Conspicuous consumption


Dear Artist,

When Wisconsin-born economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” he was reacting to the over-the-top wastefulness of a gilt society. Veblen died in Palo Alto, California in 1929, just three weeks before the stock-market crash and the onset of the Great Depression.


Thorstein Veblen’s first book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899) is a scholarly protest against the false values and social waste of the upper classes.

Veblen had plenty to say about the arts and the reasoning behind their support. He thought our ideas of beauty were inextricably tied to rarity and expense. He compared art to diamonds. While similar in many ways to common glass, diamonds are rare in the earth’s crust and difficult to dig out. Seen under these contexts, they become beautiful. Further, while a Picasso oil might be worth big bucks, it’s also big bucks that make a Picasso worthy. Veblen noted that frivolities and false values came about due to the human need to demonstrate wealth and to establish status.

Veblen was also aware that attitudes evolved and that social mores changed over time. Such pressures exist today. In our rapidly greening world, Hummer ownership is now uncool. In some places these wide-stance, gas-guzzling SUVs have become embarrassing to have in a driveway. You’re going to find this difficult to swallow, but the expensive and impractical Hummer’s demise bodes poorly for art.

Whether it’s a Joe Bloggs watercolour purchased for home use for $200, or a $140 million Jackson Pollock dripper purchased for a public gallery, art needs the frivolity of conspicuous consumption to make things happen. If the market were to turn around (the way it has for Hummers) and the need to display expenditure becomes diminished, we’re in big trouble.

In our current economic climate, economists and politicians are anxious that we begin spending again. In these days where money is not just fluttering down Main Street, I’ve noticed that some collectors are being more careful. “Canny” is the operative word. They’re looking for real quality and in some cases they’re looking for discounts. These days it’s not so cool to blow the big bucks in front of others. It’s become unfashionable to spend.

Veblen argued that wealth display and the squandering of money on what he considered to be pointless possessions was a component of human nature. Just think what might happen if this didn’t exist.

Best regards,


PS: “Beauty is commonly a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty.” (Thorstein Veblen, 1859-1929)

Esoterica: What’s an artist to do in times like this? The answer is that art goes on no matter what’s happening in fashion or economics. But getting an understanding of what’s going on never hurt anyone. Picasso, Michelangelo and Salvador Dali were not denied the curiosity. Picasso taught himself to be canny. Michelangelo stood up for himself. And Dali reacted with enriched playfulness, humour and insight. “I am not an artist,” said Dali, “I’m a manufacturer of wealth.”


Art needed more than ever
by Mary Erickson, Marshville, NC, USA


“Promise of Spring – Cardinal”
oil painting
by Mary Erickson

I would hardly call purchasing original artwork the “squandering of money on pointless possessions.” In fact, in these economic times, I am finding that people are purchasing paintings because of the need for beauty in their lives. Art is never a pointless possession. True collectors are in love with what art brings to them. It is a way for them to speak the language of painting without actually painting. It represents how they feel about the world around them, spoken in the artists’ unique tongue. There is a connection between the artist and the art collector, an indelible thread. Now is the time to surround yourself with what you love, and the solace of beauty. In these troubled times, people will find that they need art more than ever.

There are 3 comments for Art needed more than ever by Mary Erickson

From: Elizabeth O’Connor — Feb 26, 2009

Beautiful work you do. I love cardinals.

From: Anon — Feb 27, 2009

Ditto to Elizabeth’s comment! I find the ice dripping from a flowered branch, absolutely awesome! Great work!!

From: Suzanne, Belfast, UK — Feb 27, 2009

I echo the above – beautiful painting of a beautiful bird. Also your comment is heartening about the value of beauty and love and the ‘indelible thread’ – what a nice metaphor. The need for beauty, love and joy never dies.


Get a real job?
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


“Burning heat”
acrylic and oil painting
by Alan Soffer

It’s been many years since I studied Thorstein Veblen in Freshman Literature at Temple University. Certainly, we need conspicuous consumption to keep the economy going and nothing is more conspicuous than a wealthy collector of whatever. People who accumulate wealth seem to find a need to have tangible manifestations of their success. My thought may be a little off the subject but I see many artists catering to the tourist trade and doing tourist art. From my standpoint, it would be better to get a real job, with real income and benefits, and pursue the perfection of one’s art simultaneously. This was the advice I gave to my good friend whose sales are plummeting through no fault of his own. He gave up law to pursue art and has done nicely until now. A little hiatus from the starving artist lifestyle seems necessary for the foreseeable future.


Don’t lose sight of ‘why’
by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada


original painting
by Darrell Baschak

Once again you have written a timely letter for these topsy-turvy times we are experiencing. While it is true that a Picasso today is worth big bucks, it wasn’t always so and there was a time for him when he struggled like many artists do today. He worked hard and paid his dues and success followed. I’m not sure that his goal was to be rich but it is obvious that he loved his life as an artist, the process, experimentation and the looking into the unknown and going there feet first. I have painted for many years, have never shown in a commercial gallery, haven’t sold a lot of my work and I’m quite content with that. I just love to paint. I would suggest to others not to lose sight of why they are artists, or examine their motives and make the necessary adjustments.

There is 1 comment for Don’t lose sight of ‘why’ by Darrell Baschak

From: Donna Brower Watts — Feb 27, 2009

It would be well to note that auction houses who sell big name artists from the past are also finding that sales are way down. I believe that we have to be true to our art, even if we have to find other ways to pay the bills for awhile and have less time to actually paint. Perhaps this will actually force us to see our work differently and improve it!!


The end of overpriced art?
by Marty Gibson, Scottsdale, AZ, USA


original painting
by Marty Gibson

Regarding the rarified world of mega-star artists and biennials, collectors, curators and dealers who surround them. It has become such a house of cards/tanks of formaldehyde that I think anyone who collects this art is taking a risk. If you look at the recent sales in London and NY there were a number of works that came on the market and were sold for millions that are now selling for well less. These sorts of art works are promoted by dealers and bought by persons whose main desire is to impress their associates of their wealth and “taste.” So perhaps as this market begins to subside, the market for work that’s produced without the compulsion to chase “the next new thing” will heat up. Suppose?

There is 1 comment for The end of overpriced art? by Marty Gibson

From: Sylvia Boulware — Feb 27, 2009

Thank you Marty for your insight. It was a boost to my morale. At an Art Walk last spring, during the start of this economic downturn, I was surprised and delighted that some piece sold. I don’t know what is in store for me or my buddies at this year’s Art Walk but we won’t be discouraged, because it’s what we love to do!


Role of the artist
by Paul Wolf, The Pas, MB, Canada

And poo poo to Veblen! Art is insight, emotion heightened to the extreme, to be shared with sentient others. It is done by artists, not on whim, but because they have the need. They need to point out to others aspects of life and the world about them that social dynamics automatically filters and suppresses. Ergo, if something appears that is not within the social/experiential reality construct of the viewer, it cannot be seen. Artists, of whatever sort, are the sensitives of society, the cackling geese, and they will warn of the unseen whether it leads to riches or to rags!

There are 2 comments for Role of the artist by Paul Wolf

From: Nancy Oppenheimer — Feb 27, 2009

Paul, you said that perfectly! Thank you, Nancy

From: Alan Soffer — Feb 27, 2009

Brilliantly stated and true, but it doesn’t feed the body in bad times, only the soul.


Collectors looking for ‘safer’ art?
by Gillian Bull


“Dosewallips, WA”
oil pastel
by Gillian Bull

My view is that the economy is not going to make any difference to what, or how I paint. I don’t paint with a market in mind. Since I’m poor (and lazy) about marketing, I struggle with whatever I am pushing myself to do, regardless of what is going on with other people. I teach, and I paint with other people, and have a wonderful, busy life. Thank goodness I have something compelling and gratifying to take my mind off the bad things in life.

I suppose there are collectors who collect because it is fashionable or so that they can show off to their friends, but there are also collectors who buy what they love. Yes, with, economic downturn, they will be circumspect about the amount of money they spend and probably will be more likely to buy art that is ‘safer.’

There is 1 comment for Collectors looking for ‘safer’ art? by Gillian Bull

From: Laura Collins — Mar 03, 2009

We have all felt the effects of the economy on sales of our work, but I would not compare collecting art to conspicuous consumption. The term has always meant buying to impress. I agree with a gallery owner who was quoted in American Art Collector: “The casual buyer has diminished in the market somewhat, but the serious collectors are still purchasing good quality work.” When things look more hopeful, so will the sales increase.

There is a lot of caution being exercised in spending, but our instinct to expose ourselves to art is a strong part of human nature. In fact most of our knowledge about past civilizations has been garnered through the discovery of their pottery, wall paintings, jewelry, in other words, their art. An instinct and need to have art in our lives will easily outlive the SUV/Hummer infatuation. It is as necessary to our existence as any other part of human existence that nurtures the soul.


The elitist split
by Kate Lehman Landishaw, USA

My lifelong approach to it has been indelibly skewed by being the daughter of an artist; born into a home where art is commonplace, usual “stuff” makes it a necessity for any kind of even semi-sane existence. I’m physically uncomfortable in places without art on the walls, as if the building has holes, isn’t going to stand. When I taught art appreciation at a junior college, I took the stance that art is whatever the beholder declares it to be, thus taking a kid’s admiration for his car into a conversation about design elements, for instance. Speaking about art as non-elitist worked to draw my students toward art, to think of it as potentially a “normal” part of life. It must come to be seen that way if artists are to survive. Veblen’s ideas neglect caveman-era art as communication tool, and reflect the historical use of art an illuminating tool for what religious leaders wanted followers to envision from scripture, to keep religion a leader-based (elitist) human need. Therein the elitist split, which elites do indeed need to keep them apart from the rabble. And yet the elite also “need” to associate with artists as part of having/procuring and “understanding” the art — perhaps the ancient need to have serfs and peons whom they can control with money… ah, well… But with a houseful of art – my father’s, my own, and that of myriad other artists (yes, even a small Picasso) – even a financially marginal home in a southern mill village feels palatial. ‘Tis a puzzlement — but at least no wall street manipulator can mess with the creature-comfort version of wealth!

There is 1 comment for The elitist split by Kate Lehman Landishaw

From: Patricia Peterson — Feb 26, 2009

Your comment is well taken on Veblen neglecting cavemen’s visual communications and art as a controlling influence for the illiterate whether for political or religious purposes is explored in the BBC documentary, “How Art Made the World” which, ultimately, makes the point that the media is now abusing us for the same controlling purposes. Thus, consumerism has become an all powerful substitute for art–a great peril. At great loss to civilization and our economy sans art awareness, corruption prevails. The media touts sensationalism, not sensitivity.


Diversification means survival
by Stephen Aitken, India


“Sunflower shaantih”
watercolour painting
by Stephen Aitken

I differ in my opinion from those expressed by Veblen. His assumption that art can be viewed as a ‘pointless possession’ reveals his econocentric perspective. Sure the market is driven by the paintings created by many of the big names of the past and present, but it is the everyday artist, the illustrators, designers, the art directors and instructors that are the engine of our creative society. Many of us eking a living from our creative efforts can take the current economic downturn as a challenge to expand our creative skills, to diversify and develop resilience. I work as an editor in the field of conservation biology, as Managing Editor of Biodiversity journal, and one of the most important strengths of a resilient ecosystem is its ability to diversify. An ecosystem short on variety is an ecosystem vulnerable to change and degradation. Diversification means survival today and forever and it cannot be separated from creativity itself. Up against a wall, the blank canvas, the empty book, the empty document on your computer screen, do they not all challenge us all to gird up our loins and create? I firmly believe that the greatest creations of all will come out of these difficult times. Time will tell.

There are 2 comments for Diversification means survival by Stephen Aitken

From: Ken Flitton — Feb 27, 2009

Beautiful composition, Stephen!!

From: Lisa Chakrabarti — Mar 14, 2009

Interesting analogy. And your comment gets to the root of things: don’t let worries about the economy get too far under the skin. The main purpose of an artist is to create. Go. Get to work. And you might find you can tune all the other stuff out.


Human spirit must be fed
by Patricia Peterson, New York, NY, USA


“Cape cod marshes”
pastel painting
by Patricia Peterson

Consumer habits cut through such a lot for everyone on many levels at this time of course; a great unknown looms. Yet the desire to possess what is excellent will never cease. When looking at art made and collected during the great depression, this is evident. How pointless if people were to neglect beauty, quality and depth of feeling — all of which is embodied in art more than anywhere else in daily life. Now that is more important than having money to spend on anything that breaks down, becomes unfashionable or distasteful. During the ’30s memorable movies were created, great works of art came into being, Martha Graham’s and great ballet troops toured Europe and the Americas — because ultimately the human spirit must be fed with food for the soul. Now more than ever might be a time to bring original art into ‘ordinary’ homes to offer relief, solace and engender creativity in those treasuring human touch every day: quality diamonds may be out of reach of the many, but not so a treasure of a work of art lifting one’s spirits.


Time to stay home?
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Edge of winter”
original painting
by Brigitte Nowak

While I fear that you may well be correct: that the display of extravagant — and unnecessary — purchases may be a bad omen for artists who rely on sales of their work to put food on their table, I’d like to think that art may hold its value better than certain other displays of wealth. We have watched the bottom drop out of the stock market; not only have the bonuses of bankers evaporated, but so have banks; we won’t buy cars because the company that builds them may go bankrupt. And yes, the New York art auction houses that value their “lots” in the millions, are hurting. Even oil, formerly measured by how quickly the price went up after the wind blew offshore, seems to have tanked. However, while the media prints doom and gloom, most people still have their jobs, their houses, and their dignity. (And my heartfelt sympathy for those that do not.) And meanwhile, the price of gold, the metal that sets the standard for solvency, keeps going up.

Maybe, in these precarious times, people will opt for things of beauty and items that have value on a personal level. The last recession championed “cocooning”: staying home and cooking comfort food. Recently, analysts were surprised that while consumer spending declined, the sales of big-screen televisions did not: if people are going to stay home, they want to do so with as much comfort and dignity as they can muster. Perhaps the $200 watercolour — if painted with skill and feeling and marketed effectively, may still find a home.

That optimistic view aside, I think that working artists will have to work harder to show their clients the value of what they are producing. I’ve had one gallery (so far) close; I’m redoubling my marketing efforts, and being more critical of the work I produce. That means taking extra pride in my workmanship, not being satisfied with “OK,” but aiming at wonderful, not letting “adequate” out the door until it is as good as I can make it, and finding new venues for displaying my work. If it still doesn’t find a home, well, I have walls too.


The future for artists
by Terry Gilecki, Delta, BC, Canada


“Two for the show”
acrylic painting
by Terry Gilecki

Unfortunately, in the current economy, the sales of art will undoubtedly suffer, just like the sales of the “hummer,” or anything that could be considered a frivolous or an unwise purchase. The many walls in the homes that are in, or near,foreclosure here and around the world. They will not likely be occupied by people, let alone adorned with “art” for some time. Nor will there be Hummers on the driveways. It is not because these items are no longer desired, but simply because they are unrealistic.

Rest assured… despite of, and even in spite of this economy, there are hoards of people that are not only surviving… but thriving, and many new fortunes are being made as we speak. Many of these people, like in the “old days” have, or had to re-learn respect for the value of a buck, and the hard work it takes to really earn it. The “easy come, easy go” mentality is gone. A more cautious attitude already has, and will continue to influence the way we all will spend our money for some time to come.

History tells us that quality is measured, in good part, by the time and effort invested in making something, and that “quality,” even in the worst of times, is always in demand. Making art that shows an investment of the artist’s time, ingenuity and, of course, level of skill and talent, will fair more favourably than the abstract or more spontaneous and looser styles, unless the artist has grown to a level of fame and collectability as an investment. Expect more scrutiny when it comes to buyers looking to “getting their money’s worth.” It’s instinctive.

I agree that, to some degree, art has relied on, as you said, “the frivolity of conspicuous consumption,” and may require offering “discounts.” Some art will have to, and some will not. “Values,” however, will be reassessed. We should consider the changes we will experience as artists in the future, as the adaptation to a more “realistic” economy, and society… hopefully for a while anyway.


Time to reinvent yourself?
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA


“Expect the Unexpected”
watercolour painting
by Kittie Beletic

I am in a personal financial crunch due to the problems in the real estate market. I had just started a new marketing campaign for my artwork when the world went a little crazy. At the same time, I published a new book with another one waiting in the wings which is no small fiscal task. I’m still buying my favorite coffee, even though it is more expensive than most. The pleasure in that, for me, is immeasurable. If anything, the pleasure is heightened because I have the thought of how dear the experience of each cup of coffee is to me. I made the choice to move out of my expensive, expansive workspace and back into my home to offset expenses. A new space — literally, in my own back yard — awaits my attention when I am able. I dream of it every day, moving cupboards and bins as I build the most charming and efficient studio yet!

Why not invest in the idea that what we create continues to be valuable? Why not acquire new ways of seeing, better and bigger ways to create cash and cash-flow inside the changing times? Those who cling to what was, will go the way of it. Those who reinvent themselves, who find new ways of presenting their ‘wares’ will have movement within their creative selves as well as stay in the game of selling. The first step is putting any fears on the shelf. We can get them down now and then if it makes us feel more secure since fear is such a familiar response. But we must put them back on the shelf whenever we explore new waters. Trusting ourselves and our abilities is good practice. What better time than now to begin!

“There are those who discourage the dreamers of dreams.

Their words will seem little and tidy and clean.

Their fears will seem sensible, simple and sound.

They’re rework and lasso your dreams to the ground!”

(RG note) Kittie Beletic is author of What Color is Your Dream? and Coffee Break: Spoken Stories To Express A Special Blend.




Trumpeter Swan At Twilight

oil painting 16 x 20 inches
by Ben Galloway, USA


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 Christy Michalak who asked, “How do we, as artists, help to shift the culture around buying art? Art can be so much more than just a frivolous expenditure for something rare. It can also be a daily reinforcement of something meaningful to the viewer (such as a new habit they are instilling in themselves), a reminder upon waking of a happy moment, an honour for a loved one… etc. What can we do with our websites, our literature, and our daily messaging to get this idea across?”

And also Corky Culver of Melrose, FL, USA, who wrote, “The original writer of Slumdog Millionaire had the central idea as being luck and pluck not fate. The movie went to the ‘It is written’ theme. Considering what you say about predestination actually quashing creativity and discouraging talent, it’s too bad the movie changed the philosophy of the story.”

And also Edward Vincent Sydney of Australia, who wrote, “I humbly suggest that it’s not the spending of wealth that’s become uncool, it’s what you spend it on. To spend big on something that is not helping the future of the planet is what’s frowned upon. A massive dining table that represents the destruction of half the Amazon rain forest is bad. A painting is good!”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Conspicuous consumption



From: Rick Rotante — Feb 24, 2009

There is still much to be said on conspicuous consumption even today in a depressed economy and especially here in Southern California, where I live. Wealth is always on display and consumption is conspicuous and at the forefront of society.

It’s a badge of honor to be wasteful especially today. I believe conspicuous consumption will always happen even in bad times only to a lesser degree.

I find it curious that Veblen died in California and no doubt his research was based on the waste seen here everyday notably in the movie and music industries though in his time the movie industry was the visibly main source of consumption in this country.

In Veblen’s time, America was experiencing a renaissance of wealth with the J.P.Morgans and the Rockefellers. The country was expanding exponentially and many were getting in on the ground floor in steel, with railroads, and in building. We also have to remember there was no income tax then. Every penny made went into personal accounts. Spending was the word of the day.

No one expected it to end until the 1929 crash.

The kind of wealth created then without doubt attributed to the growth and expansion of conspicuous consumption. In fact, it became a way of life to see who could outdo the other.

Look at Hearst Newspaper empire. The now famous Castle he built could never be build today. Talk about frivolous! But to anyone who has been there, what a creation.

Sure buyers of art are cautious but art can never be equated with a Hummer. The rich may also be looking for bargains but what they conceive as a bargain may be the difference between one million as opposed to two million for a painting by Picasso or Dali.

The common person, in America at least, still doesn’t see art of any kind as an investment valuable, but his Hummer, now that’s a different story.

Robert your letters are a joy to read and your subject matter diverse. Both remain interesting and a joy to respond to. Thanx.

From: Onelio Marrero — Feb 24, 2009

These are great comments and very true in many respects. Art is almost always a luxury to those who collect it. These are difficult times and may get more difficult for those of us who sell such luxuries. I recently read that the U.S Congress is considering a new bill that will require small internet retailers to operate like the biggest retail chains by forcing them to charge a federal tax for anything sold through their web site. This will make it more difficult to sell the luxury items small galleries offer through web sites. I suppose it’s the government’s way of collecting money to pay for these outrageous bailouts and stimulus packages. It’s probably also the result of the larger chains that already charge these taxes lobbying congress for this new change. At least I get comfort knowing that no matter the obstacle, great art endures and great artists circumvent the problems through shear force of will and ingenuity.

From: Eileen Keane — Feb 24, 2009

During the Depression, people wanted escapism. I don’t think this has changed.

From: Suzette Fram — Feb 24, 2009

Good times or bad, there are always people with money to spend, and whether they buy for the love of it, or to show off, speaks only of their own personal motivation, and cannot be generalized to the rest of the population.

There are 2 comments that I must take exception to:

1) “Beauty is commonly a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty.” If this is saying what I think it’s saying, ie that beauty lies in the price of the item, I strongly disagree with this. I see beauty all the time even though I don’t necessarily buy it, own it, or show it off. Something touches me and puts me in a state of awe, and looking and enjoying is what it’s about for me. Not buying it and showing it off to show people how rich I am. Which I am not, of course, unfortunately.

2) “Veblen argued that wealth display and the squandering of money on what he considered to be pointless possessions was a component of human nature.” Pointless possessions? A Hummer may be ostentatious, but it performs a service; it provides transportation. A painting may not serve any ‘useful’ purpose, but it enriches your life, brings beauty into your surroundings, and stirs your emotions everything you look at it. Not pointless at all as far as I’m concerned.

From: Richard Mazzarino — Feb 24, 2009

One truth as Mr.Veblen states is conspicuous consumption being part of human nature. This is the case since man rose to walk upright. The quest for the best started with food, then shelter and even for a mate. Humans are competitive and it extends to possessions necessary (frivolous) or not. If my neighbor has one, I need one better, maybe two. This crosses all social lines and all nationalities. The more you make, the more you want. Though art isn’t necessarily an intrinsic part of this equation.

Because art is very difficult to put a price on, so called “experts” created a (false) value system for art to have monetary value. What makes art valuable is made up of circumstances created in order to sell it. It we were to say the cost of materials was its value, most works of art would be no more than twenty to fifty dollars if that. But we add Quality whatever that means, Difficulty, Size, Scarcity, Greed, and Myth, plus a host of other factors and voila, worth!

Art, technically, is worthless. Most things are worthless until a value is placed on it. Value is gauged on who wants it and how much they are willing to pay for it.

Dali was right when he said he (sic) “doesn’t create art, he creates wealth.”

So getting back to conspicuous consumption, if you are willing to pay the price, no matter the cost, that item is worth that much. Those who can afford to flaunt it, no matter that cost. If money is no object.. who is to blame the buyer for paying too much.

From: Judy Reinsma — Feb 24, 2009
From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Feb 24, 2009

Hmm, so many replies with theory. Locally, the yearly Big Show is always the Good Hope School Scolarship Fund Art Show. With about fourty artists, mostly painters, showing. Last year, in three days, they took in a little over $250k. Many happy artists! This year, they sold about 20% of what they did last year.

Hopefully next year will be better.

From: Laury Ravenstein — Feb 26, 2009

Boy, are my endorphins flowing! I have struggled for years perfecting my realist paintings. The work was selling well. I was always ready to put in the hard work, but I wondered if I was on the right path. Wishing I could be more excited and expressive. In the summer time, I would take my kids camping and work on small abstract watercolours, but when I went back to my studio I would work on “serious” stuff. I loved my little watercolours. I thought they were the most creative works I had ever done. I also thought no one would understand them in larger works.

Now I don’t care. I started a new series 6 weeks ago with a method that fits my creative soul perfectly. The style is unique and the quality exceeds my expectations. I am finally at peace with my work. It only took 25 years. I knew from the very beginning that I could never go back. What a treat. Work for so long and finally get a payoff that blows your socks off. I have just finished “A New Day – # 5” done in water soluble oils. I am celebrating and I want to thank you and all the artists who have helped me stay motivated in the face of exhausting work.

My method is instinctive and spontaneous and the results are interesting and not preconceived, but the works have erupted as abstract landscapes. In every line I see the natural world. I never painted landscapes before. Must mean something?

From: Lorelle Miller — Feb 26, 2009

When I am pretending to live in a perfect world, I think of goodwill between artists not one-upmanship. Trust and advocacy between peers. A leg up for the whole of creativity and those who work honestly. How disappointing it is to witness those that hide behind the veil of the enlightened artist, stab at each other and crawl over each other to reach a little higher for recognition. I will not play that game, I’d rather turn away. I don’t like the nature of that competiveness that turns otherwise good people into jerks. Survival of the fittest is undoubtedly a truth, but living with yourself in honest pursuit of your passion beats any judgment beyond your own skin.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Feb 26, 2009

Very interesting! There was an older girl who used to bully me when I was in lower grades (not that I cared much, but sometimes she was quite annoying). One day she came racing across the school ground and said — “I saw your stuff from the art class – it’s amazing!” She never bullied me after that. In higher grades there was always a lineup of boys for whom I did the art class homework — those sporty types who didn’t like art, but apparently cared to get their homework done by me. The first thing I gave to my future husband when we started dating was a drawing of him and me in an embrace. There was another kid in my class who drew cartoons, he went to be an architect and I think that he kept at his art as well — I became an electrical engineer. From his point of view I didn’t last…but now I am back! I hope that Linda gets her second chance as well. One of the sporty guys I did the homework for became a movie maker — perhaps an artsy bug bit him at some point? Another one became a policeman with taste for designer’s clothes…

From: Angela Treat Lyon — Feb 26, 2009

I’m disappointed that there are so many who say that art is all about something that goes in the mouth or about the act of mating. Maybe so, but I like to think it might have begun with wanting to appreciate, honor and connect with the spirit within.

To me, making whatever I make is about feeling connected to That, the divine essence in everything. I get every image I draw, paint or carve in dreams that have high spiritual value for me.

I question, too, the assumption that it was men who did the paintings at Las Caux and other places. If you took a census of the artists in the world today, it would be an overwhelmingly woman-oriented result. Why any different then? Look at all the time people had in winter to sit around and create – why wouldn’t women have time to paint on walls or carve little pieces of bone?

From: Stella Reinwald — Feb 26, 2009

How by any stretch… can you compare a painting (or most any work of art) to a Hummer? Although both could be considered unnecessary expenditures, one is a 6400 lb., fossil fuel perpetual-consumption machine and generator of toxic fumes, the other is about as benign as any human-made object can get. When a painting is well done, it will be loved and passed along to future generations to enjoy until it turns back to dust. The best we can hope for the future of Hummers, is that they are eventually recycled into something useful.

Your comment also assumes that art is purchased only as a display of status. Sadly all too often it is, but surely sometimes it is an indulgence of an emotional touchstone to one’s values and/or aesthetics. Why not assume instead, that in tight economic times, those persons still possessing the freedom to spend on “desires” rather than “needs”, might choose to buy a work of art rather than some overpriced, useless piece of garbage such as the insane offerings of the in-flight catalogue you find in the seat pocket of any airplane… along with the barf bag and ditching instructions.

From: Jacqui Chapman — Feb 26, 2009

I think that if we all stopped doing what we are good at, this current downturn, the gloom and doom prophecy is a self perpetuating mindset of being stuck. I think we should continue to make the things we make, with absolute integrity and heartfelt passion. Since most of the gridlock is about perception – lets talk up the positive of how we engage our talents and get on with it. Please stop writing about the negative and focus on what we are doing well. Most of my paintings are sold. There are people out there working away to afford them as I am busy painting them.

At the very least we owe it to our intelligence not to let the bankers grind us down as one heavy world of people who have lost the nerve to create and to think.

From: Karen Stockley — Feb 26, 2009

I just want to say thank you for your generosity of spirit and thought process. I have been receiving your emails and each time I read one, it causes me to think and evaluate how I perceive my own and others’ worlds. I almost feel guilty that I have such a wonderful source of information and inspiration without cost other than a few minutes of my time. Thank you.

From: Cathy — Feb 26, 2009

Actually diamonds are extremely numerous and common. It is the diamond companies, storing zillions of diamonds in vaults, making them “rare” so only a limited number reach the common market. That is called marketing.

From: Carolyn in Toronto — Feb 26, 2009

As usual I do find some disagreement with your note.

I think it’s “conspicuous” CREDIT that is being pulled under hopefully better “control” by this financial crash.

People who HAVE money to spend will continue to do so… they may just not be as “conspicuous”… or may wait a year or so before they return to their Lavish expenditures.

It’s the lower end (as usual) who are losing their jobs and can’t pay off their maxed Credit cards and mortgages who are being crushed right now.

For me, this time is for getting a LOT of Painting done… without as much of a rush… and in a year or so… everything will be back on track and better for the Lesson that living on out-of-control borrowed money will just rise up and bite you.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Feb 26, 2009

I often hear comments questioning Hummer owners for adequacy of their brains and/or reproductive organs. I never hear such comments about art collectors, so I assume that their organs are adequate at the least. That’s one difference right there even if their pocketbooks are comparable. I suspect that there is a different thinking process applied to buying Hummers and art. I would say that art is kept more zipped than Hummers.

From: Melinda Wilde — Feb 26, 2009

Perhaps this economic downturn will cause people to purchase what they love, what speaks to them , rather than what is “cool” or “the latest”; perhaps it will cause the real reason for creating art; because we can’t not; to prosper. Perhaps a nobler buyer will cause creators to rise to the challenge of sincerity in their production.

Stranger things have happened.

From: David Lucht — Feb 26, 2009

The effort to link high-end art to conspicuous consumption has one thing going for it – those of us who have large amounts of money frequently spend a large amount of money to obtain social status. This dynamic enfolds the high-end art world, regardless of the manner in which the given piece of art engages the buyer’s soul. What I find objectionable in this argument is the equation of purchases like the “Hummer” with high-end objects of art. Simply because they both operate in the marketplace does not make their respective functions equivalent. To place them in the same context is to reduce the world of art to simple commodity.

I realize that we are all trying to function competently in the marketplace. Art does not lend itself to convenient categories that apply to other icons of our current demand curve: cars, houses, boats, appliances. Art is… and will forever be, something else. We can argue that they all go along for the ride in a hyper-charged economy driven by wants instead of needs. True… but do we buy them both for the same reasons?

Art must operate apart from pure economically driven scales. Since the “conspicuous consumption” dollars are drying up we must not wring our hands and equate paltry Hummer sales with weak sales of expensive art. If you are operating in this rarified atmosphere and selling to people who buy your art for other reasons than that they find the art awakening something in them they never recognized, then too bad for you because your sales will certainly suffer in kind.

The last area where your assessment of the current economic doldrums falters is in putting lower priced art (I believe it was a creation of a certain “Joe Blogg”) at the same risk as the “crazy-money” end of the spectrum. If art appeals, art will sell, as it does very day without regard to name recognition or the “perceived value” function of high price point. Those artists currently offering a reasonable, non status driven price point can only benefit by contrast in the current climate.

From: Bill Beaton — Feb 26, 2009

Interesting and this morning there was an extended radio discussion on this same subject. Conclusion: Now that big bonuses are being curtailed those “new rich” will probably stop buying as a way to spend their money and trying to impress others but the true collectors of art will continue to pay whatever…

From: Holly Quan — Feb 26, 2009

I disagree that buying art is an expression of conspicuous consumption. Art is not a consumable commodity like cars or clothes or shampoo. It’s true that for some people art is an investment, like buying gold or stocks (well, maybe not stocks) — but for me the price of a piece of art has no bearing on its value. I buy art because of the feeling it evokes in me. For example, I own a very simple painting of two chairs in a grassy, dappled setting; every time I look at it, I feel the warmth and ease of a summer afternoon. It cost about $100 but it has great value to me. I buy art for the same reason I buy books — pure enjoyment.

I suppose people who own Hummers might say the same thing. Perhaps they derive some kind of weird pleasure from driving to the grocery store in a vehicle designed for the mountains of Afghanistan. Every time I see one of those hulking monsters on the road, I think, “Hmm, more money than brains.”

Art is not stuff. Hummers are stuff. And as the so-called financial crisis unfolds, one thing is becoming obvious: the world has enough stuff. The world can never have enough art.

From: Michelle Torrez — Feb 26, 2009

I disagree with your comparison of spending money on an expensive, gas guzzling car, and spending money on art! The reason it is uncool to own a Hummer is because it consumes excessive amounts of precious natural resources, depleting the earth, causing war, hardship, suffering.

Art is precious, it is not mass produced. A work of art is an expression of a human experience. When the artist dies, there is no more supply. Art lifts us up, connects us, brings us understanding, and sometimes hope. How do you put a price on that?

Yes, there are always going to be those who exploit and objectify beauty, and get rich in the process. But let us please remember that art has real value to our society, and money is only paper.

From: Linda Saccoccio — Feb 26, 2009

Magic! Art that is strong, that comes from a deep connection the artist has nurtured with the work, themselves and the other has the ability to uplift. I recently attended a performance by Patti Smith and Phillip Glass in honor of Allen Ginsberg, and “Footnote to Howl.” I can tell you the mastery, love, talent and discipline that they exhibited left people floating out of the small auditorium at UCSB. To be that close to such magic is transformative. That is one reason people will always buy art! It is larger than life and more than the sum total of its parts. And yes, it is rare like diamonds.

From: Julie Trail — Feb 26, 2009

I agree absolutely with this premise that it’s the perceived value, by way of a reflection on your own sense of self-worth, that drives the demand for high-priced art and other such acquisitions.

A friend who normally priced his watercolors around $350 for art fairs, raised his prices to $1200 when he showed at a fair in North Lake Tahoe a few years ago (when the race for a worthy display of self-worth was exceedingly high) and he sold three of his paintings at that price. The marketplace determines the worth in many cases.

Personally, I have a modesty about my work that seeks to search out true collectors of good watercolors that reflect a sense of place, specifically the Sierra Foothills, irregardless of the self-worth of the buyers. My collectors seem to enjoy having a piece of the natural beauty they see around them to hold onto for daily reflection on the “meaning of life.” So I keep my prices in line with an average pocketbook, a price I could afford if I were the buyer. Of course, the market has slowed considerably, but I still sell quite a lot of small paintings that elicit that response in people who like having a painting that allows them to pause in their daily business to reflect.

Thank you for your thoughtful letters. I love the respect for intellectual considerations you are so good at expressing.

From: Gaye Adams — Feb 26, 2009

I know that what you wrote in today’s letter is certainly relevant and there is no doubt that artists are the canaries of the economy. Most of the artists I know that are full time working artists have taken considerable pay cuts this last while. Even the “hottest” galleries seem to be feeling the pinch. As for the economic downturn, this too shall pass.

On the up side, with the demand down somewhat, it gives the artist more time for painting what she wants, and perhaps taking more time to truly do her best work. I think it’s a good opportunity to develop the works that have been in the back eddies of our minds, that have been gestating for some time, and actually birth them. It causes us to re examine why we paint, and why we paint what we paint. At least that is what it is doing for me, and this is a very good thing.

From: Janet Zugar — Feb 26, 2009

Value will always be in the eye of the beholder. I have never wanted because someone else wanted the same thing. I want what interests me, what keeps me awake at night thinking about. Perhaps the death of conspicuous consumption will be the birth of individual taste? Individuality that doesn’t look like everyone else’s individuality? I will relish the day that tattoos and goatees are again a truly individual taste and not the mandate of the crowd. When everyone is special and looks the same, then no one is special.

So if your work has value to me because I like it, then how do you set a price? If there is no competition for consumption of your piece of art, then how do you know its worth? Then you need to know just how badly I want it.

So, I guess that means you must get to know the individual… individually.

From: Jeanne Aisthorpe Smith — Feb 26, 2009

I believe there will always be “conspicuous consumption” as mankind not only loves beauty but spending money makes one feel better, even in tough times. I always like to see the glass half full as opposed to half empty and I heard on the news yesterday that during the Great Depression, 25% of the people were out of work – BUT 75% were working!!!! Why focus on the negative??? …I believe that during the economic downturns it is an opportunity for all of us, and not just artists, to hone our craft and be the very best we can be… good art always has a better chance of selling… and these economic downturns will pass… the tide ebbs and the tide flows and each one we go through makes us stronger and more refined and that translates into better art.

From: Paul Kane — Feb 26, 2009

That isn’t just hard to swallow. It’s flat out wrong. If people think a little more about the art they buy, about it’s meaning and inherent value to them, that will be GOOD for the art world, even if it means that the inflationary speculative frenzy dies down. It doesn’t help most artists when artworks by the famous painters go for megabucks. What it does is feed price disparity and fill the art market with a lot of crap created and promoted by speculators. The best thing for art would be a solid, sustained, non-bubble driven, art market where buyers focus more on buying what they love than on buying what they think they can turn over in a year or several for twice the amount.

From: I. Kelly — Feb 26, 2009

Somethings never change because I remember when the 1980’s was called the decade of greed. It was not proper to indulge in conspicuous consumption. Who invented that term ?

Could it be the same self serving corrupt media who just loves to inflict their high moral judgements and guilt on the rest of us.

They should look to themselves and try to understand something about economics and how interdependent we all are for our economic prosperity.

Singling otherwise honest people out for this kind of criticism is reprehensible.

From: Sherry J. Purvis — Feb 27, 2009

Kelly, I agree with your comments. It is difficult enough to live through these times without increased manipulation to guide the masses. Do you guys ever consider that everyone does not feel about art the way we do. There are those out there who will always go for the flashy car, the big home, the top computer, etc, without any consideration of art. That doesn’t make them wrong, it only makes them human and who are we to judge them for their choices.

From: artist — Feb 27, 2009

Oh Sherry…of course we are here to judge…just as we get judged all the time!

From: Liz Reday — Mar 01, 2009

Now is the time be creative! How lucky we are that we don’t have to stand in long lines at job fairs, feel bad because we just got laid off, have an identity crisis because we’re no longer going in to that office every day. I’ve heard that sales are slowing down and galleries are suffering, but as artists, we’ve been hearing these stories forever. Even in the high of the wild spending bubble, there were artists that couldn’t make ends meet, couldn’t sell, got turned down from a million galleries. Most artists have figured out how to get by and keep making art; Many have had to cut back and get used to a lower standard of living in order to keep painting. The beauty is that there’s nothing stopping us from waking up in the morning, going into our studio and painting our little hearts out all day long! I figure that if we can keep getting excited about whatever project we’re doing, someone somewhere will pick up on this aliveness that we are creating/depicting/portraying and a deal will come together that allows us to exhibit/publish/sell/advertise. Now this is Pollyanna in the extreme, but isn’t it that leap of faith that Robert was talking about? The artist must fool themselves into thinking that what they are doing is so cool, so marvellous, that others will want a piece of this fine creation!! That’s all we’ve got folks, but it’s enough to dance through the day!

From: Jack — Apr 15, 2009



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