Art Essay: Selling Art
By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Winter 2015
NOT LONG AFTER my novel The Mountain was released in 2008, I had been approached by several people — mostly artists — questioning why I had portrayed my main character, the painter Jake Forscher, as being so reluctant to sell his paintings. Why shouldn’t an artist make a living? Jake (nor I) object to an artist being recompensed for his time, his labor, his materials — but Jake (and I) question whether it is ethically correct for an artist to sell, or make money on, a ‘gift’ that comes to us gratis, so to speak. Like beauty, creative talent comes from outside of ourselves and not from something that comes purely out of our labor (although I really don’t know how much time, money and effort it takes to apply make-up or undergo cosmetic surgery in order to achieve celebrity or praise for how one ‘looks’ rather than ‘does’). Full disclosure, however: My wife does sell my paintings and has been doing so since I began painting about 20-25 years ago, and although I am not fully easy with her doing so, I have not refused to let her do so. For instance, I’ve been a participant in the Annual Saugerties Art Tour for about 5 years and have been present as sales have been made over those years. Yet, it still makes me feel somewhat uneasy seeing my landscapes being taken away, not only because they have come to me unbidden, but because they sort of serve me as a visual diary of how nature affects and inspires me. Often the urge to capture a moment of sunlight heightening a view of my surrounding field and woods often comes ‘out of the blue’ but also from a source that remains a mystery for me. Such moments usually come when I am having a case of writer’s block and need to unclutter my head of words — thus, a moment of an inspired depiction of ‘where I am’, a diary moment that begs to be visually recorded, a moment I can look back on in a future meditative mood. That someone else is ‘moved’ by these personal records is as confounding as it is pleasurable for me. Recent comments such as “your landscapes capture where the heart wants to rest"* and “your landscapes sing!”* warm my heart — but ought I ‘market’ them? Sell them? Put a price on them? Take money for sharing what is not properly mine to sell as some kind of tangible commodity? Neither Jake nor I are unique in our feelings about selling what was never ‘ours’ to sell. Many, many artists I have met, profiled and/or critiqued over the years have shared their own misgivings. I recall one vivid memory of spending an overnight at Pier Augusto Breccia’s Rome (Italy) studio, when being wakened by the smell of cigarette smoke. Unbeknownst to me (or Cornelia who traveled with me), Pier came from home to his studio during the late night to make a painting that had suddenly insisted on emerging. We walked next door to his adjoining studio to find him sitting back from a large painting on his easel, smoking and shaking his head. When he heard us approach, he said, “From where does it come? It is always a mystery!” Breccia is world-renowned for what he calls his hermeneutical paintings. Yes, he sells them (at his exhibition reception we attended several years ago at the Palazzo Venezia more than 3000 attended!) but he still doesn’t know where they come from! And, neither do I! Still, art has been sold for thousands of years, and still selling since we've totally turned it into a commodity and treated it as a product rather than as an instance of creative insight. Not surprising, I guess, since we've denigrated the concept of "divine inspiration" and managed to turn colors and shapes spread (or poured) over a flat surface, piles of debris on gallery floors or urine in jars into 'art'. Thoughts?
* Letters from Rebecca Monroe of Troy, Montana and Sara Jones of NYC, NY, respectively.