The push and pull of art and commerce are tensions that every artist encounters, struggles with, and must resolve to what ever degree possible.
"One half of one percent," is how my teacher opened the class, Foundations of Design. He stared at us. "One half of one percent," he said again. Incomprehension.
"That is the number of you, who, upon graduating from here, will be full-time, self-supporting artists. Given about five years or so."
"Oh, most of you, but not all, will be making art. But you will also be teaching, tending bar, raising children. Some of you will end up in law school, or another non-art path. Art may be a part-time occupation, or even more of a hobby. But to be honest, very few of you will be the art superstars you imagine yourselves to be. It's just not possible. So you'll have to determine for yourselves, why do you do this?"
His words were like a gut punch. Art school is a competitive environment, where every person is trying to prove their value as an artist, soak up attention and praise, and ultimately launch a career.
But for me, as an older student, unsure of my value in the marketplace as an artist, I had already hedged my bets - I was also getting a teaching degree as well as my work in studio art.
That doesn't mean that I didn't dream of fame and glory.
Some years after, I was teaching in a large public high school just outside of New York City - art mecca. Almost every weekend, I spent time either in the studio, or trawling museums and galleries for ideas and inspiration. I saw a lot of art, and the question I had was - I am as good, maybe better, than a lot of these people. I knew I had the respect of other artists I had met along the way. Was I marketable?
Frankly, I had no idea. I had showed my work to a respected local gallery owner in Cleveland, who told me, "nice, but you're not ready." Not ready?!? I had been working for years on honing my craft. I did what all artists do - I entered shows, I hung my work where ever I had the opportunity - coffee shops, libraries, group shows.
But it was to no effect. No important New York gallery called. No one offered to buy my big, ambitious pieces. I started to think of myself as "an artist's artist" - respected by my peers, but obscure in the marketplace.
But frankly, the other issue I had is - what was I trying to say? What was my "message?" I read a lot of art criticism, and clearly, just being good at something wasn't enough (for them). You need a message, and an image - something archetypical like the mysterious recluse, scruffy rock star sybarite, or the nihilistic intellectual.
What is this, high school? Freshman year of college? Is it necessary to have a "brand," an image? What about "just being yourself?"
Maybe it's not possible to resolve the tension. The marketplace exists, a place of image, celebrity and neglect, money, and fame. But not for most artists, or other creative people. Some effectively win the lottery, get noticed and are able to leverage that into a a career (through a lot of hard work). But for most artists, survival is usually still centered around something other than just making art - either you're working to teach others, or you spend a lot of time in self-promotion. Or you tend bar, work in IT, or something else outside of your creative field. Or - something people don't talk a lot about - your support comes from a spouse, parents, savings. Wealth. Thus rendering art the domain of either the gentry, or those willing to live in poverty. Many artists self-subsidize their work, since society places less value on art than in my mind, it should.
Either way, the jury is always out. The value of making art is related, but separate, from appreciating art. I think it's important to do both - can you imagine a chef who doesn't eat? The value of "buying" art, or patronizing one artist vs. another, classifying and sorting it, commodifying it, can be corrosive. There's a good bit of randomness in fame, and many talented people go unrecognized. What's important is to learn to hang on to your own integrity, and find value in your work, whether affirmed by others, or not.
(Thanks to Richard Fiorelli at the Cleveland Institute of Art, whose Fundamentals of Design class challenged me in every way possible, giving me a lot to think about afterwards).