Monday, February 15, 2010

The 96/27 dichotomy

Over the weekend, I visited a wonderful painter and friend of the arts in Soquel, just south of Santa Cruz, CA. She is in her 80s and as sharp and insightful now as the day I met her several decades ago. We talked a bit about my art, and her daughter Kathy's art, and the struggle that artists have everywhere to be recognized in their work, and to find a level of support that allows for the work to go on.

I mentioned to her the study from the Urban Institute that makes the following observation:

"Data from our national poll on attitudes toward artists suggest that people highly value art in their lives. The poll revealed that there was very high demand for what artists produce. In fact, 96 percent of respondents said they were greatly inspired and moved by various kinds of art.
However, the artist as creator of goods (works of music, film, literature, and so on) often appears to be divorced in the public mind from the good itself. Only 27 percent of respondents said that artists contribute 'a lot' to the good of society. Thus, even when an artist's work is recognized as valuable and goes on to influence individuals and society in many forms, the link between that good – and the effort and resources that went into making it – and the artist who made it is often invisible."

The incongruence of the data sited here is astonishing, but comes as no surprise. Any artist knows that the public at large thinks of art as a hobby. Something that really talented people choose to do in their spare time. As we talked about this strange paradox, my friend suggested that perhaps we are looking at the wrong segment of society. She pointed out that she knew many people who support the arts with their money, their patronage, and their unbridled enthusiasm. She was, in a sense, correct. There are those people. Some of the 27% are in that category. But the real question, the one I am writing about here, is about that 69% who apparently think that fairies bestow inspired and moving works of art upon society without any apparent effort.

To some extent, it seems to me that this is what I like to call "the WalMart problem." There has developed, in the past few years, a perverse expectation in America that you can buy anything for a discount price. Stuff that used to be expensive can now be had, via WalMart and its competitors, for a few cents, plus the cost of shipping it from China on a freighter en masse. When you suggest that your painting is worth $500, the reaction of the typical consumer is, "but I can get one of those at WalMart for $29.95." The reality, of course, is that you can do no such thing, but the perception persists.

Another phenomenon that has accompanied the growth of the WalMart problem, is the inflation of the relative value of disposable and perishable services and commodities. How many of us routinely spend hundreds of dollars on things like cell phone minutes, hair styling, alcohol and drugs (legal and otherwise), mindless cable programming, junk food, and assorted throw-aways each month. All of these are items that have a very short half-life and are of dubious or limited value. And how many of these same people, when we see a work of art that moves us deeply, over and over again, every time we encounter it, will pay the price tag to make that piece of artwork a permanent and lasting part of our life? At least 69% of us apparently will not.

I do not know the answer to this dilemma. One of the conclusions of the Urban Institute study was that a shift in public perception is needed. Clearly, I agree. The conversation with my friend on Saturday came to a pause, then my friend said,"What we need is an agent! We need to find you and Kathy an agent." And she was right. This is what is missing in the arts.

Artists are notoriously reticent, or incapable, to sell themselves to the outside world. We cringe at the very idea of having to leave the studio to ask someone to buy, or even show, our work. I know a very few artists who are good at this, or have a significant other who is good at it, and they usually do fairly well. So I am actually thinking about the idea of commissioning an agent for my work. That, of course, means I better get busy in the studio!

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