning, I know its feeling – I created it! I made it! How can I sell that to a stranger who does not know it? I have done commissions, when I had to. I think every artist does. But my work – the paintings I create in my mind and birth onto paper, they are precious and they are gifts. I give my art away, like a kiss or a flower. When you give someone a piece of your art, a piece of your heart, it is a great gift. Dollars cannot give you that. Some people say I’m talented, I don’t know about that. I do know I paint because it keeps me alive, gives me purpose, makes me whole.”
Amen. There is an immense sense of irony involved in the argument that art can be priceless. Indeed, to the point of free! As an art agent, I recognize the starving artist theory in other artists. There are the artists who are chomping at the bit to get into the arena and make some dough, and then there are the artists (my favorite) who have incredible talent and no idea anyone else would be interested in their work. To me, these are the best artists! Sure, they may be convinced they can make a little money down the road, and that is great. In the beginning, however, finding them is like unearthing gold treasure. I love scouting new talent, as I love art of every shape and size. The artists who see their works as an extension of their selves are the ones who make me grin. The art they produce is obviously inspired and a treat for all who see their work. These people give their work away – as gifts to friends and family. Some are daunted by the prospect of pricing their art. Those who do price their works usually cover costs alone. Having seen thousands of paintings in my lifetime, and knowing what paintings can go for, I am pretty good at slapping a gallery price on someone’s work. Pricing art is another article for another time, but often people are shocked when I tell them various prices for various markets. Their answer says it all: “I thought $20 would cover it.”
A good exercise for any artist is to venture out and find local artisans. Go by word of mouth and see if there are any artists in your community. Most of them have no idea they represent the culture of that community!! Find them, look at their work, get to know them. Just like you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a work of art by its creator! Example: a weathered farmer in our town makes the most beautiful stained glass windows you’ve ever seen. He makes them in his barn when he has “a few minutes”. Who would have known? I told him I would love to see one of his pieces in the city’s art museum! He scoffed and laughed. See? It’s like panning for gold and striking it rich. Art is the heartbeat of the region – the soul of an area. Art is a reflection of a peoples and their culture. The art of a community is the legacy of that community. Nurture that legacy and discover some great art! By doing this, you will grow as an artist. Do not allow commercialism and mainstream attention to dilute the quality of your gift. If fame and fortune happen and you get noticed, magnificent. Better to be recognized for your gifts and your works than for your dirty laundry and your gimmicks.
Let us recognize those artists who are talented and starting to make money. BE CAREFUL. Ask yourself a few valid questions. What am I worth? What is this painting worth to me? What prices are other artists with similar works getting? So many times I see great artists underestimating their work. Regardless of market and style, examine your ability to do something most people cannot do themselves. Art is called a gift for a reason. If you are an artist, you are gifted. You have something to offer which other people would love to have. There was a time when people feared the invention of photography would cause the extinction of portraiture. They were wrong for a reason. Nothing can compete with a hand crafted painting of a person. The ethereal and intellectual aspects of art are too many to delve into here, but know that your ability to create art is a talent with a fan club. Now, take your works of art and drive around to galleries and show them what you have. If they like what they see, stay in control of the conversation. Ask them what their policy is. Are they Art Pimps? Do they want to be in total control of your pricing? If so, what do you make? Do you name your own price? If so, what percentage do you get? There are no laws governing the financial dealings of art brokers and art dealers – so you need to have your game face on. Decide ahead of time what you’re worth and what you’re willing to pay someone to showcase your work. Sadly, there are a lot of people who would love to make big bucks off your incredible painting – while you get a small portion of the money. Be firm, be professional, and remember that they are not the ones who make a name for you! YOU are the one who makes a name for yourself by the works you create. Galleries and shows are vehicles used to publicly display your work. A good gallery is one that respects you as an artist and encourages good pricing while taking a reasonable fee or commission for your successful sales. A good gallery nurtures its artists and educates the surrounding community about art. Stay away from the used car dealerships of the art world. After a few conversations, you’ll be able to spot the art pimps without much effort. Good luck out there!
Without art, this world would be desolate. Art is so many things to so many people. Art is valuable and necessary. Art is therapeutic, both in the creation of works and in the viewing of those works. As an artist, be true to your talent and know your art is valuable and worthy. As in any business venture, do your research and be savvy when negotiating your gifts. If an artist is interested in entering the public eye, I always ask what they desire to gain from the experience, and proceed accordingly. The art world is a vast world and not every experience is bad. Use common sense and ask questions. My hope for all artists, including myself, is to continue the creative process and thus better the world one painting or drawing or sculpture at a time. Now stop reading and go create something!