The Worth of Art and Artists

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.

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14 thoughts on “The Worth of Art and Artists

  1. Thank you for writing this. It has really opened my eyes. I feel foolish for not understanding sooner.

  2. Deb says:

    A good educational post and exactly correct. I will restrain myself from writing more as my comment will end up longer than your post. Let’s just say I agree with you!

    • art3g says:

      I know what you mean! I wrote all that on the spur of the moment without a clear idea of where I was going, but eventually I had to stop. There is too much to say on this subject all at once.

      • Deb says:

        I have never quite understood where the concept that art should be “cheap” or “free” comes from, especially when most people can barely muster a stick person. The same with handmade items. How do we start to educate people so that they get it?

        • art3g says:

          They have to try it themselves to have a true understanding. Try one art form and have greater respect for them all. There is also a strange idea that local artists are not as good as someone from anywhere else. Is that just a small town bias?

          • Deb says:

            It’s crazy isn’t it? The art world is also so weird and clique-y. I always notice how the groups form and take over shows even though it isn’t always the best work. I recently went to a show here in town, the “big name” had two walls full of average work, while stuffed in a corner were 5 pieces from an artist that I had never heard of that were stunning. I stood there with my mouth open wondering why we had never heard of this painter whose work was so amazing while the “well known name” (for our area is the one everyone goes on about (and wrangles every exhibition space in town). Crazy politics. I sometimes think the only chance is for people to create their own exhibition spaces and work outside the traditional format a bit. You can tell I have an idea brewing in the back of my head, can’t you?

            • art3g says:

              I love a brewing idea! This is all very familiar. At a sale, what sells is what has already sold to someone else. If a person of a particular sort purchases something, others will follow. The number of “followers” an artist has is not dependent on artistic skill. Possibly social skill? I always find myself turned off by someone with a spiel, someone who is more business like about their work, and yet I find myself doing the same thing just to get people to actually look at things. How do you get people to take time to consider what they are looking at? To really see? Which is the difference between an artist and a non-artist, I think. An artist has studied the visual and sensual world and is trained in taking time for details. Others are more influenced by politics and popularity. I think your idea of a single exhibition space might be just the thing! I sense an artist at work!

            • Deb says:

              I have a project that I am slowly working on. It is tricky building the project while creating the work to make the project fly (while feeding and cleaning up after 5 kids!). I’ll have to tell you about it once I have it up and going if I can make it work.

            • art3g says:

              Excellent 🙂 And thanks! Good luck with this!

  3. notewords says:

    Oh yes!
    ‘Give it to me for almost nothing and be glad I bought it. You enjoy doing it, don’t you? And you can always make another one.’
    Grrrrrr

  4. David says:

    Thought I might be too late to comment on your original blog four days ago, but it looks like it has stimulated a following, and so it should.
    This is the type of information that should be on everyone’s fridge.
    The blog was truly well written and direct from the heart with no interference from a controlled editing mind – mostly.
    It makes me proud and happy to say I know the author so well.

    While not an artist per say, I understand and envy the work they so enjoy; their creativity reaching up towards the incredible standards of nature itself. I am often mystified by the beauty and inventiveness that is portrayed in paintings, sculptures, and other works that are inspired by ingenious minds.

    Don’t let uninformed opinion affect your determination! Keep your flare for artistic pursuits alive and evolving. You do not need to cater to the uninformed mass who buys their velvet paintings from Mexico at Target.
    There are real appreciators (new word) in the world who know what you are doing and who will support you.

    Now I need a release to send your blog to the local newspaper.

    • art3g says:

      Sure, you can have whatever you want after leaving such a nice comment 🙂 Thanks! You have a good idea of the frustrations of independent business yourself. Also, you create things! And no doubt you do some creative thinking to get it all done.

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