Is the price right?

Henry David Thoreau, or, as Google refers to him: a leading transcendentalist

Henry David Thoreau, or, as Google refers to him: a leading transcendentalist

Painting is one way to live a meaningful, gratifying life, but it’s rarely a good way to make a living. Trust me, nothing bears this out better than my own pursuit of painting for the past few decades. Mostly, I’ve done it privately, without showing my work, as I went about the job of earning a living through my writing. For the past seven or eight years, I’ve started exhibiting my work, selling it, winning a few awards, and testing to see if I can’t find more of a market, and more recognition for what I do. As a result, I’ve sold paintings for thousands of dollars (though not lately), in itself a happy outcome, though never remotely enough to paint as a way of paying all my bills. I’ve been reviewed favorably several times. In my mailbox, I’ve found an unexpected check from a museum in Marin County as a reward for winning the top prize in a juried exhibition there–and I’ve  been handed money a couple other times as a recognition of my work’s quality. I’ve been included in two of the Manifest international exhibitions in print, an honor valued by artists around the world who recognize in it a model for gaining exposure among those who don’t  judge art by reputation or price. In short, I’ve been noted for the quality of my work, in under-the-radar ways, and people have wanted to own it enough to pay as much as $6,000 for one of my paintings. I consider these things encouragement along the way toward . . . well, this is one of the challenges of being an artist, simply knowing where you actually expect it to lead. (More thoughts on that challenge at a later date.) In my own case, if nothing else, I wish it could simply lead toward the ability to keep making art on a daily basis, art that other people want to look at or own or talk about, or simply to make art that would be the equivalent of working as an engineer in Soul of a New Machine, where a creative  crew didn’t expect to get rich by developing a new computer, but wanted the equivalent of a winning pinball game that awarded them at least one more free game of pinball. In other words, to do something self-sustainingly creative. Which circles back to the subject of money in some form or another.

So, in other words, by various measures I’m modestly successful, yet not in a way that means that I have any particular standing as an artist where it is considered to count the most (I don’t myself accept this measure of quality): among the elite set who buy for museums, review for the major art publications, create a fast track for recent Ivy League art grads who ask more for their work than I suspect I ever will, though they have been making art for five or six years, and I’ve been painting seriously since the 70s. In other words, you can belong to a relatively small set of people who produce very good work and still be considered little more than a pilot fish swimming vigilantly around the fins of the sharks, trying to stay alive on what the apex predators don’t swallow from the larger currents of money that flow through galleries like Gagosian and Zwirner and wherever else the economically lucky few show and sell their work. (Some of that work is excellent, even though it’s ridiculously expensive.) None of this is necessarily unjust or wrong, but I sometimes wonder how many people realize that the vast majority of the art being produced in the world today is done quietly (discounting the occasional, uncalled-for noise of this blog) by people like me, who do it out of devotion rather than common sense, who don’t sustain ourselves by selling our work, and instead teach or drive cabs or staff a gallery or write for income—insert dozens of ways to make a living here—in order to paint or construct or script something during the half day we allocate for the making of art, often seven days a week, every week of the year. It’s easy enough to see our work, if you seek it out, but it seems to me that fewer and fewer people are seeking it out now, and the buying of art has become something mostly the richest people do at brief, migratory gatherings of those who can keep the price of anointed art in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

At the start of Walden, Henry David Thoreau offered what I consider the most intimate glimpse into his project of finding transcendence in nature: he shared his budget. He reduced his spiritual pursuit, his dream of a fleeting union with nature, down to the dollars and cents that actually kept it going. The man had a sense of humor, and he may have been a transcendentalist but he was as stubbornly realistic as they come. I don’t recall reading much commentary about this extremely Yankee gesture of toting up the pennies he had to earn and spend to aim for a higher state of consciousness. I consider the pursuit of art, at least the way I do it, as a way of walking along a path at least parallel to Thoreau’s: you hope, along the way, to get a glimpse of something greater than the daily grind, hidden within it, and, like all good things, it costs you something, in both economic and personal terms. If you’re an artist at my level, anyway. If you’re a Warhol or a Koons, it seems you just get paid to do whatever you decide to do when you get up in the morning. I and my peeps–you know who you are–aren’t familiar with this state of affairs.

Next up, when I’m able: the budget for a solo show when you bear the costs yourself. (As I’m doing for one in June.) 

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