I spent a good chunk of late morning and early afternoon strolling through something we call “the area art show.” It’s an open air event sponsored by our local Art Club that draws artists from across our state and those of our neighbors. It’s a regional show with some artists bringing their own canopied spaces while many others simply hang their work salon style on fences. It’s all on a verdant, spacious grassy field likely repeated similarly in numerous venues across the nation.
There was a lot of art. So much art in fact that walking into the scene was a little like being dumped in the middle of a strange city without a map! Awed at first by the sheer magnitude of sights around you, you quickly realize that not every door you saw was a place you’d want to enter! And besides, there was no way — even if you wanted to — that you could see everything. There was a better chance by just wandering that you’d see not much of anything . On the other hand, if you’re looking it’s a perfect place to find something to go with the drapes or for the wall in your office! And because it’s so perfect for just that kind of thing it makes me wonder: are these artists primarily decorators? or have they something that needs to be seen? Put differently, how much is about “selling” and how much about “showing”?
There’s no simple or single answer. It’s a difficult question for anyone who takes what they’re doing seriously. There are a lot of reasons for making art such that the balance between money and meaning becomes tricky. If you’re not just a factory, one of those reasons surely must be that you have something to say — something that can be said in no other way. Something that must be seen to be said. It could be something profound, but need not be. Maybe you just want to say, “look what I can do!” But it is “look.” You want your work to be seen. That seems obvious doesn’t it? Why would anyone make art if they aren’t going to share it? (Ask Emily Dickinson) But share it with whom? and to what end? Does the artist get to choose their audience? or does the audience choose the artist? By that I mean, the artist can choose their venue but it is the audience that decides whether one’s art gets looked at or ignored. And then even if someone stops to look there is no guarantee that that they’ll see what’s there. So how’s an artist to know?
It sells. Is that what putting a price tag on our art does — proves to us that our audience has seen what they’re looking for because they’re willing to buy it? Does it demonstrate that as an artist we’re good enough or clever enough to create what we wanted to say artfully and be rewarded with a sale for saying so? Even more. When we sell our work for a handsome price does it demonstrate that what we’ve done has value? Does it also say that the higher the price the greater the value? Conversely … if we do not sell does that mean we have nothing to offer of any value? Does “price” dictate “value”? Only for a cynic.
If we want our work to be seen and valued for what it is rather than for the price it yields … if we don’t do art of necessity, as a means to support ourselves … then why not give it away, say at cost, to anyone who “gets it” or expresses an appreciation for it? When we price our art what is it we are saying — not with the art work itself, but with the price we ask? Is this a message for our audience? or for ourselves?