Before Andy Warhol argued otherwise, most western scholars viewed art as an anti-commodity. This thinking grew out of the industrial revolution, capitalism, and the idea that art and the commodity were exclusive opposites of each other. The commodity was seen as banal, repetitive, and ethically dubious. Art was seen as inspired, unique, and morally honest. It was through art, then, that artists stood as seers and sages: By creating art, artists were able to turn our psyches, social mechanics, and the universal human condition inside out, revealing truths about ourselves that we were not able to realize on our own. By creating art, artists became modernist gods who walked among mere mortals.
That is the mythology. The truth is that for every beret-clad artiste, there is some huckster looking to make a buck. And, even genuine artists have to hustle just to pay the bills. In fact, the more artists try to make a living, the more their art can resemble the commodities that they are not trying to create.
Musicians know this all too well since they often have to perform fan-favorites long after their personal passion for a particular song has faded. But, this is a question that affects not just musicians. All artists must struggle with earning a living and “giving the audience what it wants,” on one hand, and pursuing “art for art’s sake” on the other.
The following are comments made by four local artists about how they cope with this sometimes soul-splitting dilemma.
Michelle Reents is a local potter who is now starting to apply business skills to her art: “I’m discovering it’s pretty important for any one making a living as an artist to identify their customers. Figuring out the right price can be a challenge too. In the beginning many people start by pricing their work too low. But that’s just bad for business all around. It makes it hard for you and your fellow artist if you are pricing things too low.
From what I see, successful artists are very hard workers! Managing a business and promoting your work is a continual challenge. I guess it helps to have a bit of right brain creativity even as it applies to business so you don’t get stuck in a rut and can change with the times and modify your approach as needed.”
Joan Hansen, a local water color and acrylics painter, has been dealing with this question for over 30 years:
“Selling out to become financially successful is something artists struggle with. Artists can sell themselves without “selling out” if they divide their time into different segments. When you are creating art for the sheer joy of it, there is no need to sell yourself. On the other hand, if you are creating art in order to make a living, you need to consider your market. Some art is commercially saleable, while other art doesn’t have commercial significance. To be able to express yourself and have the public appreciate and buy your work is the best of both worlds. When you find a venue that can use exactly what you create, you will sell yourself and not “sell out.” If you feel you are compromising your principles, perhaps you should earn a living by doing some other type of work, and use your leisure time to express your creative spirit. Every time you create art, you continue to grow as an artist. Your continual evolution is very valuable.”
This need to keep creating is also expressed by musician Jack Butler, a local legend and founding member of Glory, Bratz, and Private Domain: “For a musician, it’s important to keep playing, meaning you have to get gigs. To hold a band together, you have to have money coming in and gigs on the horizon. Without those, the band is going to break up. When we got endorsements from Coors and Miller Lite, we didn’t see it as selling out. I mean, we believed in the product. We were beer drinkers, right? But jokes aside, this statement uncovers a basic truth. Accepting corporate sponsors allowed us to make a living playing music. So, in a way, success means not having to get a day job.”
Shannon O’Dunn, owner of O’Dunn Fine Art, a gallery in downtown La Mesa, knows exactly where art and business intertwine: “An artist’s sales depend on having one’s antennae tuned to collectors and their needs. And, collectors want consistency. That’s what establishes an artist’s body of work, and thus investment value. However, consistency is also a bugbear: Artists have much in common with actors, who get type-cast, which may limit their actual talents. The down side? The artist risks being labeled a “hack.” Risk-taking and freedom to create are stifled by the pressure to produce sales. As a gallery owner I sell only original paintings, and my greatest challenge is educating people to the value of originals.”
O’Dunn continues by contrasting her gallery with the Thomas Kinkade types of galleries that have “thoroughly muddied the waters by mass marketing visual art.” Whereas O’Dunn only sells originals, Kinkade, whose recent death made national headlines, marketed many “levels of artwork,” including giclées and unnumbered prints.
“Most buyers don’t know what a giclée is. It is only a digital print, with dashes of over-painting added by the artist or someone else. Buyers aren’t told that giclées have no investment value and only discover that their piece is yard sale material when they go to sell it.”
With that, we return to our original conundrum: At what point is an artist selling art or just another commodity? Thomas Kinkade amassed a fortune using such underhanded tricks as hiring underlings to rough-in compositions and provide over-painting to prints. But, the second we gasp at such a notion, remember that Michelangelo did the same thing. In fact, many of yesteryear’s “masters” utilized the services of their apprentices in the studio. For more on this dilemma, consult Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan.