Musings on Photography

One more time, with feeling (and three part harmony)

Posted in art is a verb, business, print pricing, the art world by Paul Butzi on December 20, 2007

 Imgs 5D-060404-1979-600

Some of the comments (and emails) provoked by my recent musings on print pricing and print sales have accused me of thinking that (as an artist) all you should think about is selling, selling, selling and making money, making money, making money.

I’d like to make my views on this perfectly clear, so I’m going to try hard to write this down in a way that cannot be misconstrued.

I think all people should make art. When I say ‘all people’, I don’t mean ‘all people’ as in ‘all people with great artistic skill’, I mean ‘all people’ as in ‘all living members of the species Homo sapiens’. That is, I believe that, if only everyone would spend a little bit of time making art, the world of people would be a nicer place. I think that virtually everyone’s life is improved by artmaking, and not just art spectating. I believe that when you’re doing it right, art is not a spectator sport.

I also think that, certain fields of artistic endeavor excepted, art should be made without concern over how well it will sell, or even whether it will sell at all. As a general thing, I think that restricting your artmaking to stuff that will sell is probably a soul-killling thing. To put it as plainly as I can, I think the big value in artmaking is not the final product, but the engagement of the art-maker in the process.

That said, once you have engaged in artmaking and you’re left with this artifact that’s a side effect of the process, I don’t see much reason why you shouldn’t try to sell the thing off for a bit of money either to defray expenses or to earn a living. And, once you’ve decided to sell things, I don’t see it as evil or bad to engage in a little thought about how you might sell it at the greatest profit possible.

Some comments have also suggested that I think that art galleries are bad. Again, let me try to write my views so plainly that they can’t be misinterpreted.

I think art galleries can be good or bad. One problem I have with art galleries is that they can’t take much risk – they must show what will sell, and they will only show stuff that they are quite certain they can sell. This is not because gallery owners are fascists, it’s because gallery owners want to be in business next month, so that they can show some more art. But this aversion to risk and requirement of making money imposes constraints on galleries – they can’t take much risk, they can only show art that is currently fashionable, and in general they must price to cover their overhead. And as a result, they can only deal in a narrow range of art, and they can only sell that art into a narrow market. Those two unfortunate facts are not caused by gallery owners being bad or evil or in any way less than stellar folks. They’re caused by the fact that, no matter how perfect the intentions and goals of the gallery owner, the gallery owner cannot suspend the laws of economics.

Finally, I think that the economics of the situation mean that art galleries may be a great fit for artists whose works are made in onesies, but that the same excellent art galleries may not be a great fit for photographers, whose art can now be made (with undiminished quality) in quantities ranging from tens to thousands.

I’ve also been accused of having ‘issues’ with the art world’.

I think that one side effect of the gallery system of art sales is that artists who are trying to get their work into galleries tend to engage in behaviors that they believe will make their art more saleable. Those behaviors are sometimes outrageous, sometimes hugely (and amusingly) conformist, and often both. Often the behaviors consist of ex post facto attribution of preposterous meaning to artworks, and attempts to justify outrageous value of artworks by unsupported attributing to them of various poorly defined qualities. Even worse, I believe that those behaviors are socially corrosive in the sense that they turn the larger public off and convince them that art and the art world are something they have no use for at all.

If this constitutes ‘having a problem with the art world’ then I plead very much guilty as charged.

Folks who think that what I’ve written here is some recent epiphany for me are encouraged to go read Art is a Verb, Not a Noun, People Don’t Buy Art and No One Buys Art Part II, and perhaps The Artist’s Way of Commerce.

3 Responses

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  1. sjconnor said, on December 20, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    People don’t enough art history, is the problem. The idea of the “artist” as some pure, unfettered-by-economics, free spirit, is darn recent (not to mention silly). Ask Rembrandt how he feels about the idea. Or Van Gogh. No patrons, no bucks, no life as an artist. Ask Ansel Adams about Folger’s coffee. Reality bites, but that’s not going to make it go away.

    And, for that matter, what’s with the “if it ain’t expensive, it ain’t art,” notion? Here I was thinking artists were on the side of the poor and downtrodden but, no – at least, not in the eyes of some of the folks who’ve been posting. “If they can’t pay me $10,000.00 for my fantastically brilliant photo, tough. They don’t deserve it.” Or, maybe they’ll just go make their own.

    Give me the “low price, high volume” model any day.

  2. David Ray Carson said, on December 21, 2007 at 8:08 am

    I’m just not seeing enough public/buyer dissatisfaction with the current gallery model (either virtual or physical), as there is plenty of inexpensive art to buy.

    Mostly, only some artists are yelling.

    Buyers tend to force the solutions after pent up demand. The central problem with buying art isn’t distribution, it’s selection, the opposite problem of music. People don’t know what art they like (or “should” like), or what is “good.” They want someone to vet their selections down. Anyone who has been to an art fair knows what I mean…I want to run screaming to a museum or gallery after the 13th photo of a rowboat on a lake with a sunset blazing in the background. Even a mall gallery works this way…people who like mall galleries don’t want to see some abstract who-ha next to their Redlin, darnit. Whereas with music, people know what they like instinctively. They have confidence in what they choose.

    And re: art world. From Paul, I’m picking up on more than logical reasons for disliking the gallery system (and from Dave Beckerman too). Paul says in Art is a Verb, Not a Noun, “In the commodity art world, art is only made by the aesthetic elite dressed in black clothes, pointy shoes, with parts of their body pierced in unusual and disturbing ways. Even worse, in the commodity art world, the most saleable art is art that’s made by suffering artists -artists with substance abuse problems, or personality disorders, or clinical depression.” Beckerman says, “The most annoying night I ever spent (photography-wise) was at a gallery show I did years ago. Maybe I have a social phobia or something – but all these people milling around eating soft cheese asking questions about the prints (and sometimes buying them) was excruciating. Look, the only soft cheese I like is cream cheese.”

  3. Ed Richards said, on December 21, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    > They have confidence in what they choose.

    But they are spending nothing (Napster) to a buck (iTunes) to $15 Amazon. It is easier to have confidence at that level. They have been acculturated to owning hundreds to thousands of tracks or albums, so they do not care much about a mistake.

    OTOH, most people do no buy much art, if they buy art at all. Maybe the problem is getting them acculturated to buying art.

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