We were viewing an art show today when some one came along and said “nice paintings, but I wish the price would come down”.
This is a comment often heard from people who have everyday employment with a steady wage: payment for hours worked, period. It is difficult for a person used to such a system to consider an alternate universe where one is paid in a hit and miss fashion, not according to hours worked, without a guaranteed return on money spent, and with little consideration for years of training.
Why does a painting cost what it does? Because it took several hours to paint, and likely years of training and practice to produce. Because it took paint and brushes and paper to make. Because the mounting or framing costs cold, hard cash. Because an artist would dearly love to be paid for his or her skills just as a clerk or bus driver, nurse or construction worker would be. Will the price come down? Not unless the artist is giving the piece away.
The artist-framer should not be expected to throw in free materials, time or skills. A bus driver who is also a plumber would be paid for his presence at each work site and for each set of skills. A manager with more years of experience deserves higher pay, does she not? But the self-employed artist does not expect such a perk. Many people are paid by their presence, not their hourly achievements, and the artist is paid for neither.
Most people are able to choose their career paths. Many make their choices in search of freedom, respect, security, enjoyment, or whatever their priorities may be. Each path is a wise one if it suits the person who treads it, and each has benefits and difficulties. Yet art, in all it’s forms, undefined in worth, subject to whim, and intensely personal, is somehow different from all other activities we might call work. To complain about the price of a piece is to opine about a single person and at the same time question all artists and craftspeople. It causes one to attempt to appeal to a non-artist’s sensibilities: to define worth by concrete prices for materials or hourly wage when art is art exactly because it is not subject to such things. The value in art is emotional, decorative, cultural. It is for the sake of image, desire, fashion, preservation, nostalgia… All important, yet vague, trendy yet personal, fleeting yet timeless sensibilities unique to the human race. It is not simple, as needing a mechanic because the car doesn’t run is simple, necessary, and obvious.
Art is not understood by all and it can hardly be explained through comparison to things which are not art. But it is work. It is sometimes very difficult work involving manual labour, blood, sweat and tears. There are definitely tears, sometimes the result of personal frustrations, and sometimes because of the futility of explaining art and the job to those who just aren’t artists.
A good artist will never put a piece on sale. A good artist knows her worth is not dependent upon the opinions of others.
In a perfect alternate universe, the artists would be paid: a nice hourly wage, benefits, travel expenses, training expenses, a set amount of holiday time, coffee and lunch breaks, overtime for evenings and weekends, and a few international conferences per year plus stress leave and maternity/paternity leave. There would be no commissions of 25 – 50% subtracted from each sale, and all equipment and supplies would be provided.