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Art or Masturbation?

Monday, 22. September 2014 0:54

If one is to believe Susie Hodge and Jackie Higgins, authors of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained and Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained, respectively, a significant portion of “modern” art is little more than artistic masturbation. These writers certainly do not say that; what they do say on page after page is that much recent art has been produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artists and those few who are knowledgeable enough to get the joke. Additionally, that art which is not meant to be an inside joke, does little more than make an obscure comment on the contemporary art world, or the medium, or the audience. Such comments are just another form self-referencing self-pleasure.

And the comments can be mean-spirited. One artist is said to create work “to satirize…the inflated esteem for traditional materials…to mock viewers for their acceptance without questioning…to ridicule artistic conventions and snobbery.” Now all of that may need doing, but when one reads it over and over and over again, it’s not just a single artist attacking the current state of art, it’s a trend. And on top of that, many times the artist’s intent is so inwardly-directed that it has to be explained.

The artistic inside joke, and art produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artist and a close circle of like-minded friends is not new. Remember Marcel Duchamp? However, Jed Perl in his review of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective makes the point that Duchamp, the “inventor” of the readymade, meant Fountain as personal and private joke—a comment on the art world certainly, but probably not intended for exhibition. That is a very different sort of thing from the gaggle of artists producing and showing work simply to be able to pleasure themselves with a sly giggle.

And what gives them pleasure is the self-reflexive, the inside-inside joke or comment: “photography that is about photography;” paintings and sculptures which are comments on the art world wherein they exist and nothing else; plays about doing plays; movies about making movies; books about writing books.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing or painting or photographing material that is self-reflexive. There is, however, at least in my mind, a problem when the work of art does not reflect or comment on its world in a way that a potential audience of non-insiders might understand, when it serves merely to entertain the maker and those three people who “get it.”

Certainly there are artists who are commenting on things outside the art business, but sometimes it seems that the ones who are making the money are the ones who are participating in the inside jokes. Perhaps because those who support the arts with their dollars want to be in on the joke, so whether they get it or not, they buy a couple of tickets, or a painting, or a piece of sculpture, thereby proving that they’re “in the know.”

Wanting to be in on the joke is a very different thing from actually appreciating or understanding a piece of art. As Perl points out, those who hail Koons as “the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art” likely do not “know what anti-art is all about.”

It seems to me that while inside-joke art is interesting, and even apropos of the current situation of the arts, it’s cheap. It’s masturbation. It enables the maker and his/her inner circle to be privately funny and sly and ironic at the expense of everyone else. And more often than not, it is the obvious joke, the easy joke that allows the artist to avoid dealing with a broader world, doing real work, using real imagination, making real art.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

The Illusion of Simplicity

Monday, 8. September 2014 0:47

This post started with the thesis that good art is complex, which often means has many layers or many interactive parts. Some who agree with this position will talk about how much they enjoy discovering the intricacies of a piece, which increases their appreciation of the work.

Then two things happened: (1) during a conversation with an actor about the difficulties of producing the musical, The Fantasticks, the actor said, “But it has to look simple.” I said, “Yes it does.” What I thought was, “It always should; it should look effortless.” (2) At a juried art show reception that same week, I found myself looking at a stunning black-and-white land/seascape of the Galveston estuary. Another photographer was telling me, “He [the photographer who made the image on the wall] has been moving toward minimalism for a couple of years now.” Minimalism had not figured into my theory concerning complexity as a necessary characteristic of quality art. These incidents taken together caused me to rethink the whole idea, resulting in a new question: If complexity is one of the marks of quality art, then how does one explain Minimalism and similar sorts of work?

The answer came with the realization that the word complexity can have two applications in reference to art. (1) It can be apparent complexity, as in a work with many facets and/or layers and parts that interact on many different levels. This is the sort of complexity you might find in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dali, or Jackson Pollock. (2) Complex can also be used to describe the process by which art is produced. American filmmakers, for example expend great effort to hide the artifice by which their work is created, opting instead—at least in most cases—for a story that is easily digested by the audience, allowing that audience to concentrate on the characters and the plot without having to be concerned with how difficult it was to create that seamless narrative.

And this second meaning of complex applies to some things we have already mentioned. We will work very hard to make not only The Fantasticks but any play, no matter how complex, look effortless, for much the same reason as the filmmakers. This is true of nearly any performing art; all seek to hide the difficulty of the task by employing the highest levels of expertise. Both performers and those behind the scenes do what they do with an apparent ease that belies the unending planning, training, preparation, and rehearsal.

Even though we think of them differently, visual and plastic arts are much the same. The photographer who made the piece mentioned above did not do so by simply setting up his camera in the grasslands and snapping the picture. If you are familiar with photography, you realize that this image was the result of a great deal of planning, better-than-competent execution, skilled post-processing, and expert printing, all so the result would be precise, clean, and minimal.

Whether it is a Buddhist raked rock garden or Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, the creation of such apparently simple things requires enormous imagination, planning, and expertise. But, just as in Hollywood films, the artifice is hidden.

So it turns out that good minimalist art, or any art that appears effortless or visually simple may not be simple at all; nor was it produced easily. The complexity and the effort are just hidden. If you’ve ever tried to this kind of work, you already know: simplicity is an illusion.

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Gaming the System

Sunday, 1. June 2014 23:21

A friend of mine, a photographer/sculptor, and I recently attended an annual international art show, a fairly prestigious one, that we have been to several times. One of the things we noticed was that there was a great similarity among a number of pieces in the show as well as among the pieces in this show and last year’s show—and the one before that.

Afterward, we were discussing the show and the noticeable (to us) similarity among the pieces being shown, and about how an artist could, if he/she really wanted to, could come to a couple of shows and figure out the recipe for securing a place in that show. Then the artist could make a piece to fit the show. If one’s skill were sufficient, having a piece in the show should be no real problem. The task would be even easier if the jurors or curators were the same from show to show or if the show were held at regular intervals.

He went even further, saying, “If you wanted to write a recipe book on how to make art that would fit the bill—for any show, that show could serve as your guide. Wonder what would happen if someone would do a book like that?”

My guess would be that such a book would be ignored, or at best marginalized. It’s something that no one wants to hear, but it’s something that anyone who has been involved with the art world for more than a year and is sufficiently analytical knows. It’s a system, and like any system, it can be played and rigged. Everybody knows it, and many capitalize on it. Much of what is produced is created exclusively to be shown and/or sold in particular places; it’s about success in the art world—and money, of course.

John Seed, writing on The Huffington Post said, “I sometimes feel like the art market is a ship that has been taken over by dollar-waving pirates: the same ones who brought us junk bonds and the mortgage meltdown.” There is no indication of which specific artists he thinks are catering to these dollar-wavers except that he is talking about Dan Colen and unnamed others.

My friend does name other artists: “That’s exactly what Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have done—game the system. They looked around, figured out how it worked, and made things that would fit the recipe.”

Seed acknowledges the motivation for such art production by quoting Colen: “It’s such a paradox. You come from this place where you want fame; you don’t want to be bourgeois, but you want to be successful. You want to be accepted, but you also want to be going against the grain. You want to be on the outside, but you want to be on the inside.”

Seed adds, “The way I understand Colen’s ‘success’ is that it is a social phenomenon, not an aesthetic one.” And there you have it. This approach, cynical as it is, is not about the artist’s message or philosophy; rather, it is about achieving success in the art market. And, as Seed points out, many critics (Jerry Saltz excpted), as well as others in the art market, support such efforts.

The question for the artist is then: if you can figure out what will allow you to show your work in this or that show or venue, what will allow you to sell, what will make you successful, why wouldn’t you do that? And there is no correct answer. You certainly can do that; others have and have bought houses in the country with the proceeds. Some have taken a different path, and produced the work that they wanted to, work that said what they wanted to say, work that they were able to pour themselves into, work that, to them, was necessary. Sometimes it sells, sometimes not.

Each artist has to decide for him/herself. Choose well.

Category:Marketing, Presentation | Comments (1) | Author:

The Importance of Venue

Sunday, 5. January 2014 23:56

In a recent blog, Seth Godin makes the point that if we think we are supposed to like something, we probably will. He uses the examples of laughing more at a comedy club, liking the food better at fancy restaurants, and feeling like we have a bargain if we buy it at an outlet store. In other words, the venue influences the perceived value of the experience.

Reinforcing this idea is the Washington Post experiment instigated by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Gene Weingarten and implemented by Grammy Award-winning violinist and conductor Joshua Bell. Bell, lightly disguised, played as a street performer for 45 minutes at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC on January 12, 2007. Only seven people stopped to listen and he collected a total of $32.17. Earlier the same week, he had played the same concert to a sold-out $100-per-seat house.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet once compared New York and Chicago theatre audiences in what seems to be a comment on the same phenomenon, “In Chicago, we just presume that the best theatre is going to be in somebody’s garage.”

This about more than the environment in which an art work exists, it is about the perception of value (the qualitative portion of audience expectation) based strictly on venue. Because of the prices we pay, and the location of the theatres, we expect New York theatre to be the best in the world, and consequently we like it more. As we move away from Manhattan, our expectations shrink and we expect to like what we see less; we are hardly ever disappointed. We look at the environment and adjust our expectations. Is it a union house? Are the actors professional? Are they students? Whether consciously or unconsciously, we modify our expectations according to the venue. We expect less and like it less.

This way of thinking does not apply only to theatre. We base our expectation of the quality of any art on the venue and the location of the venue. So when we walk into the hole-in-the-wall club in Tennessee, we do not expect to hear world class music.  When we visit an outdoor art fair in Texas, we do not anticipate seeing mature, masterful work. We do not really expect world-class anything outside of the “proper” context.

Like many of the passersby in the Washington Post experiment, many of us are so locked into the idea of how we are supposed to respond (according to location and situation) that we cannot hear the actual quality of the music or see the real quality of the art.

An earlier installment of this blog, “Context Matters” said, “The ambiance surrounding works of art, seeps into the work, and fuses with it. It impacts the work and cannot do otherwise. It’s part of the art transaction that cannot be avoided. The trick then is to be able to mentally decontextualize the work, so that you can be sure that you are actually appreciating the piece, not the context in which you find it.” Although certainly a desirable ideal, the more I learn, the less sure I am that decontextualization is a real possibility—at least for most people.

And although we know very well that quality is not related to venue, as artists we need to be aware of this phenomenon and realize that where we show our work does indeed matter to the majority of our audience. We may not like it, but we had better learn to deal with it.

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Yet Another Skill Artists Need

Sunday, 9. June 2013 22:43

When it comes time to put those pictures or that sculpture that you have so carefully produced on the wall or on a display stand, the question arises of what to show where and what to hold back for that other show. It’s a question that, without significant experience, is almost impossible to answer. It’s nearly as difficult as the question of what pushes a collectors over the purchasing threshold, and what holds them back regardless of how much they like the piece.

Unlike performing arts audiences, if the visual and plastic arts audience doesn’t like what you hang on the wall or put on the stand, they don’t tell you; they just pass on by. So the artist is often left with questions about what appeals and what doesn’t, or to whom it appeals and to whom it doesn’t.

What it takes is curatorial ability. Brienne Walsh, in her article “Social Butterflies” in the June issue of Rangefinder, calls it an intuition, the ability “to decide what would appeal to other people.” And perhaps it is. It certainly seems that determining what will appeal to others is an instinct that some have and some don’t.

During my brief flirtation with DeviantART, I attempted to figure out posts would appeal to viewers, and I found that I was not particularly good at it. No pattern emerged, at least none that I was able to discern. Perhaps had I stayed with it longer I would have developed the skill, but given where I was at the time, I wasn’t willing to devote the time it would have taken. And I wasn’t sure that I would ever see a pattern.

Of course, one way to get around the problem is to publish everything at once. Then there is no question of what to show here or there or when or any of that. For some, particularly the prolific, this seems to work. If you follow any artists on Facebook or Tumblr or Pinterest, you have seen what I mean, but even that is curated, at least according to Walsh.

The answer, I think, if there is one, is to find out who your audience really is. For example, the initial audience in a juried show is comprised of the jurors. Sometimes I have successfully curated pieces in order to secure a place in such shows. Since most jurors’ names and information are not only published, but advertised, it is rather easy to research them and discover who they are and what they’re about, which leads one to make a more intelligent decision about what to present. Jurors like work that is in some way akin to their own, or, perhaps more importantly, reflects something of their philosophies. So knowing the taste of the jurors can guide you in what pieces to submit or, in some cases, tell you to save the entry fee because your work has little chance of being appreciated.

We should be able to apply the same principles to our individual potential audiences. Admittedly, the application will be far more difficult. Potential collectors are not likely to give us their backgrounds, interests, or philosophies. But if we start looking at what, beyond the superficial, our collectors have in common, we may begin to get a picture of exactly who, in a more abstract sense, our collectors might be. Once we know that, it is only a few steps to finding more people like that. And once that happens, we are well on our way to developing a tribe of collectors.

Category:Audience, Marketing, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

The Artistic Balancing Act

Sunday, 2. September 2012 22:51

On a recent episode of Project Runway, Michael Kors commented that fashion is always “about balancing art and commerce.” He went on to tell the emotional Elena Silvnyak, “this is your shining moment that you found the balance.”  Nina Garcia followed up with idea that successful design is “not about stifling creativity,” but about “being creative and taking chances” and balancing that with customer appeal. (This last phrase is my wording, not hers.)

Substitute “audience appeal” for “customer appeal” and the same statements could be made about not only about any of the performing arts, but about virtually any art. Certainly film must appeal to an audience if it is to be financially successful. Live theatre too has to fit within the range of audience acceptance, which, as any theatre practitioner will tell you, is contextual. Dance is the same way, as is music.

The same concept applies to visual and plastic arts as well. There are endless stories of paintings, photographs, and sculptures that received critical acclaim and did not please their immediate audiences. The photography of Robert Mapplethorpe jumps to mind, as does the David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly.”

And, of course, much that is written, whether it is words or music, does not find an immediate audience beyond critics and a tiny group aficionados, sometimes for less than artistic reasons—consider the publication history of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Some of the art that was not initially well-received, or was prevented from being received at all by authoritarian intervention, has had to wait for years for general acceptance. Some has never received it, at least in certain localities, particularly if the subject matter is religious or sexual. For example, Nagisa Ôshima’s film, In the Realm of the Senses, released in 1976 and considered by some to be a cinematic masterpiece, still cannot be shown completely uncensored in Japan.

The fact that some art is not immediately accepted by a general audience certainly does not mean that that the work is not good, merely that it has not (yet) found its audience. The question for the artist is not about the quality of the work, but whether he/she has been able to balance creativity and the appeal of the work to a purchasing audience. Being ahead of your time may produce some masterpieces, and certainly some controversy, but often it won’t pay the bills. So the problem for the practicing artist—at least for the majority of his/her work—is to find that balance that Michael Kors mentioned, the equilibrium between artistic vision and audience appeal.

And finding that balance is difficult, regardless of your art. If you move too far in one direction, you find yourself pandering to the audience instead of really creating. You quit making art and start making artless commodities. Your work becomes all about chasing the dollar, or yen, or euro and not about all of those things that you used to think art was really about. For musicians, and maybe for others, it’s often called “selling out.”

If you move too far in the other direction, you lose your audience, and you may run afoul of censors, whether official or unofficial. You make things that may or may not garner critical acclaim, that appeal to a tiny segment of arts-appreciating community, but you move so far beyond the majority of members of that community that you find yourself unrewarded financially.

If you are compelled to say things with your art that will prevent that art from being appreciated by a paying audience—and many artists are—by all means do so, but with a full understanding of what you are doing. If, however, you want to say what you have to say and get paid for it, your dilemma is exactly the same one that Elena Silvnyak and every other artist with a strong point of view or a clear artistic vision faces—how to find that place where everything balances, where one can follow one’s vision and create, yet at the same time incorporate that creation into a form that an audience—and it certainly does not have to be a huge one— can understand, appreciate, and pay for. It may not be easy, or even doable, but it’s worth your time to investigate the possibilities.

Category:Audience, Communication, Creativity, Presentation | Comments (3) | Author:

Art Should Matter

Monday, 13. August 2012 0:25

Hazel Dooney began a recent blog posting entitled “Art Matters,” with a quote by Robert Hughes: “The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.” Dooney goes on to detail what she perceives to be the relationship between art and society today, and she finds much wrong. She starts with the commodification of art, mentions branding and celebrity, and notes the lack of funding for “public and institutional galleries.” Dooney wants art to matter—to the public. She says that we “have to regain a public fascination for it, maybe even an awe of it.”

Though certainly no expert in art history, I cannot think of a time when the public had a fascination or awe for art. Patrons of the arts, regardless of the period, have always been different from the public—more monied, more refined in their tastes, more exacting in their demands. When art attempts to appeal to the public, it becomes what Dooney decries: “just another form of easy-to-consume entertainment.”

It has always been so. Shakespeare, perhaps the most revered playwright in the English language, whose work is held up as example of written and dramatic art, was writing for that public. He was offering a commercial entertainment that had to compete with the bear-baiting entertainment just down the street. Because we, like Shakespeare, live in a material society, much of what we see and hear is that which makes money, and technically, it is some of the best work available. It may not be profound, but it is certainly of high quality. When a product has to compete, quality is often one of the results.

Public art, Dooney says, has been replaced by advertising. It’s true; when public art is not entertainment, it’s advertising. (Sometimes it’s both.) Again, this is historically what has happened age after age. Some of the best art we know of was created in the service of those who were able to afford it and supported whatever cause or interest was important to those patrons. Whether we call that cause advertising or propaganda or religion or politics is immaterial.  Much of the work, which we today consider “fine,” was created to satisfy some ulterior purpose, not just for display and contemplation.

“For art to matter again,” Dooney says, “it has to be seen everywhere, every day.” She goes on to note that “many [artists] are trying to make their work more accessible – more apparent – to those who care about it.” She continues, “street artists are probably the ones who best understand this.” I would add that advertisers and producers of commercial “art” products also understand this very well.

Unfortunately, unless you are one of those street artists, the easiest way to make your work accessible is to participate in the commodification of art. You sell your work as best you can. If you become collectable, then you can participate in the investment commodification of art to which Hughes was referring. Selling out? Maybe. But, no matter how profound your work, if it is not accessible in some way, it’s not going to impact anyone. (Note: this does not mean making your work appeal to everyone; see “Making Your Art Accessible Is Making a Mistake.”)

And Dooney understands this. And while her work may not appeal to everyone, she has worked for years to make it accessible to virtually anyone who has a computer and internet access. (This is discussed at length in her blog.)

And she is right; there is much wrong with the art world, but then there is much wrong with the world in general, and much of what is wrong with the art world is a reflection of that larger theatre in which it operates. And unless we manage to change the system, or somehow circumvent it, it is within this system that we in the arts must work.

Category:Communication, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

Art in Motion: Motion in Art

Sunday, 24. June 2012 23:38

Recently wandering through the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I encountered Jennifer Steinkamp’s projected installation, Mike Kelley. Not only is the Steinkamp installation a projection; it is a moving projection, an animation,  twelve feet high and sixteen feet wide; it’s message is not complex, but the image certainly is, and mesmerizing.

Mike Kelley is not the only animation in MFAH’s collection.  Across the hall from the café, five screens play Chiho Aoshima’s City Glow. The 2005 animated piece is similar to Steinkamp’s in that it is a cyclical animation. Some might argue that Aoshima’s piece is narrative, telling a story. But it doesn’t tell a story in the same way that a narrative film or an entertainment animation does. Here the message is more abstract, leaving room for viewer interpretation, and repeated endlessly.

Seeing Steinkamp’s and Aoshima’s installations in the same day caused me to consider the role of motion in fine arts, a role that seems to me to be growing. I’m purposely not considering film in this discussion; that is another topic all together. Rather I am talking about the world that is usually inhabited by painting, sculpture, and still photography, a world that that is becoming increasingly motion-oriented.

Some of this I have mentioned before. In an post about art online, I mentioned s[edition], which allows anyone to purchase limited edition digital pieces by very well-known artists.  In my estimation the works of Mat Collishaw are some of the most successful on the site in that they take full advantage of the animation capabilities of the digital medium and, instead of consisting of a movie of a work on a turntable or a film of an activity, fully integrate the motion and the subject matter.

There were also discussions of both cinemagraph  and lenticular images. The former is essentially a still image that has been selectively animated. This minimal animation adds interest and dimension to a photograph (or other illustration), and modifies what and how that image communicates with the viewer. Most of these are made in a gif format and can only be viewed on a computer. But they could also be projected or viewed on very large screens. In other words, they are not really limited to the relatively small computers and tablets that are currently their homes.

Lenticulars are the non-electronic entries in the trend to add motion to images. In a lenticular, “multiple images are interlaced and fused to a lenticular lens to create the illusion of movement or three-dimensionality” as the viewer walks past the work.

The most notorious recent example is the lenticular work by Derrick Santini [Note: all links in this paragraph are NSFW.] which are part of his show Metamorphosis and which are based on the Leda and the swan myth. What makes this example notorious was the widely reported incident of a London Metropolitan policeman seeing one of the works in the Scream gallery window and, with a fellow officer, demanding that it be removed because it “condoned bestiality.” Interestingly, the gallery had had no other complaints.

Art is always in motion, but now motion is moving into art. The ability to digitize makes it possible. But it’s still not easy. I have made lenticular images, but the process is not for the faint-hearted; it is complex and exacting both on and off the computer. Any sort of animation, while perhaps easier than it used to be, is still quite intricate. Regardless of the complexity, motion in art is here to stay; it gives the artist ways to say things in a fine arts framework that otherwise could not be expressed.

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Selling Your Art: You Can Learn

Sunday, 17. June 2012 23:32

This past Saturday was my first group show, for which I was preparing last week. I have been in juried shows, but this was the first group show in which I have participated with the goal of selling art. As is the case with any “first” experience, I learned a great deal, and had a number of ideas reinforced in practical terms.

Here is what I learned during “Speaking of Abstract…” organized by Jomar Visions in Houston’s Hardy and Nance Studios. Some of the items below seem obvious; but before the experience, they were not, at least to a number of participants.

  1. The vibe matters. I had more than one visitor talk about how good the show “felt.” I think that may have been the mix of artists, the music, the nature of the show, the venue. It was a very inviting atmosphere, and it seemed that visitors grasped that the second they walked into the studios. I can only credit the show’s promoters.
  2. The quality of the surrounding work matters. Every artist in the place brought quality work, and that mattered. It might not have been to everyone’s taste, but none of it was bad. This was not the case in some shows I have seen. This show, however, was juried if not curated, and that insured the quality, which added to the vibe and created a positive expectation on the part of the patrons. Again, I credit the show’s promoters.
  3. Alcohol helps. The show was sponsored by St. Arnold’s, a local craft brewery, so there was plenty of beer. And a number of artists brought wine, soft drinks, water, and snacks. All of this was offered to patrons and artists alike and certainly added to the festive feel of the show. It may have made the difference between lookers and buyers in some instances.
  4. Everyone who walks by is a potential sale; there is no predicting what will catch someone’s interest. Another photographer asked me the age of my market. I had thought it was persons 30+ years old, but this show taught me that although my market might lean that way, it did not exclude younger people. Indeed, some younger people spent a great deal of time looking at the images and came back repeatedly.
  5. Having your contact information available and easy for visitors to find is vital. Those business cards in my pocket did nothing for me; they needed to be easily seen and accessed, whether I happen to be in the vicinity or not. Some patrons have to think before deciding to make an investment. And they need to be able to find you later.
  6. Networking both with other artists and with potential buyers is paramount. Most artists want to help their fellows, at least that was the case in this show, and knowing people and their work helped in that regard. It also became evident that someone who had liked your work would tell others who would then come by and visit. The more people who know and like your work, the better your odds for a sale.
  7. Sales go to those who interact with potential patrons. Yes, you have to actively sell your wares. A sculptor, whose work was exceptional, and I discussed how we weren’t really comfortable approaching people with the intent to sell, while another artist near us went about trying to sell everybody’s work (including ours) to anybody who showed any interest in anything. Although he did not restrict himself to his own work, he did sell two of his own pieces and made contacts for those around him by force of personality and affable aggressiveness in his willingness to go for the sale.  He said that he was there to sell art—if not his, then anybody’s that he liked. I’m not sure that you have to be that aggressive, but you have to figure out a way to interact with potential buyers in a way that will enhance the sale, even if you have to step out of your comfort zone.

It was a successful show, at least according to everyone I talked to: 15 sales and one artist trade in seven hours—in a bad economy. I did not do as well as some, but I learned. I will definitely do similar shows in the future. And I will do some things differently. Selling art is a different skill-set from making art, but even the most introverted of artists can learn.

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Sell Your “Best” Work? Maybe Not…

Sunday, 10. June 2012 23:22

Recently, as I was selecting images to display in a group show, I found myself in a dilemma. The situation was that I had limited wall space, and so could only put up a few images. Selecting the images presented a problem. What criteria should I use? Did I want to show range, theme, color use, black and white (which some people associate with “fine art photography”), the pieces I liked best, the pieces that best represented me? This quandary brought up two questions: what was the proper way to choose? And what did it mean that I had pieces that I liked better than others?

To answer the first question I needed to think like a marketing/sales person. What did those coming to the show want to see, expect to see? What, if anything, that I had produced was marketable to this particular group of people? (I am not one of those who try to produce what the market wants; I find that a very unsatisfactory way to make art. I produce what, according to my instincts, needs to be. Only then do I look at it to try to determine if someone will actually want it.)

Your audience’s taste may not be yours, so selecting your favorites from all that you have made, while certainly a valid aesthetic exercise, may not be the best from a sales point of view. The very last part of my decision boiled down to a choice between a piece that I really liked because I found it to be very emotional and evocative and another that did not have these qualities for me. For this limited space show, I chose the second piece—not one that I disliked—but one that did not particularly move me emotionally. It was, in my judgment, more understandable, more comprehensible to the person who was likely to see this show.

It was, of course, a guess. I have only the most rudimentary understanding of the potential market for abstract photographic art, if such a thing really exists. Since the point of the show, for me at least, was exposure, I thought it was better to put things in front of people that I thought might interest them instead of indulging myself or attempting make some sort of “statement.” This was a marketing event and should be approached as one. So I did.

The second question was easier. I have written previously about artists feeling that what they create does not properly express their vision. That may cause the artist to dislike the artifact he/she has created, or at least love it less. This does not mean that the work is not good; it simply means that it is less successful from the artist’s point of view. The public may love it. Another reason that the artist may not be in love with his/her work is that he/she has moved on. Artists change, and these changes are often reflected in their work. This does not invalidate earlier work; it just makes it non-current, and thus non-interesting to the artist. The public is very different; they may love the older work— otherwise there would be no oldies concerts. Just because you don’t care for a piece that you created anymore does not mean that the buying public feels the same.

As artists, we would all do well to consider O. Henry’s advice and make work that pleases ourselves. But when we attempt to sell that art, we should offer whatever of our work the marketer in us thinks the audience will buy.

Category:Audience, Marketing, Photography, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

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