The other day I was visiting a former painter who just happens to be an old friend. This fellow had some considerable success as a young man in New York and other places. At age 32 he shut down his studio and opened a restaurant. He has since gone on to other brilliant successes. “You really have the business side of art figured out,” he told me. “You’re an excellent businessman.” I told him that when I was in my twenties and making less than $400 a month from my paintings, the critics wrote that I was “a talented up-and-comer worth watching.” I also mentioned that when I started to make more than $400 a month they said I was an “excellent businessman.”
The convention continues. Among the intelligentsia and academia, it’s de rigueur to think this way. Art critics use up trees mentioning it. The favoured artists of many critics are congenitally broke, intellectually challenged and incompetent in all ways but art. Artists who happen to be poor-quality citizens or social basket cases are of particular value. Maybe some critics have “painting envy.” Maybe, down deep, they think creative folks just shouldn’t have it all.
To be fair, my idealistic friend found the life of an artist required too much “selling out.” “Catering” was not his game. Refusing to do what he called “potboilers,” he checked out, never to be seen in art circles again.
The recent passing of Andrew Wyeth reminded me once more of the situation. Andrew arose from a talented family that ate and slept art. He chose to be true to his rural roots and enjoyed a lifetime of love and laughter around Chadds Ford, PA. He earnestly explored his microcosmic world, kept sane and more or less sober until age 91, got mighty good at his craft and painted not a few American icons. Yet the critics never missed a chance to dump on him. The richer he got, the more they dumped.
“Making a fortune,” says critic Michael Kimmelmann, “allowed Wyeth to play a familiar American role — the free-thinking individualist who at the same time represented the “vox populi.” As bohemianism itself became institutionalized, Wyeth encapsulated the artistic conservative’s paradoxical idea of cultural disobedience through traditional behavior.” A self-admitted “good promoter,” Wyeth was also a good painter — a fact enthusiastically embraced by a world of collectors. Quality baffles.
PS: “What you have to do is break all the rules.” (Andrew Wyeth)
Esoterica: Fact is, you don’t necessarily have to sell out to be a success. Sure, conservative reality rings the cash register, but exploring one’s personal reality can be a lifelong love affair made gracious by hard-earned days of electrifying joy. Sensitive collectors pick up on this. In a sense collectors are way ahead of critics because their emotions harmonize with their chosen art and artists. Critics, often “sold out” by their need to dump controversial ink, are different folks than the wide world of untrammelled collectors who cave in to their legitimate needs.
Artists and patrons
by Donald Demers, Eliot, ME, USA
According to those critics, I suppose Michel Angelo and Leonardo De Vinci were popular “sell outs” to those popes. It doesn’t appear that their art was inferior because it had a strong audience. Those critics should look beyond their self-indulgent pseudo-intellectualism and see that artists and patrons have had healthy creative relationships for centuries while the critics sit on the side lines and criticize.
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The Artist Continuum
by Toni Ciserella, Marysvale, UT, USA
Art critics are just another part of the Artist Continuum. They possibly have too much education and not enough talent. Other artists have been bestowed with more than enough talent and less than enough business or social savvy. Tenacity may be the strong suit, or possibly enormous amounts of drive and ambition. Robert, you and Andrew seem to have landed right smack in the center with a good amount of everything. Across the palette of art and the spectrum of life there is infinite color. Fortunate for us? Lucky for the world. (I happen to have been splashed with a tad too much Alizarin Crimson — of which I spend a lot of time trying to tone down.)
Cultural or Commercial?
by Pat Hart, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
This letter hit a raw nerve. It’s not only critics who subscribe to the idea that artists should wallow in poverty and “enjoy” lack of commercial success or any success. So do governments: in this case, the B.C. Government masquerading as the Gaming Commission. (Let’s not think about the Feds.) This probably touches quite a few arts organizations.
Case in point: Gabriola Arts Council recently had funding refused for the annual Thanksgiving Studio Tour. Reason given: during the highly successful (meaning LOADS of people from just about everywhere attended) 2007/8 Tours, one or two artists actually sold some work. Disgusting! How dare they?? In the government’s eyes, this makes the Tour a COMMERCIAL rather than CULTURAL event, despite the fact that the majority rarely do more than cover expenses. Aside from the artists and artisans taking part, there were also writers, poets, actors and musicians giving (mostly free) readings and performances around the island. How commercial, crass and uncultured can we get??
When, where and how do painting, sculpture, ceramics and fabric arts, etc., stop being part of our ‘culture’? When they are ‘sold’?
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Artists at the helm
by Kevin Obregon
Once upon a time, I was working with another well-known artist installing a large sculpture on the grounds of a museum in Dallas, Texas. While waiting for the crane to make its way down the crooked avenue to place the piece on its spot, we smoked cigarettes, drank coffee and mused about critics and collectors.
I basically came up with this metaphor: “Artists who dare remain are at the helm of their own vessel, both steering and standing at the very bow where calm waters are broken and clarity is at its most pristine. We are the wake-makers. While we’re making waves, they’re surfing our chop.” This is accompanied by a drawing on a piece of cardboard of a boat progressing forward and the dotted “buoys” of those who wait in the wake of our work. Then, there’s the timing. That is, that by the time they receive our wake, we’ve already moved on — ever forward and sometimes having to break the ice.
When I saw the crane arriving, I realized that while one artist might be calling up friends to borrow a pick-up truck, another might call up a crane rental company. It’s all proportionate, I thought. This sculptor who was making more money than I was at the time, didn’t change his collectorship — or his work ethics — with his gradual wealth, it allowed him to scale his work in size and, more importantly, scale up his solutions. So while he was making more for his pieces, he was having to spend more to place them in people’s lives. So goes the internal combustion chambers of art-making. We should all be so lucky.
Andrew Wyeth fan
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
I too am a huge Andrew Wyeth fan. When I was a young woman just out of high school I discovered Wyeth’s work in a magazine (late ’60s) …my mother bought me a set of prints that was being offered by mail-in order (I still have them). I was moved and inspired as an artistic young person, by his work, and the moods it evoked. When in Pennsylvania years ago, I got an opportunity to go to the gallery in Chadd’s Ford and see his work (that was in ’78). Many years later in the late ’90s, I went to a gallery in Rockport, Maine, and saw more of his work. By then my mother was dead, but she was with me that day as I, glassy-eyed, walked through the gallery, looking at “old friends” for the first time, not in a book. It was a pilgrimage. The lovely docent gentleman I spoke to directed me to the Olsen farm, where my friend and I were able to walk around, and were treated to a tour by the somewhat crusty octogenarian, Betsy Wyeth’s brother. He told us stories of Andrew painting there. I have three books of Wyeth’s work, and I love them. My style is nothing like his, but yet I know he influenced me, if only in making me want to paint and do my best.
Thank you for mentioning him, he is an iconic artist of the 20th century. He influenced many, and reintroduced high realism again I think, after years of abstract work being the dominant style! I live in Nova Scotia, and there are a few artists who have been around for years, including Tom Forrestal and Ken Tolmie, who I am sure were influenced by him. There are others too, whose work reminds me of him. It is so typical of the “critics” to slag such a person whose work was filled with passion for his surroundings and the people he knew also. But the public follows its heart, thank God. They don’t always follow the dictates of the “cognoscenti”!
by Max Mckenzie, Chattanooga, TN, USA
Before my retirement to full time painting, I was a photographer and was privileged to photograph many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings for the Southeast representative of the Wyeth family. He certainly did break many of the rules for painting, at least from my point of view. His composition was completely different from any thing that I been taught and hard edges seemed to prevail when soft edges would have been better to show some distance, and color went from brilliant to what in the world was he thinking. Yet I could not escape the fact that his paintings sold for hundreds of thousands and some for even millions of dollars and I was wondering if I could pay my rent on time. I never knew him on a personal basis, only through his art, but I will miss him.
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA
On a similar note, I was reading my SouthWest Art magazine the other day and they had an issue on “Legends of Fine Art.” Some of the names of the legends they selected are very familiar; Howard Terpning, G. Harvey, David Leffel, James Bama, Alyce Frank, Richard Schmid, to name a few of them. To be selected these artists had to be over 70 years old with considerable success. Part of that success is financial of course. Several of them are even in their 80’s and still working and selling for very high prices (even in the millions in a few cases). What struck me is how “normal” all of them appear. By normal I mean they are not starving, they are actually very prosperous and healthy and seem to have great attitudes. They appear very down-to-earth, even humble in many cases. They are hard-working and are skilled in drawing and painting. How’s that for the critics? In addition, they are obviously not worried about retirement, which many of them could be in right now.
I wonder why more artists don’t look around and see what can be accomplished with hard work and focus. As an artist myself, I wonder what would happen if more of us quit whining and complaining, learned how to really draw and paint, focused, got really good at the business part, and painted until we were in our 80’s or 90’s. What more can an artist ask for? To take a spin on a familiar quote: Those who can’t, criticize and complain.
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Great art never dies
by Laurence Gartel
As a Pioneer of Digital Art for over 30 years, I am now receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award called the FOTO MENTOR during the Fotofusion 2009 event taking place in Delray Beach this week. My career started out working side by side with video guru Nam June Paik at Media Study/Buffalo in upstate New York. Back then there were no personal computers, no commercial software programs, no scanners, digital cameras or printers. I worked on analog systems tweaking knobs and buttons and photographed the screen with a still camera on a tripod. The rest is Art History — Paik went on to write the Introduction to my first book, Laurence M. Gartel: A Cybernetic Romance published by Gibbs Smith, Utah, in 1989.
My second book was published by Edizioni Mazzotta, in Milan, Italy with Introduction written by the brilliant art historian and critic Pierre Restany.
In 1998 I was honored for Lifetime Achievement (a decade earlier) by the Chancellor of Austria, Viktor Klima at the Editions of Art Fair in Innsbruck. I tell you all this because this country is ever soooo “slowwwww.” We don’t get great art, until it reaches big money and then suddenly people pay attention. In other countries artists are considered national treasures. Now that I get serious dollars for my work (30 or more years later) seems that everyone is waking up from the slumber that has been eclipsed by pop art celebrity-ism. Because I lived in that era, it was all vapor in the art world. With the current bail-out, we now see exactly what that is all about. Everything does indeed come to light. Great art as you have pointed out, never dies and lives to tell the story another day.
Evolution of art at risk
by Victor Pytko
Few artists can afford to live by the notion that their only purpose is to create art creatively. Taking time to be an art businessperson may be a survival necessity, but not producing means straying from the pathway of discovery, invention, or innovation. The forward momentum of art and its makers is retarded.
While the making of art is a process, the business of art is a practice. When it has to exist — admittedly, the artist does have to eat or support a lifestyle — the relationship is symbiotic. But, few artists and art business persons really enjoy the coupling. At best, it works out and there is mutual satisfaction. Popularity and a viable income flow. At worst, a match is never made. In between, the ups and downs of typical relationships make making a living uneven and difficult for both participants.
Still, for those artists who succeed in pairing, the making of art often is directed, heavily influenced, or somewhat affected by the business of art, a siren that leads the artist off course. Oh, art may be produced, and it may be successful as defined by the marketplace, but if art is not groundbreaking or attempting innovation, the continuing evolution of art is at greater risk.
As academics track the history of art, one sees a trend line that follows the development from cave paintings, to the Renaissance and Impressionism, right up to today’s video and performance art. By extending the trend line, you might glimpse the future of art, but that vision very likely will be flawed because of personal bias, technologies not yet invented, warfare, climatic change… well, you get the picture.
However, what artists produce today most certainly will be tracked and categorized tomorrow and only then can we know if we succeeded in moving art forward, what face we put on art and whether it was the main branch or a terminated branch. If we live so long, we may know, but the danger is, becoming a part time or full time art business person lessens our contribution and makes our knowing less likely.
by Kathy Weber, RI, USA
I entered a show at a local museum renowned (locally) for its annual show of work by members. To submit a painting you have to buy a membership, so I spent $60.00 for the entry fee and membership. Yesterday I went to pick up my rejected painting and got a glimpse of some of the accepted work. While there were some good pieces, there were also some very amateurish paintings of garden gnomes and dogs. My heart sinks every time I see show jurors decide to go with “outsider” art instead of paintings that are done with some expertise and practiced knowledge of color, composition, value, brushwork, etc. I have to believe they don’t know anything about the very hard work that goes into perfecting your craft.
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by Peggy Guichu, Phoenix, AZ, USA
I wrote a blog recently about a potential buyer possibly being a “Be Back.” If you aren’t familiar with this term, I’m referring to the person that comes up to you at an show, spends eons of your time talking about how much they love your work and when the time comes to close the sale they need to talk to their significant other and will “be back.” Well, I was right about the man in my blog. He told my gallery owner, when she approached him about the paintings he had chosen for his new house, that he had changed his mind because he didn’t feel that he should be responsible for supporting all the starving artists. Your statement, “Maybe, down deep, they think creative folks just shouldn’t have it all,” really made sense. Even though my family considers me an eccentric artist, I’ve always felt that I’m way too stable and grounded to be a successful artist. I just don’t feel like cutting off my ear to make a sale.
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Art is a luxury?
by Deb Marvin, Worcester, MA, USA
I was watching the evening news the other night and the Republic House Minority leader was criticizing the inclusion of $50 million for the National Endowment of the Arts. As he was speaking and saying that at times like these art is a luxury, I realized that he, and so many others, do not see art-making as a career, a job, employment, etc. The reality is that an artist is a one-person small business. (Okay — some artists are so successful they hire others to do the work.) As such all the rules apply to them as much as to any business. We pay taxes, we buy supplies, we create and sell a product, we actually create other jobs — gallery staff, art teachers/professors, staff who work at various art supply stores and companies, manufacturers who make our paper, canvas, paints, pigments, clay, brushes, etc. In other words artists are as vital a part of any economy as anyone else. Perhaps I am sensitive to the issue because, as mentioned in a previous response, I recently lost my position at a large financial services company and have decided my new job will be as an artist. I won’t lay myself off, I won’t play corporate politics with myself, and I will produce inventory. If my work doesn’t sell right away I will have plenty to cart around to galleries, shows, etc. And when the economy picks up again (and it will — the question is when?) I will have plenty of work to sell.
So now I am going to send letters to my representatives in Congress and tell them that there is a huge population of creative, self-employed artists out there, doing their part to keep the economic wheels turning, and that we should not be overlooked or disregarded as part of the solution.
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