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THE BUSINESS OF ART
by Miles Mathis
I just got a newsletter from American Legacy Fine Art, also known as ALFA. ALFA is a top realist gallery in Pasadena, California. I wound up on their mailing list after submitting some jpegs about a year ago. ALFA carries Jeremy Lipking, and I thought I might fit in there. Just as well I didn't fit in there, since I now know, from this newsletter, that I could never have fit in there.
This newsletter was sent “high priority” according to my inbox, whatever the hell that means. I found a large attachment to the newsletter, bursting my mailbox limit, in the form of a “business of art” article: hence, I suppose, the high priority. It was another of those advice-to-artists columns, probably snipped from Southwest Art magazine or American Artist, concerning how to succeed in the business of art. It began by announcing, in Stentorian tones, that artists must treat art like a business. They must expect to spend at least 50% of their working time on PR. That was in paragraph one. The first paragraph ended by claiming that “art is a business whose product just happens to be art.”
If you aren't sick yet, you aren't a real artist. I couldn't even get past that first paragraph without crawling out on the roof and petting my Muses down. Erato was in such a huff it took me nearly an hour to calm her, with that stroking of her yellow hair that only my hands can accomplish.
Yes, I knew after reading that last quoted sentence that I had nothing to learn from this self-proclaimed expert. The first thing to check whenever you run across an article like this is the byline. Who is imposing this good advice upon you? Is it someone you could admire, someone you hope to emulate, someone who will be thought of highly in centuries to come, by the literate and the wise? No, in fact it never is. It is always some ill-bred gallery flunkie or market whore, just back from the latest gathering of phonies.
These articles would be helpful only in the oddest of cases: say in the case that they were written by Damien Hirst or John Currin or Jenny Saville. At least then we would get a real account of how to sleep and marry and kiss and slurp your way to the top. But even then they wouldn't be helpful to real artists. They would be helpful only to the cleverest of the clever pretenders.
But of course people like that don't write shitty little business articles. Not because they are above money grubbing, but because they are above the need to publish such drivel. They don't need the hundred bucks you earn by giving business advice to downmarket morons.
What you get in these shallow articles is not advice on how to sleep your way to the very top; no, you only get advice on how to suck your way to a mid-level sinecure. “How to say the right things, paint the right things, and think the right things.” Translated: “How to be a zombie and a tool of the Zombies.” Not advice for those with a crushing ambition and no scruples, only advice for those with low expectations and no scruples. Other fields have the same sorts of articles: no doubt the fast food field has authors of similar articles on how to climb the ladder in a McDonald's franchise. “How to Graduate from Fry-Cook to Assistant Manager.” Yes, you too can aspire to such heights, if you only learn a few rules of business!
There may be more potential money in art than in grease cooking, but I am no longer certain there is more elevation. Those who have succeeded, by the definition of success implied by all these articles, are those who have capitulated most fully to the market and all its vulgarities. So the advice they have for you is to do as they did: socialize, socialize, socialize, and never deign to notice for an instant that anything is beneath you, either in action or statement or intention or thought. If it is required by the rules of the market, do it, and do it with the greatest amount of ill grace, thoughtlessness, and impudence you can muster. Above all, judge everything in terms of cash. If it leads to cash, it is good; if it leads away from cash, it is bad.
For the truth is, that 50% figure is way too low. Those who succeed in art spend almost all their time on PR, and those who succeed the most have the greatest percentage. In realism, the top “artists” spend over 90% of their time on PR. Think of Thomas Kinkade or Pino. And in the avant garde—which is, as a field, exponentially more successful financially—the artists must spend at least 99% of their time on PR, since the artifacts can be found or excreted in a matter of seconds.
Now, depending on who you are, you can learn one of two lessons from this. If you want to make a lot of money, you would be best advised to do it outside the field of art, since your odds of making great piles of money in art are low. If you must make your pile in art, you would be best advised to do it from the gallery end, since, again, the odds are in that direction. There is a lot more money in selling than in production. Which means that if you are a producer of art and you are producing art mainly from the desire to make money, we can only call you a confused person. Not to mince terms, you are a fool. You are just the sort of idiot that reads articles about succeeding in the art market and takes them seriously. You are so unbelievably stupid that you cannot see that these articles are just one more piece in the propaganda machine put out by the galleries to condition you to do what they tell you. Think about it: you get a newsletter from a gallery telling you to do all their work for them, to do lots of promotion that they can use for free, to kiss their asses first and then everyone else's second, to give percentages to everyone you meet, including the man who starches your shirts. Is that not the least bit fishy? Do little bells not go off in your head?
Aren't you paying the galleries at least 50% to do PR? Why should you spend 50%-99% of your time doing PR, and then pay them for it? In addition, you are paying them to do the business side of art. Why should you you be expected to do it yourself on top of that? It is like hiring an accountant and then getting a newsletter from your accountant telling you that you should spend 50% of your time doing accounting, telling you to always think of your work in terms of their accounting. It is so asinine it passes belief.
But these are the sort of people that now inhabit the arts. They are not only immune to all artistic feeling, they are immune to all logic and reason. They also happen to be immune to grammar (see just below). After being dumbfounded by that newsletter, I went back to the ALFA website, to see who these people really were. I should have done that a year ago before I sent the jpegs, but I still tend to be overwhelmed by naïve hope. The director of the gallery, Elaine Adams, is the wife of Peter Adams, and the gallery is built around his work. I will refrain from commenting on his work, letting this scan from his pages stand as all that needs to be said:
As for Elaine Adams, according to her bio on the site, she is a committee and board type of person, involved with various LA environs arts councils as well as the ASOPA board. She was named one the five most notable women in the arts by Southwest Art magazine. I now know enough to see all those things as big red flags. But the funniest thing is the first sentence of her bio, which ends, “to provide a unique and personal approach to servicing artists and gallery clients.” Only hookers “service” their clients. Everyone else, we hope, “serves” their clients.
I mention this as tonic to the sea of criticism leveled at artists and the way we do things. These articles on the business of art always lampoon artists for their business disabilities: for their inability to write a cover letter, for their inability to chitchat at parties, for their inability to remember names, and so on. We have our short suits, no question, and many artists are a patchwork of short suits. But if artists are sometimes pathetic, gallery people are, quite often, despicable. Artists at least know their business, which is not selling, it is art. Real artists have a depth and a reality, lying hidden, it may be, under that layer of social unease. But many gallery people have nothing. They are a plastic surface with nothing underneath. And they don't even know their own business. The majority are pisspoor at sales, they write cover letters, bios, and brochures no better than your average 8th grader, they have no idea how to reach a better clientele, and their connections are always to other vulgar and clueless people who wouldn't know a work of art if it climbed in their shorts. If these gallery people know art, why are all their galleries full of hackwork and fake art? Why can't they seem to locate or sell a real work of art?
I will tell you why. It is because they can't judge people. We artists are not paying them to judge art. If they could judge art, they would be artists, and they wouldn't need to be sitting in a gallery talking on the phone all day. But we would like them to be able to judge people. That is what selling is all about in any case, isn't it? In the first instance, they can't judge people because they can't tell a real artist from a fake artist. They are impressed by a bunch of empty talk, and will sign a new artist based on patter and smiles and certificates. And they will dismiss an artist based on a spot on his shirt or a bad pair of shoes or a clumsy word. That is a failure of people skills, and the failure is not to the artist, it is to the seller. The seller of art should be able to spot real artists, and it is known by every child that real artists are often or always anti-social and airy and obtuse and oblique. A salesman who judges an artist by his shoes or his words is like a Jaguar car dealer who judges a client by his coat. Rich people, like artists, are eccentric, and you can't assume that the man with the ratty coat is a bum. He may be Howard Hughes. The man with the bad toupee may be Donald Trump. Likewise, the man with the sad eyes and the tight tongue may be the next Michelangelo or Van Gogh.
In the second instance, these gallery people cannot judge people because they cannot judge their clients. They appear to think that rich people buy art to be democrats, but rich people have always bought art to show that they are rich people. Yes, they want to be seen spending money, but they can do that anywhere. With art, they are buying the appearance of prestige, which is the opposite of democracy. They do not want to be the same as everyone else, since everyone else is not buying expensive art.
For this reason, the democratization of realism is self-defeating. The democratization of the avant-garde is also self-defeating in the long run, but we won't get into that here. Suffice it to say that the avant-garde has counter-measures to this that realism does not have. Realism cannot weather this inexorable dumbing down of subject matter and mood and technique because, once the level of art has reached the level of the poster shop, there is nothing to justify the price difference. Once there is no difference in quality, there is no possible difference in prestige, which means the rich will no longer be buying anything they need.
The galleries don't appear to see this for the approaching disaster it is. As the clients get more vulgar, the gallery follows them down. This is ultimately a failure to judge the client, on the part of the seller, because the seller cannot allow his product to be watered down past all sale. The seller thinks it is best to follow the client down, and to even accelerate his descent. But it would be better to push the client up. Just as it is misjudging children to assume they want to be left without discipline, to wallow in their messes, it is misjudging adults to assume they want to be left alone of further education, to wallow in the artistic decline of their homes. Once their homes can no longer be distinguished from Walmart, they will no longer bother to decorate them.
What does this mean for the real artist? I stated above that there were two lessons to learn from all this, but only shared the lesson learned by those who want money. What of those who want art? If you got into the field of art to create real art, then advice from non-artists and fake artists will not help you. You don't need advice from business people. You may need to hire business people to sell your art, but you can tell them to stuff all their advice. When they start sending you articles telling you that you are “in a business whose product just happens to be art,” you can tell them to take a fucking hike, because that is just proof they are grooming you for a pay cut. As I said, you need to learn to see through this propaganda. It is war being waged by the gallery against the artist, and it stinks, frankly.
Their job is to sell the art and your job is to create it. If you can create beautiful art, you should not have to push all the right buttons to get a gallery to look at it. Beautiful art is still very rare, and the competition is not that fierce. There is nothing but room at the top right now. Therefore, it is the gallery's responsibility to look at your art and recognize it for what it is. If they can't do that, then no amount of cover letters and brochures and business cards and ass kissing is going to make any difference. It is your job to be talented and their job to recognize talent. You cannot do both. You cannot create the work, recognize it, promote it, and sell it. Or, if you can, you certainly don't need a gallery to take 50% for criticizing your shoes and your haircut and that silly hat you love to wear.
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