Did you ever wonder about the difference between a piece of art in someone’s basement and a piece of art in the National Gallery? Did you ever wonder just exactly what constitutes “good” art?
Readers may be familiar with the recent experiment done by the Washington Post. The brilliant violinist Joshua Bell, fresh from a performance at the Library of Congress with the Boston Symphony, busked for free during the morning rush at a Washington Metro station.
Of the thousand-odd passersby, only a few stopped, or even paused, to listen. Small change fell infrequently into his open violin case — the very case that holds his $3 million 1710 Strad. Most were oblivious to some of the most beautiful and difficult music ever written for his instrument. Interviewed after leaving the building, it seems few commuters even noticed the guy in the baseball cap standing by the frequently swinging doors. Thinking back, Bell believes some thought his efforts offensive. The nearby skin mags, shoeshine lady and lotto ticket machine got more attention.
Bell, when playing in more conventional venues, is a guy who makes about a thousand dollars a minute. Much has been written of his Metro debut. My take is that the Metro is now and will forever remain an inappropriate place to hold a concert. Any concert. Quality art deserves and needs a proper frame to be fully recognized as quality art. In art, perception and context are all-important. “Art pity” is not a significant generator of fans.
Many visual artists who read this will never see their work in the National Gallery. While there’s a complex mix of machinations that needs to happen in order to be there, we can often make the choice to be in better venues. Quality mags beat scandal sheets. Commercial galleries beat barber shops. We can be selective about our galleries, too. The unfortunate truth is that it’s better to be on Lord Bluffington’s walls than on Joe Blogg’s on the other side of the tracks. People who pay big bucks to put their bottoms in the front row are just a wee bit more likely to be enthusiastic. It’s human nature.
PS: “I was oddly grateful when somebody threw a dollar instead of change.” (Joshua Bell)
Esoterica: Curiously, children being hustled by with their parents were the ones who often turned and gawked. It was the adults who hurried them out of harm’s way. Still, Bell picked up about $34 during his 43 minutes in the Metro. “That’s about forty dollars an hour,” he mused. This is probably better than a more average violinist performing in such a place. A particular few — mainly ex-violinists — noticed the quality and hung around to give a listen. No crowds gathered. Only one passerby recognized Bell. She didn’t know what the devil was going on, but she gave him a whopping $20 anyway. She was framing him differently.
Washington Post experiment flawed
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
The Joshua Bell violin concert comparison does not follow the protocol of a double blind study and seems to be an unfair and prejudiced experiment. People in any metropolitan transit system are negotiating crowds, worried about being late to work and/or are contemplating the day’s course of events. In other words, they’re too preoccupied to notice whether Joshua Bell is even on key. Besides, in Washington, DC, the morning paper may have been full of the latest political scandal and everyone wants to know if heads are going to roll. In Washington, DC, that’s entertainment.
Non traditional set-ups
by Joan Brancale, MA, USA
A heartening musical aside read in the Arts and Leisure section of Sunday July 1st N.Y. Times: A letter from a 15-year old violinist responding to an article regarding the moribund state of chamber music in the concert hall setting. Caeli Smith’s string quartet plays concert halls but reports “…our liveliest, most appreciative audience have been in non-traditional settings.” In Philadelphia, playing for a crowd of commuters, joggers, homeless and children, she reports, “…the response is overwhelmingly positive… If there is such apparent love for chamber music when it’s presented in a non-threatening, unpretentious manner, how can it be dead?”
Proper galleries profit collectors too
by Stewart Turcotte, Kelowna, BC, Canada
As always, I learn something from every letter and I have paraphrased your “context” one and put it up in our gallery for people to read. But I think you could add another point of view and maybe turn it into a letter of its own. You covered the value of venue to an artist, but you may scare some collectors off, thinking they pay too much for art in a gallery. A proper gallery environment is good for collectors, too. If you buy art in out of the way places for low prices, you cannot expect them to become an investment and go up in value. As before, if you don’t buy art with a Pedigree, don’t expect to sell the pups for thousands of dollars.
Artist must value own work
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA
It is difficult for some to understand the fact that where the work is seen really does matter. In the visual arts, many small groups of artists promote the idea of getting paintings or photography seen anywhere and everywhere, just so they are “out there.” Restaurant walls, local shops of any kind, just whoever will show the work is considered fine. But, as this master violinist Metro station concert proves, no matter how great the work is, if the artist doesn’t present it in the proper setting, it will not bring the recognition or the money it deserves. And, having people take the art for granted or just simply their not taking time to look can discourage a talented artist from working. Presenting art in other than a gallery gives the impression the artist does not value that art. If the artist doesn’t value his or her own work, it’s a certainty no one else will.
by Joe Kazimierczyk, Neshanic Station, NJ, USA
The other side of the coin is that you can display almost anything at a proper venue and it will be taken as “good art” by many people. Put a lesser violinist up on stage at Carnegie Hall and many people will applaud as loudly as they would for Joshua Bell. It is human nature to assume that if the proverbial experts allowed something into a museum or concert hall, then it must be good. It is human nature and it’s also a lazy way of thinking — relying on the experts to tell you what is good instead of deciding for yourself. If we learn to appreciate things for what they really are, we’d find a lot more beauty and joy in our everyday lives. Never the less, I realize that I’ll sell more paintings at a good gallery than on a street corner!
by Sharon Cory, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
You’re way off base here. Some of my most treasured clients are Joe and Jane Bloggs who make less than $50,000 a year but are so appreciative of what I do (and the fact that they can afford small pieces, one per year) and it’s not because I produce schlock art that caters to their low level of sensitivity. On the other hand I’ve met some millionaire bozos who loved my work but wouldn’t buy it because it was priced too low. Go figure! It will never matter to me if my work is in the National Gallery or the Musee D’Orsay. What does matter is that someone takes home a painting because, as they were walking by, their head whipped around as their eye was caught by a colour or an image. I sell paintings in an unlikely area, frequented by tourists and other low-lifes who would never set foot in a high-end gallery, but yesterday, a young woman came back to take another look at a large painting that she’d fallen in love with. She was devastated to find out that it was sold and she’d never see it again. I live for this reaction. It’s kind of like, when I was young and attractive and someone on the street did a double-take, my day was made. Now that I’m old and worn out, this is all I have left! Please don’t take it away by saying that this enthusiasm doesn’t count. As for the expensively-clad bottoms in the front rows of pricey cultural events, most of them are asleep.
There is 1 comment for Democratic distribution by Sharon Cory
Recognize beauty wherever it lives
by Lynn Harrison, Toronto, ON, Canada
This is a tough one. On the one hand, I agree with you: people do judge artists by their frame and their status. Celebrities attract more attention and money in our society. It is indeed human nature to worship “Idols.” But that doesn’t make it right. In fact, isn’t the task of the artist to shine a light on what is too-often unnoticed and unappreciated? How can we continue to honour the leaf, the kind word, the drop of water in our art and music… while continuing to promote celebrity culture? I think it’s important to recognize beauty wherever it lives (and that includes in our own work, when it’s under-recognized) and then to hold it up to whatever light we can find.
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
About a decade ago, I was walking down a Tel-Aviv street and there was a man in his 60’s playing a pretty mean classical fiddle. I threw a shekel into his violin case, and stood there until the end of the piece he was playing, and then applauded. He then took a bow, and beamed me a warm smile.
Don’t know who he was, yet scores if not hundreds of good classical musicians had emigrated from the former USSR to Israel, and many were on the streets playing for a coin toss into their instrument cases. Who knows — maybe this gentleman had been with the Moscow Philharmonic.
All behavior governed by context
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
I have always regarded “context” as one of life’s fundamental universal truths. All behaviour is governed by context. Our physical, governmental, social, educational, judicial, commercial, and family environments contextualize our way of life, our thinking, our constraints and our freedoms. Every pigment we apply is conditioned by those colours, intensity and values which surround it. Every line or curve we sculpt relates to the intersections it has with other planes or lines. Every piece we show is viewed, and judged, not only in the marquee value of the venue with its associated expectations, and the mythological stature the place has reached, but by the company it keeps in that location at that time and, at a more prosaic level, the physical quality of the space it occupies: for example, the lighting or acoustic environment. All is context. Choose yours carefully, where you have a choice. Although worthy, Josh’s underground experience was wholly predictable.
Venue is important
by Jan Ross, Kennesaw, GA, USA
Bell’s experiment reinforces my thinking that serious art patrons don’t purchase noteworthy artwork at arts/crafts fairs! While there are some outstanding fine art fairs across the country, those whose focus is on crocheted toilet paper covers, glittered t-shirts, and dried gourd birdhouses draw visitors who don’t know or care about the difference between discount store art and gallery art. Yet, we’ll see numerous painters in booths between dog bandannas and doorstops, looking despondent over the lack of sales.
While no one doubts that the exposure of one’s art is important for any artist, serious consideration of a venue may be of more importance. When we go to the circus, we expect to see clowns!
by Françoise Briquet, Paris, France
I just read your twice-weekly letter about the famous violinist playing in the metro. Have you given a thought to the pleasure he is giving to the passerbys or to his own pleasure playing without any stress from having to perform in front of the so-called knowledgeable public who has paid dear money to be there? Rushing people might not notice the player, not know who he is, but they hear and it brings them a fleeting enjoyment, something soothing to their hectic day and their worries. Here in Paris, we sometimes have artists who perform in the metro. They are usually quite good and we learn after that they are professionals in real life but that they find a special acoustic in the metro corridors. I for one always appreciated even if I did not have the time to stop.
Canvas on walls in museums, galleries can be there by the whim of fashion, everyone have seen questionable pieces in their time. Snobbism can be paramount when a lovely aquarelle brings much more pleasure to have on one wall. Art, whatever its form is a question of heart and one should not have to ask “what does that artist wanted to express?” Modern, ancient paintings or any piece of art must impress pleasure before anything. That is why reproductions are selling.
Barber shops okay
by Bob Posliff, Brampton, ON, Canada
Sadly, I have concluded that a large majority of the general public knows nothing about art and a large majority of them don’t care to learn. They’ll not see the work of anyone in the National Gallery because they don’t go there. Your Esoterica is most telling. Those who do have an appreciation of art will pause no matter where they find it. And what if we feel that art is important enough to obligate artists to try educating the public in some small way? And what better place to do that than the Metro or the barber shop? (Most people get their hair done from time to time.) No doubt there will be an occasional convert — maybe even a buyer.
I know, most artists will say they can’t afford to be an educator for free. But maybe in the long run, they can’t afford not to.
Student work flies off walls
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
When I was a student at an art school attached to a famous art museum, once a year there would be a student exhibition held in part of the main galleries. The work that was for sale would simply fly off the walls, an excellent fund-raiser for both the school and the museum (not to mention the students!) As soon as one graduated however, even if one was lucky enough to find gallery representation and other exhibition opportunities, one found that one’s rushing river of sales slowed down to the usual artist’s trickle. At first bewildering, gradually the realization struck: it was the context! People can’t walk into the museum and buy the Hopper or Homer off the walls, but they CAN buy the young Jane Doe, and they will delight in doing so.
No more crummy venues
by Margie Guyot, Farmington, MI, USA
When we are shown that even a talented, famous violinist like Joshua Bell is ignored in the wrong setting, a light bulb goes on. No more wasting a day or two, here and there, at junky little tent festivals, in amongst the corn dogs and yard tchotchke vendors! No more providing free entertainment, sweating in the blazing sun for hours, painting at community “garden walks”! I’m sure all of us can think of many instances of time ill-spent at such venues. NO MORE!
Rising from the dead
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
Having support from influential people is essential to gaining success on a high level. The art may be better that is in your storage area than in the National, but no one will know. I’ve heard of famous writers submitting manuscripts under assumed names and getting rejected, while getting the same piece accepted under their own “brand” name. This is part of what Jack White calls, “It is what it is.” We have to accept this. I am not willing to sell my soul to kiss up to people for their favors. I’d be more than happy to be very generous to patrons, but not more. So don’t expect to see the work in the National Gallery while I’m alive. However, it might be that I will get noticed when dead. In fact, lots of galleries prefer dead artists.
Celebrities demand attention
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
A pop star such as Marilyn Manson or Paul McCartney is more likely to get into the National Gallery with their artwork than any number of competent artists simply because of their achievements in their other dimension. The widow of John Lennon is currently enjoying adulation with her installations here in Bremen, Germany. I wonder if they would make it to the gallery if she were not who she is? She has worked incessantly to keep everyone up to date of her status, recycling events of long past days, and who can blame her? In a world when money talks and it’s who you are rather than what you are that rakes it in.
Never went there
by Ed Pointer, Afghanistan
Often in my career well-intentioned friends have suggested I hang my work in a restaurant or barbershop or even at the airport. To which I’ve replied “no thanks.” When asked why, I’ve stumbled with an explanation usually built around the fact that in all those places people are there for other reasons and art isn’t one of them. So, my thanks go to you today for making sense of my stumbling; yours is a wonderful example of what I’ve been trying to say all these years! If you don’t mind, from now on I’ll use your report about the accomplished violinist to explain my reasons.
Artist creates the perception
by Dar Hosta, Flemington, NJ, USA
Ten years ago, before my art hobby began to turn toward the career it is now, I made handmade, collaged greeting cards that I sold here and there for about $3.50 each. Though I had a handful of designs that I would repeat, I made each card by hand and, now, would consider all of these cards little original pieces of fine art. Later, when I had begun to exhibit at shows, I ditched the handmade cards for small prints. On one occasion, however, I was short on art to hang so I went through my studio and found a leftover card called “Three Dancers.” I matted and framed this 5″ x 7″ card in a simple aluminum frame and, that weekend, sold it for over $300. I realized early on that I am much happier as an artist than a card-crafter, not just because the income is better, but also because of the social and attitudinal context the artist lives in, and that is an important part for the artist: knowing and believing where she belongs and behaving accordingly. I tell this story during some of my presentations to illustrate the way we perceive “art” and how the artist can take an active role in creating that perception, sometimes with something as simple as a little matboard and a frame.
by Scott Whisler
I was not surprised at the lack of attention that Bell received playing in what was essentially a hallway — a place that serves the function of being in between other places. I agree with your take — that the place was an inappropriate venue for the work.
The experiment only reinforces the notion that “place” is almost everything. As an act of juxtaposition, the experiment — placing Bell and his Strad and a soulfully executed piece of Stravinsky in the context of a busy train station — is a slightly interesting “work” in its own right, but I don’t think it says anything about the individual parts of the “work” (Bell, the violin, the music, the passers-by). If it speaks at all, it speaks to the power of venue.
The ancient Hebrew concept of the “tabernacle” teaches us that a holy place can be created just about anywhere if we simply attend to doing so. Just last Friday, the Joffrey Ballet performed for free on an outdoor stage erected on an open lot in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. Normally, it’s just a piece of grass next to a busy street. But if you put up a stage and hang lights and the dancers dress up, it becomes a place to make beautiful things happen. And believe me, wonderful, beautiful things did happen. And thousands of people, who were downtown for an art festival on a glorious summer night, stood quietly in that place and made it holy. Perhaps the Joshua Bell experiment would have been more interesting if spectators had been appointed to stop and listen: first one, then two, then a small group. My guess is that those rushing somewhere else would have felt more comfortable — perhaps felt permission? — to tarry and listen if others had done so first. Perhaps this is the dynamic that a correct venue creates: a place where we know we have permission to stop and listen.
Intrinsic value holds importance
by Paul Foxton, UK
Joshua Bell playing beautiful music on a 3 million dollar Strad in a subway strikes me as the reverse of a situation often seen in post-modern art. Placing a urinal in a gallery makes it art. Duchamp’s urinal is worth more, in monetary terms, than Bell’s instrument. An unmade bed became art through the same process. It’s a funny joke, but like most jokes, only funny the first time you hear it.
For many years I kept the wolf from the door by copying old master paintings on the street in chalk; Vermeer’s, DaVinci’s and Tiepolo’s. I made a comparatively good living. I wonder how many people would have dropped their spare change into my hat if I’d placed a urinal, or perhaps my dirty washing in the street instead? Not one, I suspect. Without the gallery context, my dirty washing would have been just that. One could also argue that context is not everything.
If the value of art is to be judged in purely monetary terms, Bell’s playing in the subway wasn’t that great. When he plays in a theatre, he plays a thousand times better. If the value of art is judged by the amount of column inches it generates, he did pretty well. But aren’t we missing something? Perhaps instead of noting all the people that didn’t stop to listen, we could note the few that did. Bell’s venue was perhaps the most unfavourable, catching people as they were hurrying to their jobs in order to pay their bills and keep a roof over their heads (considerably more important than listening to Bach). But he did touch a few, simply through the intrinsic beauty of his music.
Whilst I very much take the point that painters need to be pragmatic about the context in which their work is seen if they’re to earn a crust, I think that we would do well to remember that some things — like the Bach Chaconne that Bell played — are intrinsically beautiful, regardless of context, dollar value or hype. To me, the fact that as painters we have the opportunity to try to create something beautiful makes us very lucky, whether we manage it or not. Perhaps some time spent plumbing in urinals might remind us of that.
Perception, context and marketing
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
There are many examples of anomalies of marketing. Yesterday I noted a buyer on eBay willing to pony up $300 for an empty dog food can once owned by Paris Hilton. A current country music star, Ty Herndon, entered a karaoke contest that looked for the singer who sounded the most like him. Unrecognized by the crowd, he lost! Marketing is the art of creating the context. The context creates the value. The value is generated by the hunger created for the product or event. The Super Bowl is a great example. Advertisers pay millions per minute to have an ad played on TV during the Super Bowl. This fee is justified by the millions of people who will be watching the ad on TV and the hundred thousand people willing to pay hundreds of dollars to attend the game. The hype feeds on itself multiplying like a virus. The game generates billions of dollars of revenue. LeBron James is paid ninety million dollars to wear Nike tennis shoes. In theory the company will recoup this investment and more to be associated with LeBron’s famous name.
Andy Warhol was one of the first to marry art and advertising. There are earlier examples. The great epic painter Frederic Church charged fees for the public to view his huge paintings. Magnifying glasses were provided to help viewers admire the lush detail. Advertisers specialize in creating a hunger for their product. An artist makes a product. How successful an artist is in creating a hunger for that product will determine how successful they will become in the marketplace. Galleries are in business to create the context for the sale of a painting. For this ability, they receive 50% of the selling price. In real estate they talk about “location, location, location!” A house in a prime location has much more value. In theory a painting in a swanky area or a prime locale for art like Santa Fe or New York will be more likely to fetch a more attractive selling price. Such theories can be wrong, however. A marketer in a small town in rural Iowa could be more successful in attracting viewers to an art gallery. In such a place, an art gallery is rare and more special than in Santa Fe where there are hundreds of art galleries. This scarcity could create more of a hunger for the product. Producing art is entirely different than selling what is produced. How “good” the art is falls into the realm of perception and perception falls into the realm of marketing which falls into the realm of context. Like it or not, it is a fascinating game that the artist needs to become familiar with.
Enjoy the past comments below for Context…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Pat Weekley of Clovis, NM, USA who wrote, “I have a friend who paints well but puts the cheapest, ‘yard sale’ frames that she can find on her art. Some are held together with tape, glue and popsicle sticks. She may as well say that it is not worth looking at. I have suggested tactfully that she might frame them better and she just laughs and goes on.”
And also Chris Bolmeier of Omaha, NE, USA who wrote, “As I listened to Joshua Bell, I felt like crying because the music was like a pinpoint of light beaming through me. Mediocrity seems to be the norm with many art forms. People do not stop to notice much of anything. Thanks for the reminder of perception, context, and ‘art pity.’ ”
And also Deborah Chapin who wrote, “There is only one reason to get into the business of art, because you love doing it. If you expect to be an art star or an overnight millionaire you probably should go into another business. In the end, if you love the art you can endure the long stretches of bad economies or world events which almost all long term professionals know happen and which directly affect the art market.”
And also Mark D. Gottsegen of Climax, NC, USA who wrote, “Actually, MOST visual artists will never see their work in the National Gallery. This phenomenon is called a “fact of life.” For true artists, this fact is irrelevant. How Romantic of me!”
And also Sandra Chantry of Loughborough, UK who wrote, “Bell doesn’t ‘earn’ a $1000 dollars a minute, but his reputation does. These and many other reasons could be the problem, none of which will persuade me that venue should be the yardstick of ‘good art.’ ”
And also Karen Quinton who wrote, “Maybe the playing of the superstars isn’t always quite as special as we like to make out. (And most people would sound far more ordinary in such a venue.)”
And also Brett Busang of Washington, DC, USA who wrote, “Mr. Bell’s experiment lends credence to the enigma of perception, whereby a palace is a more congenial setting for a feast of the senses than a little shotgun cottage – or underground plaza. But it was a shotgun cottage that brought us Louis Armstrong — a man whose chops are no way inferior to Bell’s.”
And also Susan Park of Fennville, MI, USA of Fennville, Michigan, USA who wrote, “Your story about Joshua Bell reminded me of a favorite song on a much-played album by Joni Mitchell, Real Good For Free:
I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.
Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.
Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their T.V.
So they passed his good music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.”