Thursday, October 2, 2008

Does Humility have a Role in the Art Market?

My profound thanks to Veronica Escudero, the talented creator of “A Painting A Day by Veronica Escudero” who recently really caught me off guard when she graced The Artist’s Muse with the Brilliante Weblog award. I am honored by this recognition as The Brilliante Weblog is a prize historically given to web sites and blogs that are creative and brilliant both in content and design.

Gifts are meant to be shared, so I’d like to award this prize to the following talents:


Over the years, I’ve discovered that artists, regardless of their medium, tend to fall into two classifications:
  1. Those who love everything they create and shamelessly promote their work, without any true sense of discernment; and
  2. Those who are hyper-critical of their work, hesitant to share their artistic expressions, and are self-effacing when accolades are received.
As a student of psychology, I’ve often wondered if humility is part of the creative process, as it encourages us to reach heights that complacency and pride might prohibit. The noble person must look first within, then to others for clues as to how one is actually progressing. I believe this is done by humbly assisting others with our abilities, while not denying our abilities and talents. Such humility is understood to “preserve the soul in tranquility; In the Bible, an exhortation to humility is found in Philippians 2:3-4

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.


David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, is quoted as saying: "You shouldn't gloat about anything you've done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do."

We are taught to take pride in our accomplishments, but pride functions successfully only when comparing yourself to others. It is folly to base one’s self-worth on how you stack up to others and their achievements. Instead, I believe it is wiser to focus on yourself and how you can improve. C.S. Lewis said the following about pride:

The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree. Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive-is competitive by its very nature-while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking, there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.

The issue of pride, humility and competition has been a frequent topic in many conversations I’ve shared recently with fellow artists. Therefore, I thought it might be worthwhile to examine the concept of competition in the arts community.

In an essay published in 1994, A Dysfunctional Culture: Competition in Music, Rodney E. Miller, Dean of Wichita State University College of Fine Arts, articulated his theory that by eliminating competition in music education, co-operation and creativity is encouraged. Miller’s article leads with this sentiment,

For art to be art, it must be a reflection of our human condition. This is because art is ultimately a subjective sharing of emotion, usually emotion affected by or in response to the conditions in which the artist and the subject find themselves. Paradoxically, art very often becomes a casualty to the very social conditions it tries to reflect. One of the most insidious examples of this in our contemporary society is the obsession for competing that has permeated all venues of our society, including our artistic environment. Life for many of us in America has now evolved into a series of challenges to compete. We are bombarded with this doctrine at work, at school, and worst of all,, at home. It has become perhaps the only common thread in the diverse patchwork culture of American life. We hear it in our commercials (Pepsi vs. Coke in a taste test), in our politics (Republicans vs. Democrats), and in our recreation (Cowboys vs. Redskins). So saturated is our society with this spirit of competition that we allow its effects to go unchecked because we simply don’t recognize its existence, or worse yet, we fail to understand how it decays the very essence of art and creativity. Yet, as psychologist Elliot Aronson maintains, the prevailing spirit of competition is a dysfunction of epidemic proportions.

The spirit of competition is not uniquely American, nor is it restricted to the 9-5 business world, as Miller clearly demonstrated. However, to fully understand one’s strengths, it is helpful, if not vital, to understand your competition and your positioning in the market.

Many artists naively believe that they are exempt from these issues---that their “job” is simply to create works of art. Yet, they also worry about the financial realities of their experience as artists, often failing to consider critical questions such as “Who competes with you for your customers’ time and money? “and “What are their strengths and weaknesses? How are they positioned in the market?”

In other words, an artist should know how they are positioned in the market. Why do people buy your artwork instead of the others offered in the same general categories? Think about specific kinds of unique aspects of your work and audience, comparing where you think you can show the difference.

During the process of my contemplation on these issues, I explored the history of the Impressionists, PreRaphaelite artists and the Futurists with relationship to competition amongst each other. It’s a fascinating study that exceeds the limitations of this blog. One of the most important benefits I derived from the experience was reinforcement of my belief that only the best of my work should be seen by others.

When looking at the 4,000 pictures Pierre-Auguste Renoir left behind it is helpful to be aware that he actually was more prolific --- producing over 6,000 paintings during his active years as an artist. Although Renoir’s critical reputation has fluctuated throughout the years, the general populace continues to embrace Renoir’s paintings. He is a wildly uneven painter and one who often did not finish pictures.

In 1864, Pierre-Auguste Renoir had his first success with a painting entitled “Esmeralda Dancing with her Goat around a Fire Illuminating the Entire Crowd of Vagabonds --“the very first painting he had managed to show in the much coveted Paris Salon. Yet, in 1865, Renoir destroyed the painting and began a shift in his style. Later, he destroyed practically everything he had painted up to 1866.

While writing the post, The Booker, The Dobell and the Ultimate Prize, about Melbourne artist Virginia Grayson winning the 2008 Dobell Prize for Drawing for a for drawing she had struggled to produce, I was reminded of a letter Renoir wrote to his dealer, Durand-Ruel, in 1881: "I am not satisfied and I erase, I erase again..." In a similar sentiment in 1889 he refused to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle, declaring: "I find everything I do to be bad".

Many art critics have expressed their opinion that Renoir’s saccharine paintings are “too sweet”, and may even agree with Renoir’s insecure sense of his position in the art world. However, I believe this stems from a lack of understanding of his themes, as he once remarked, 'Why shouldn't art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.'

Fortunately, Renoir did not destroy all of his work, and we have the opportunity to use his paintings to learn about the culture in which he lived .

The Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C., was America’s first museum of modern art and is widely regarded as one of the world’s finest small museums. In 1923, Duncan Phillips purchased Pierre-Auguste Renoir's brilliant example of impressionism, Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–81), which is now considered the museum’s best-known work.

In Britain, one can see Renoir’s masterpiece, La Loge, at the Courtland Gallery in London. La Loge was Renoir’s principal exhibit in the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874.

Renoir’s La Loge received enthusiastic reviews when it was first exhibited and later that year it traveled to London for an exhibition organized by his dealer Durand-Ruel, making it one of the first major Impressionist paintings to be shown in England. However, the painting did not sell at either exhibition and was bought inexpensively the following year by the minor dealer ‘Père’ Martin for 425 francs, providing Renoir with much needed funds to pay the rent.

Although he is best known for scenes of Parisian life such as La Moulin de la Galette and paintings of children and young women, his landscapes were nearly all created in the first two decades of his career, before he began to concentrate on figure painting. between 1865 and 1883. It’s been written that the young artist used landscapes to experiment. With innovative explorations of color and brushstroke.

As Nancy Ireson, a curator of Britain’s National Gallery, said concerning his landscapes: "There is a Renoir that we know, the chocolate box Renoir, and there is a secret Renoir. Renoir wasn't so keen on showing them, some were unfinished, and they wouldn't have commanded the same prices, but landscapes were absolutely integral to his life. In a way he used landscapes to test himself."

One of Renoir;s amazing landscape, Le Jardin d'essai à Alger (The Test Garden), was painted in Algeria in 1881. It now hangs in a private office at the Mirage casino in Las Vegas

Late in his life Renoir’s style underwent a significant change, his outlines becoming less defined and his works entirely softer, with stronger use of reds and oranges. This variation in technique was largely effected by his severe arthiritis

By 1913 he was partially disabled by a stroke, his limbs deformed by arthritis, and he had become frail and wheelchair-bound, his hands coiled inwards like claws. Renoir continued to paint, with a brush jammed between paralyzed fingers strapped with bandages to prevent the fingernails digging into his palms.. After expressing a desire to work in sculpture to his friend and dealer, Ambroise Vollard, he began to work with sculpture. According to the tale, In 1913 Vollard introduced Renoir to Richard Guino, a 20-year-old Catalan sculptor, at Spanish sculptor Aristide Maillol's studio, announcing, 'I have found your hands.' . From 1913 until 1918 Renoir and Guino worked together, mainly at Renoir's 100-acre estate, Les Collettes, in Cagnes-sur-Mer, creating about 37 sculptures, many based on Renoir's paintings. There were other assistants, after 1918 , when Guino stopped working with Renoir.

Had Renoir not destroyed well over 2000 paintings, I suspect his reputation as a master of Impressionism would be significantly questioned. Similarly, his foray into creating sculptures based on his earlier paintings, is only footnote in some art history books as his quality pieces of art were created much earlier. I think of artists such as Georgia O’Keefe and Renoir, who in their winter years turn to assistants such as Juan Hamilton, to complete their vision when their hands or eyes have failed. The issue of “ownership of creative rights” often becomes a legal issue, but perhaps it’s more than legal---it’s a moral issue.

In today’s commercially-cognizant art world, noted individuals, such as Jeff Koons, Dale Chihuly and Damien Hirst, have morphed the time-revered profession of “artist” into “marketing promoter.” The “art work” is not produced by their own hand, despite being entirely healthy and able to create their own work. Instead, a stable of artists are hired to produce pieces to be sold at auction and in high-street galleries. The artwork, however, doesn’t bear the name of the actual creator, but the “Brand name” of the audacious artist who has. employed others to create their works. The artists' names have become trade-marks, essentially brandnames no more significant to the concept of "originality" than a McDonald's hamburger on a bun.

Referring to the mass-produced spot paintings of Rachel Howard, that are sold as Damien Hirst originals, Hirst has said, “"The spots I painted are shite. The best person who ever painted spots for me was Rachel. She's brilliant. The best spot painting you can have by me is one painted by Rachel."

While addressing the factory-based production of Dale Chihuly’s work, the Portland Art Museum curator, Guenther, astutely stated "But at some point you lose faith in a production that is so distanced from the artist, from the creative mind that brought it out initially. At what point is there a loss of faith in the work and an erosion of the brand?"

Perhaps we’d do well to return to basics, take responsibility for our own work, assign only our own names to work we personally create, and use humility and discernment while determining which pieces “see the light of day.” Every work an artist creates is not a masterpiece, every poem a poet create is not forged in genius, and every book labored over by an author is not worthy of the lives of the trees that will showcase one’s words.

The consumer also has responsibility in this arena. While everyone cannot afford to purchase masterpieces by known artists, most individuals have the ability to purchase an original piece of art---not a giclee or an “edition”---but an original that bears the name of its actual creator. By selectively purchasing art, the excesses and deceptive marketing practices of Brand-names in the art world will be reduced, hitherto unknown artists will gain overdue recognition, and one’s “true” position in the marketplace will over-ride unhealthy competition fueled by greed and rampant consumerism . Through this revolutionary and shockingly simple process, art may, indeed, once again reflect the truth of the human condition.

13 comments:

Kim said...

thank you very much for this wonderful award Sharon and I'm very honoured to receive it ..
yeehaa TAD's first award!!!!
excellent post here....
I believe if artists could control there own temptation to criticize and condemn their OWN works the world would have a lot more art...
as for the Damien Hirsts of this world... well I think it's pretty awful when he has to use other artists' works to promote himself...still I suppose it's a double edged sword...where would HE be without the backing of Saatchi eh...
another 'expert' art salesman :)

S. A. Hart said...

Kim, you're quite welcome. The award is well deserved.

As for the "Hirsts of this world", I agree with you entirely---especially with regard to the promotion methods of Charles Saatchi, et al. Like many other situations in this global economy, it's never the "fault" of only one individual, but a host of individuals all playing their part in the unfolding drama. In my opinion, good art is the combination of considered thought, passion, skill, talent and vision. No where in that "recipe" is there a place for mis-representation of any nature. There is a direct relationship between truth, honesty and art. Perhaps one day the "Professional salesmen" will recognize this and the world will benefit from their awakened enlightenment.

Kim said...

hear hear Sharon!!!...
and we can happily include most art dealers..
and the bottom line of course...
pure unadulterated greed ..I'm afraid to say :(
I definitely believe that the middle man should become extinct or at least offer his services for a more reasonable fee..

Dave King said...

Congratulation on the award. If your blog does not deserve there are very few that do. I was also pleased to see Ken Armstrong among your list of recipients. The others I have to confess I do not know, but you may be sure I shall be visiting them soon to find out why you have chosen them.
Your post was as interesting as ever. Again I learnt something, which alone would have made the visit worth while - I did not know that Renoir made sculptures based on his early paintings.
The pride/humilty discussion was absorbing. So much depends upon the art though, don't you think? You might need a touch of arrogance to lay some works before the public, whereas some of us would not have the talent to maintain the pride.
I have added your site to my list of blogs I visit. I hope that is okay by you.

ESCUDERO said...

Hi Sharon - Wow did you hit the ball park on this excellent and informative post. It seems like there are no parameters in the arts. I don't think it will ever be possible for it to be reigned in. Ce la vie? Who knows....Hope you're feeling better now. Talk to you later

S. A. Hart said...

Dave, many thanks. And, yes, Ken is an excellent writer so I hope more people discover his works.

As to your point about the potential need for arrogance, I'm not sure that I agree with you. Confidence in the value of one's work is one thing, but arrogance is never a virtue I believe has a place in the art world. Samuel Butler offered, “The truest characters of ignorance are vanity, and pride and arrogance.” Wisdom, I hold, is knowing the actual quality of our work, being willing and able to stand by it, and not become so emotionally entangled that our ego over-rides our sensibility. Some psychologists have suggested that arrogance is embraced out of a sense of insecurity, not out of confidence. I would tend to agree with them. What do you think, as an artist?

PurrPrints said...

Wow--you even manage to turn an awards post into a cause for thoughtful reflection--you never cease to impress me Sharon!

And thanks, of course, for including me on your list--though most of the credit for the blog redesign goes to Chica & Pumuckl :)

Jacqueline said...

Great job Sharon!
I love the way you took your time with this post and really laid things all out. It tells me that art is in your soul. :-)

I have some paintings I've done on the side and a few I've framed for my own enjoyment. I found that I'm always looking for the next best thing. I admit that I take a moment to stand back and admire my work, and that's all it is, a moment. Then, it's on to greener pastures.

Shinade said...

Oh my congratulations to all of the recipients and to you also.

This is an outstanding article. I recently started in photography. all I have right now is a standard digital camera bought at Wal Mart.

And Kim has asked me to join TAD...and I am so nervous about it. I simply see other people's work and I don't feel worthy.

But as Kim stated I think sometimes we are our own worst critics.

Oh wouldn't I love to have a Renoir.

Great share thank you for pouring so much of yourself into it. It is a very moving and powerful piece of writing.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks for this Sharon, it's really most kind! I've put it proudly in my trophy cabinet (in the sidebar :))
and I've linked it back to you.

Arrogance is something I find unattractive (the trophy-cabinet ref was more of a joke!) but, conversely, many the best writers who I have actually met all seem to have a trace of this trait about them. A necessary evil perhaps?

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