Surviving and Thriving as an Artist III, or “A continuation of the discussion with Tina”

September 8, 2009

´╗┐Oh, this is an exciting and stimulating intra-blog conversation! I love it!

Tina, don’t feel bad for using me as an example, in fact I’m glad you highlighted this particular viewpoint, it’s a perfect dovetail into Labor day!

I should also state that I want to sell my work, in such a way that the equation I highlighted in my other post results in X equaling a year or two per sale!

However with that being said I can’t change the latent manifestation of guilt when I’m making a sale of my work to an enthusiastic admirer and fan. There is a deeply ingrained part of me that feels something this wonderful shouldn’t require an exchange of monetary value, that same part of me really just wants to share what I’ve created.

But let’s face it, I live in the real world, and as we artists are wont to say at times, “I have a real job.” (A particularly useless and stupid phrase in my opinion.) Which is to say that I have an alternative revenue stream, it’s just not the most ideal revenue stream in terms of allowing me the time and freedom to pursue my artwork unfettered.

And I think that’s the really salient point I was trying to make, which Tina highlighted beautifully in referencing the way creativity manifests itself in so many facets of life and work. You could ask many of those factory or other workers how they express their creativity and they may look at you a little funny because when you start talking about art and creativity to large swaths of the populace they immediately assume you only mean things like drawing, painting, music, etc…

Despite the depth and breadth of the creativity they unconsciously express they don’t think of themselves as creative.

Now before people start jumping all over me for accusing the masses of being mindless cogs, I’m painting broad strokes here, and I’ve worked in factories and other settings and experienced this firsthand. Trot out the words creativity or art(istic) in a setting that doesn’t overtly champion it and people will largely claim to be uncreative and unable to draw a straight line.

But I digress again, because when we do recognize that creativity within ourselves and embrace it as part of the fabric of our lives, we start to pursue it for the joy of it and it quickly becomes something we have to do and want to do whenever and however long we want. That’s what I mean by pursuing our creativity unfettered. Speaking for myself, I just want to be able to do it and not have to worry about money in any aspect of it. And yet the monetization and pursuit of sales as often gets in the way of that unfettered pursuit as does my current alternative revenue stream.

So when Tina points out the creative professionals who happily get paid for their work, I’d be willing to bet that for as many paid projects as these and other recognized creatives are involved in there are projects that they do unpaid for the pure joy of doing them.

And yes, I understand the correlation between the two, that being paid for one begets the ability to do the other unpaid.

That’s what I want!!

Which is where this dovetails nicely into the post I started working on the other day as I continued to marinate on all of this.

Back in around middle school I discovered author Piers Anthony and read every book of his I could find. I eventually came upon a series of his called, “Bio of a Space Tyrant”. Out of one of those books came a quote that over the years I have always tried to apply. I have distilled the quote down over the years to this.

“Don’t let the means become the ends.”

For years I carried around the quote thusly:

“Money is a means to an end. Do not let the means become the end.”

But money is interchangeable with anything, power, art, sales, whatever. Insert your favorite vehicle and you instantly have a new nugget of wisdom.

The guilt I feel in selling my work is attributable to the fact that my goal in life isn’t to amass as much money as I can get my hands on. My goal in life is to enjoy my life. Both goals require varying amounts of money to achieve based on personal definition, but the distinction between the two is very different. (I don’t make any assumptions as to the motivations of other artists that sell their works, whether or not their chief desire is to amass wealth.)

Right now, financially my wife and I are in a very good place with our current revenue streams. As such, with goal number one I would be very happy at my current and future prospects of amassing wealth. At goal number two though, the revenue stream is introducing some burdens on me that are both time consuming and a hindrance to that unfettered expression of creativity that I yearn for. So in terms of goal number two, you might say some adjustments are necessary.

So where am I going with this? Part of the problem is that I don’t know. Nothing worth doing is ever easy and the path I’m taking seems less so as I’m increasingly unwilling to invest my time or energy into things that don’t interest or enrich my life, including revenue streams. (existing or potential)

Which is a function of me not allowing the means to become the end. I’m not interested in doing something just so I can make money.

The other part of the problem is that in being unwilling to just pursue this to a maximized monetary conclusion I may be limiting myself. Realistically what I am interested in doing is ferreting down some of these different ideas that I’ve raised and exploring where they go in an effort to re-define (for me at least, and anybody who happens to be interested) why and how artists survive and thrive when their main pursuit is expressing their creativity.

Case in point. I had the privilege of exhibiting at the LuCille Tack gallery in Spencer, WI last October, and during the opening reception a young high school girl was absolutely in love with one of my pieces, you could just see her light up in reaction to the work. A beautiful thing to see, and yet her experience of that piece of work was limited to the one month the exhibit was hung.

As a high school girl she couldn’t afford to buy the piece (I was selling for $150 at the time) and if she expressed the desire to own it, her mother who accompanied her to the show was unwilling or able to make the purchase for her.

And yet it was clear as day to me that the girl valued that piece of art I had created. It was just as clear that the arbitrary assignment of value I created to satisfy the market based system that everyone accepts as status quo became the barrier to the possibility of assigning a different kind of value to the art, the exhibition and my creativity.

So it’s with that in mind that I have to stand on my belief that monetary value is a poor measure of value for art. In a market based system, you are forced to accept the means as the end because when you bring something to market the understanding is that you wish to receive a prescribed amount of money in exchange for what you’ve brought to market.

Certainly I could choose not to sell and enter a different class of artist, but I’m not interested in hoarding my art, I want to share it with the world, I want to reach the people like that young girl, I want to know that what I’ve created can elicit an emotional response from people and I want those people to have unfettered access to my art, as I want unfettered license to create it.

So imagine now if I held an exhibition where I did one of two things.

1. I gave all of the art away. Free. Zero cost. The vultures would show up, a large majority of the work would go to people who don’t appreciate it, and would in fact be angling to monetize it themselves, and my overall body of work might lose poignancy and impact by those who feel that giving the work away free actually devalues it monetarily which would then somehow equal a devaluation of the art itself.

2. I didn’t price the work, and simply said, “make an offer, any offer.” You can imagine the range of offers you might get, from the vultures offering $1 to a collector trying to score a deal. The real result would be discomfort because the universal way we ascribe value to art is with money, and nobody has a real good answer on how to do that.

For the auction house it’s as much as we can get for it, sometimes ethically, sometimes not.

For the artist it can be any of the ways Tina cited in her post, each subjective and arbitrary in their own right.

For the art buyer it can range a from size based, (that’s bigger, it should cost more) assessment to a financial assessment to maximize investment value.

Which could be considered the ultimate compliment or bastardization depending on how you look at it, since it is commonplace to consider art a monetary investment.

Now what does that mean?

Spyros Heniadis

Surviving and Thriving as an Artist II

September 4, 2009

So I’ve been kicking around the ideas I talked about before (which you can read here), along with the basic premise that I want to make money off of my art, and I think we may be operating under a flawed premise.

The premise being that artists want to make money off of their artwork. i.e. artists want to sell/profit from their artwork.

I don’t think that’s entirely correct.

I think what we really want is the ability to pursue our work unfettered and unencumbered. The conclusion we generally reach based on that assumption is that if we can somehow sell enough of our artwork to support a chosen lifestyle, then we will be happy and have achieved everything we’ve ever wanted.

The fact is, that I usually feel somewhat embarrased guilty about selling my work. Not because I don’t value my own work or don’t think it holds value, but because as it is now and always has been, (IMHO) putting a monetary value on artwork is a poor judgment of its value.

Now before I continue I don’t want this to devolve into some flame war about pricing work or the value of art or any of those centuries old arguments. Someone else can have thoe arguments after I’m dead. That’s not the point of this. The point is that I don’t rate or value my work on a dollar value system. I rate my work by how it makes me feel, and outside of players in the art market (another argument/discussion) I would wager that most people value art by how it makes them feel.

Can you sell a feeling? Sure, in fact most marketing tries to connect the product with a particular feeling or experience anyhow, but I’m digressing here. My main point is that the valuation of art by monetary currency is just a flat poor substitute for the joy that piece of work brings a person.

Case in point. At my exhibit opening last Thursday, I gained far more in value from the response of the patronage and the interaction I had with them than I did from any sales I may have made.

So here’s the crux of this, and I know I’m repeating myself but bear with me as I’m still working this out for myself. As artists we operate under this assumption that we master our craft and create our masterpiece(s) and then set out on some kind of path to monetize it, whether by gallery exhibitions, consignment shops/galleries, art fairs, web sales, etc… We follow this path doggedly, the whole time internally agonizing over every dollar we spend trying to market and monetize, feeling temporarily triumphant at every sale, only to be let down when we realize that we’ve hit a net loss when you factor in the costs of the web server, the fair booth, the framing, all the prints and damn greeting cards, and everything else.

Yet here’s the bottom line. I make art because I have to. Creative expression is a necessary part of the fabric of my life, and I choose to express it through my photography. That is my real motivation. My secondary motivation is creating something that elicits an emotional response from my audience.

Money only comes into play when I try to balance my desire and need to create my art and support that through mucking about the art world against my desire and need to work in a job and earn money to support my chosen lifestyle. (Inversely proportionate relationship btw.)

Based on that, and the American Dream, I had/have/am embarked upon a path to make money off of my artwork, the idea being if I pursue doing what I love hard enough I’ll make enough money off of it to be successful and will have somehow fulfilled the American Dream. Thus creating a Directly proportionate relationship between the desire to create and the desire to work

Here’s the problem with that. In order to fulfill that dream, generally speaking at least one of the two following conditions must be met to achieve financial success (such as is determined by the individual) through selling artwork.

  1. Market saturation a la Thomas Kinkade or Terry Redlin, in which you may sell boatloads of your work on clocks and plates and QVC and prints in “galleries”, but you may (or may not) have the respect or esteem of your colleagues and fellow artists, and you may (or may not) feel fulfilled creatively as well as financially.
  2. Reach a point of critical acclaim as such that your artwork commands enough of a price that selling one or several pieces can finance your chosen lifestyle for X number of years where X equals the selling price of your work divided by the yearly fiscal demands of your lifestyle.

So what does this mean then? Am I giving up on what I laid out before in terms of how I will present my work to my audience? In a word, no.

What it does mean is that I’m evaluating the need to sell my work versus the need to create a lifestyle that I can finance through satisfactory revenue streams. I still want to share my work and with that in mind I will continue to pursue the Trent Reznor inspired marketing/sales model for my work I spoke of before, but I will also continue to evaluate my perceived need to actually sell work versus my need to have money and time to pursue my passions.

As I continue to let some of these thoughts and ideas roll around in my head they will continue to evolve and change. I thought I might share what I’ve been reading and listening to in the interim that directly or indirectly helped catalyze my thoughts on the matter.

Intelligence Squared US debates, presented by NPR. Three debates in particular:

On Ethics, is Art Market worse than Stock Market?
Is it Wrong to Pay for Sex?
Who’s to Blame for the Financial Crisis

Planet Money:

#84 – MySpace Was Born of Ignorance
#82 – Inside the Mind of a Financial Criminal


Ignore Everyone and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod

Spyros Heniadis