Musings on Photography

The Artist’s Way of Commerce

Posted in art is a verb, business, the art world by Paul Butzi on May 2, 2007


Lately I’ve noticed (and not for the first time) that a major activity of artists is whining about how hard it is to make a decent living by making (and selling) art.  Amongst the complaints:

  • Being an artist is an inherently risky occupation, so artists should be better compensated.  (Artists are heroes, but they are under-appreciated and underpaid for their heroism.)

  • There are more people to be consumers of art than ever before in the history of humanity, so it should be easier to sell art than ever before, and artworks should bring higher prices as well.  (the art market is crooked, and the capitalists are ripping us off.)

  • If it weren’t for the ongoing conspiratorial excesses of those aesthetically challenged capitalist pigs, artists would find it easy to make money.  (The Man keeps on putting me down.)

  • If someone goes to school and studies to be a doctor, or a mechanic, or a software engineer, or a truck driver, they are almost guaranteed a job that pays a living wage.  If someone goes to art school, they get no guarantees of employment.  (being an artist takes as much training as being an engineer, so if engineers are making more money, artists are being treated unfairly).

  • When an artist actually DOES become financially successful, it’s never a REAL artist.  It’s always one of those commercial sellout bastards like Thomas Kinkade, making disgustingly large amounts of money selling schlock art to ignorant capitalist jerks looking for something to match their sofa.  (The wrong artists get rich.  People with money have no taste.)

All of this reminds me of a story I heard a while back, about failure to understand how free markets work.  The story goes that an Alaskan native, used to living a subsistence lifestyle, had decided that he needed some money.  So, he formulated a plan to make money – he went off, and made a large number of baskets.  Then he took the baskets to town, intending to exchange them for money.

Sadly, no one wanted the baskets, and so not only did he end up with many baskets unsold, but the baskets that did sell fetched a very low price.  This made the basketmaker very angry – he felt that he’d done his part by making the baskets.  Now it was the responsibility of the REST of the world to buy the baskets he’d made.  If people weren’t buying his baskets, it just wasn’t fair.  He’d put a lot of time and effort into basketmaking, and now people had the unmitigated gall to NOT BUY THEM.  Clearly, he concluded, the system was crooked.

It seems to me that most artists are making the same mistake as the basketmaker in the story – they’e making art, and they invest a great deal of time, energy, and effort in their art.  They take big artistic risks, they enter into uncharted artistic territory.  They produce work that makes brave social commentary and shatters the world view of the capitalist bourgeoisie.  And, having made this art, they expect that reward will be automatic.  They’ve done the work, and now it’s the responsibility of the rest of society to reward them.

But it doesn’t work that way.  Before people are going to buy the output of your artistic genius, they’re going to have to want to own it.  If your art does not generate in them a craving to possess it, it will be just like the Alaskan basketmaker’s baskets – nice, but unwanted.  And, as a general rule, people do not buy things they do not want.  Would you go out into the forest, and work hard digging holes in the ground, and then expect to be well paid because digging holes is damn hard work?  What is it about artmaking that makes everyone think that the outcome of artmaking is necessarily more desirable than unbidden holes in the middle of the forest?

The problem here, as it has always been, is that in general artists are trapped into thinking that people will want to buy their artwork because it’s creative, it’s adventurous, it’s inventive, it’s challenging, or it took guts and fortitude to make.  In short, they expect their artwork to sell because it’s art.

But people don’t buy art.  And, although I’m sure this is personally disappointing to artists everywhere, this is a good thing.

Making money by making Art is about figuring out how to convince people that their lives are enriched by what you’re doing, and convincing them that they would be happier if they exchanged some of their money for some participation in your creative process.  Sometimes it may involve some lateral thinking about what product you’re actually selling.

Suppose, for instance, that you’re troubled because your highly emotion-packed, insightful, meaningful paintings about how Women Have Been Subjugated By Millenia Of Ruthless Patriarchal Oppression seems to be selling poorly, and people are saying that’s because they find art that graphically depicts vivisection and castration of men somewhat offputting and that they just don’t think the colors work well in the dining room.  In that case, stop trying to sell the artwork.  Instead, try selling participation in workshops where the participants get a chance to express their deepest, unvoiced anxieties (even those which are socially unacceptable) by making their own art.

Why will this work?  Because instead of unsuccessfully selling a physical object that people find aversive, you’ll be demonstrating that people’s lives can be enhanced by their own  process of artmaking.

It’s almost as if Art is a Verb, not a Noun.

9 Responses

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  1. tim atherton said, on May 2, 2007 at 6:47 am

    this is why the best art has almost always been suppoorted by wealthy patrons of one sort or another.

  2. Adamo said, on May 2, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    The Alaskan basketmaker story comes from Thoreau’s WALDEN. Best advice on selling art: don’t fret about it. Just keep honing your skills, and believe it or not, you’ll reach a stage of development that buyers can’t resist.

  3. Pitchertaker said, on May 2, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    How come so often the complaining artist seem bent towards socialism? We do, afterall, live in a capitalist society, and I for one have no complaint about that! The real solution is to do what I did: marry someone who is willing to support your art habit. Nice if you sell something, but not necessary for you to continue as an artist. Besides, being a house husband isn’t all that bad.

  4. tim atherton said, on May 2, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    I’m also wondering if perhaps Van Gogh might have had much better sales if he’s run some workshops as well?

    you can produce decor or you can make art – but they aren’t the same thing – not by a long stretch

  5. tim atherton said, on May 2, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    The real solution is to do what I did: marry someone who is willing to support your art habit. Nice if you sell something, but not necessary for you to continue as an artist. Besides, being a house husband isn’t all that bad.

    it’s also good if you can get the government to pay for your art. in recent times both socialist (indeed communist) and conservative/capitalist governments have been very major funders of art of all sorts (heck, the CIA has even funded art in a big way). you just have to find your way to the money.

  6. Brandon Smith said, on May 3, 2007 at 7:05 am

    I think art and decor can be the same thing, easily.

    Does it evoke “ahh” from the viewer?

    I see a lot about “edgy” and “pushing the boundaries” in discussions about “art.” But in the end, isn’t art simply something that pleases the viewer? Does it really have to mean something?

  7. Chris Doll said, on May 3, 2007 at 7:08 am

    Good piece – focus is why do I want your art – what does it mean to me?

  8. meredith said, on May 3, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    Recently I have been asking myself the same questions. With all of the dot com buzz, I wondered how an artist can even be marketable on the internet these days with so much competition. The only thing that’s kept me going (I’m a freelance photographer) is this new website I happened on called I create my own profile and can tell people about my art – before they look in my “gallery”, really an online portfolio. The site is set up nicely – check it out and let me know what you think.

  9. Jamaica Plain Open Studios - Blog said, on May 4, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    […] Check it out and see what you think: The Artist’s Way of Commerce. […]

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