Saturday, June 24, 2017


Once in a while, a made-for-TV movie or an episode of a regular program features plots that include artists and their work. These always pique my interest no matter how silly or unrealistic the portrayal. I’m amused, especially whenever a murder is involved. In one show, a hewn wooden sculpture proved to be the murder weapon. (Sculpture appears to be the medium of choice for dispatching victims—perhaps due to its, ah, impactful nature). Another revealed how a knife was concealed inside a huge, complex installation piece that was purchased by the actual killer who of course, just happened to be rich enough to afford the exorbitant price tag and diabolical enough to figure out a way to remove incriminating evidence from the gallery where the proprietor’s body was found. (Can’t remember why the patron offed the dealer—who knows? Maybe he was incensed there was no free delivery…)   
Lately though, a few dramas contained scenes of artists who despaired because the fiscal value of another artist’s work greatly exceeded their own—which conveniently segued into the requisite homicidal storyline. The idea that a struggling artist is reduced to manslaughter based on such a premise doesn’t bother me; this is fantasy, scripted. Also, any real art crimes I’ve heard of usually concern fraud, theft or vandalism—seldom murder. What stood out about these shows was how imaginary artists reacted when they compared the difference between what their art was worth and that of another. This scene often takes place in the artist’s studio; their own work up on full display. Inevitably what follows is a knife to canvas, a heavy object hurled, some impulsive act where an artist destroys their own efforts out of futility and rage. “See this painting?” A small, generic landscape is held up. It’s competent, yellowed with age, might be a nice little find at some flea market, Goodwill, or Salvation Army store. “It’s worth two million. My paintings are worth nothing.” Cue to the hammer toss, the slashing sequence, the contents of a gallon paint can flung (without Abstract Expressionism intent) at a recent endeavour. Or a lifetime of work, destroyed in one moment of despondency. I saw this on three different programs. It’s only TV. But every time, I wanted to say to these characters: Oh fake art-guys—I know how you feel; been there myself.
Pricing one’s work is a bit of a dilemma for those of us who exhibit infrequently. In some commercial galleries, unknown artists sell for less even when their talent equals or surpasses a more successful or renowned counterpart. Often, size matters little. A large, complex work by a lesser known can fetch lower prices than a smaller offering by an established practitioner. Gallery dealers have “rules” that are also consistent. What you charge at one venue has to remain the same for a certain length of time, if the same work is shown elsewhere regardless of any difference in commission percentage. When work needs to be appraised, previously priced work factors into the final estimate value. I participated in a donation once. My painting was assessed at almost half the price I set because at my last solo show several years ago, similar sized pieces were listed at a lower figure. It was discouraging. It hurt. And the appraiser? I just hated her; believed everything was all her fault. She obviously knew nothing about art and didn’t care about artists, I thought. How could she live with herself and what she did for a living—namely crushing an artist’s spirit by belittling the value of their work? Boohoo—I struggled not to let it get to me. But instead of smashing my work (which bottom line, I really didn’t want to do) I was forced to learn about this aspect of the art world. The appraiser was only doing her job. It had certain regulations, guidelines and frames of reference she had to consider in order to determine my market value. I never sold at the price I claimed for my donation so she couldn’t grant that amount on all the paperwork. I’d priced my work at the time, according to what colleagues asked for theirs of equal size, without realizing that other factors were involved. In hindsight, I’m convinced the appraiser did try her best for my sake. I don’t even recall her name; we never met. All communication occurred through email. But I do remember one final message asking if a relative or family member ever bought one of my paintings no matter what I charged. I think that was her attempt to find justification for my valuation. To date, I cringe at how much vitriol I secretly cast upon her. I’m a grown woman yet sulked like a teenage princess. The whole thing was never, ever personal. Standards artists themselves use to establish quality inherent in any work, differ compared to what the appraiser was actually hired to do. It’s all business. Sadly, an emotional connection—which is a valid criteria for art appreciation and art-making, doesn’t belong here either. That’s hard to swallow, especially when it provokes insecurities, doubts about whether what we do as artists, has any relevance or is worth further pursuit when this is the kind of response  we get for our time and labour. 

Every artist is unique in terms of how they cope with disappointment. What I don’t recommend is prolonged resentment, whether directed at real/perceived offenders or displaced, onto innocent others. These include colleagues who have achieved in areas where one still encounters struggle. Time and energy consumed in begrudging another artist is better spent honing a personal vision through making more art. It took me a while to bounce back but I did and that’s all that matters. Time, that old cliché did the job. Art appraisals are only one sort of measure, one way to determine the value of a work; they will continue—with or without me. I might as well take it in stride and just carry on. I know better now if I ever make another donation. That said, we still have a right to take pride in our work, respect our commitment, feel that the art we do is worthwhile even if it’s of no interest or importance to anyone else but ourselves.

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