Essays

Thinking About Art Practice and the Role of Compromise

by Brian Fernandes-Halloran on March 19, 2014

What happens when an artist’s inclinations towards her/his work conflict with her/his ability to sell and keep making it?

My Dilemma

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I re-create memories in full scale with wax and found objects, some of which are on the verge of disintegrating. The fleeting and fragile quality of these materials is crucial to how my work deals with loss and the passing of time. But the evidence is stacking up that this approach is a hindrance, if not a barrier, to selling my work. I could make my pieces more wieldy and more archival. And I can justify these decisions with some verbosity in my artist statement. Would I be just pretending that this development is in line with the natural progression of my work? Or is it assumed that the natural progression of a practice succumbs to the conditions of practical life and the art market?

Artists Are Not Entrepreneurs

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I have heard (repeatedly), in seminars, lectures, and articles, that a contemporary artist is a “one-person enterprise”: “if you want to be a successful artist, you need to think like an entrepreneur!” This is a painfully TED talk kind of logic that has merit and sounds great but does not address the underlying complexity of the issue. Or should I say, it masks systematic contradictions and problems of the art world by presenting a simple solution to be performed by those with the least agency in the equation, artists. It is undeniable that I have benefited from being entrepreneurial by making a nice website, interfacing with people playing various roles in the art world, and actively pursuing potentially productive relationships. But as an unspoken rule, I am supposed to avoid something at the core of being an entrepreneur: informing production by perceived demand, aka making work that will sell for the sake of selling. In doing so, I would validate expectations and norms, demonstrating that what the market wants is what I want to make. But I need to sell my work.

The signs are everywhere as to what kind of work sells: stuff that looks good in a rich person’s pad, that combines well with opulence, and can be stored and assembled relatively easily. When art-fair season comes around, it always brings a WTF moment when I realize the actual state of the art market and how little it has to do with the kind of aspirations held by myself and my friends who are artists. And that nefarious question inevitably pops into my head: “What can I do to my work that would make it fit in here?”

The Real Nitty Gritty

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But of course, like many artists, my idealistic perspective of art is in an ongoing relationship with reality; most of the conversations I have with other artists are about navigating a complicated, murky world, where a series of negotiations take place with every opportunity that presents itself.

I find myself sniffing out a venue or someone interested in showing my work. “Do they get and respect my work? What will they pay for it? Who do they know? What is their reputation?” (The more cynical of these questions come from getting burned plenty.)

The answers to these questions will be weighed against each other and against something that could best be described as my integrity. On the production end, elements of my practice are also prioritized as I weigh the costs (of money and time), of producing different facets of my work according to their value to my practice and career. What emerges is a relationship to art-making and exhibiting that is a series of compromises in which the pull to make sellable work can gradually affect my practice without an ah-hah moment. I believe this is a common process for artists as we carve away from and hopefully refine something about our work that is uncompromising, that can survive the nuts and bolts of our real life circumstances and have a place in the art market. We then submit this work to some form of a white cube (or cubicle, as the case may be), describing it as though we have carved away less than we actually have, hopeful that something from the core of our process gets through to viewers.

Honest Art Speak

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I do not think that pushing back against this condition is something that I, or any artist, can do alone. Let’s imagine that artists were encouraged to compromise less in order to make overtly sellable objects and be more honest about the compromises we do make. Would that subtract from the viewing experience or add to it? Yes, it might deflate the experience in the gallery, museum, or fair cubicle. It would partially de-fetishize art objects, peeling back their veneer as conveniently decorative, culminations of artistic pursuits. It would leave viewers wanting more, encouraging them to venture to artist’s studios, get to know artists better and understand the true intentions behind and, more importantly, beyond our work. Wouldn’t that be a world with better art? For now, though, I, like many artists, am asking myself the question, “What can I do to make my work more sellable?” Whatever comes of it, surely will not be described as such in our artist statements, so get ready to keep reading between the lines.

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All images by the author for Hyperallergic

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  • http://www.museumtwo.blogspot.com Nina Simon

    Brian,
    Thank you for this fabulous post. Your honesty and clarity are powerful.

    Your questions make me think about similar questions that I have as the director of a small regional museum:
    “Does this artist see our museum as a potential partner in the advancement of his/her practice or a fluffer for his/her resume and sellability?”
    “Can we be a platform for a different kind of project/practice/presentation that isn’t viable in a commercial space?”
    “Is this artist interested in engaging a community of visitors who have diverse educational and aesthetic backgrounds or only with those who are in the know?”
    “Would we compromise our engagement goals to work with an artist who makes work of extraordinary quality?”
    “Should we focus explicitly on creating more opportunities for artists whose practice is performative, social, or otherwise hard to monetize in the visual art market?”
    “Are museums really outside the marketplace, or are we fooling ourselves if we think so or try to be? Does it help artists more or less if we assert that difference?”

    Thank you for opening up some of these questions inside of me. I hope there can be many opportunities for honest cross-dialogue about these issues.

    • Hillary

      Thanks to the author for the article, and thanks to you for your reply!
      As recent transplants to the area, we’re navigating the arts landscape and glad to read that such reflections are alive, well and insightful.

  • Corvus

    The pressure on the artist to also be an entrepreneur is poison in the well of creativity.

  • Stephen Aman

    As someone who has been trying to continue to produce art post-degree for nine years, it seems to me that compromise is unavoidable. Whether you alter your work for the market or not, you will be making compromises in your work.

    Since I’ve not yet been successful in finding proper representation I have to support myself by holding a full time job. This affects my artistic production in a number of ways: The rate at which I produce work is slowed dramatically. In turn I progress through concepts at a very slow speed. I’d much prefer to evolve concepts quickly. The need to limit my life outside of the day job to allow for art production also has a dramatic effect on the content of the work. The world that I’ve spent much of my life describing in my art tends to be a solitary one. This isn’t so much by choice as by consequence.

    My work has always been very labor intensive. I’m interested the boundaries between representation and abstraction; between painting as a physical object and painting as an illusion. It’s abundantly apparent to me that the focus of my art may be counterproductive towards that goal of earning a living via art making. Hundred hour paintings are harder to sell than 10 hour paintings. Abstractions which can only be properly viewed in person are more difficult to market that representational imagery which sharpens when reduced to a jpeg.

    The question for me is not how to avoid compromising. It’s how to compromise without compromising the basic integrity of my work. In the end, I consider my first responsibility as an artist to be toward my own well being. And if I’m never able to create a market for the work, if there’s never an audience, then it doesn’t matter anyway.

    • Meghank

      I agree. Thanks for this comment.

  • John

    Hmmmm thoughts for you:
    1. Entrepreneurs take risks, which means failure will happen. Artists are entrepreneurs, unless they have been to an art school where they were taught to not be.
    2. Would you buy art that will fall apart? Do you buy anything valuable that you know will fall apart? If the answer is no, then do not expect others to do so. There is no reason to feel compelled to sell what you make, but if you do want to sell, YOU must find people who want to buy it. Don’t blame galleries for not wanting the headache of trying to sell something ephemeral.

  • Jeffrey Turner

    An artist should never compromise their practice in order to become salable!
    If you do that you’re not doing your own work nor are you expressing the uniqueness of who you are. You might as well give it up and get a JOB!
    You mentioned 2 questions,
    “What can I do to my work that would make it fit in here?”
    “What can I do to make my work more sellable?”
    I’ve been an artist for 50 years and have never asked myself those questions and I never will!
    Those questions are anathema to personal expression which I’ve always thought art was about.

  • http://mary-ellen-anderson.artistwebsites.com/ Mary E. Anderson

    I have to admit that I’ve never had this ‘dilemma’ and that’s
    certainly not because I paint to sell. It’s entirely because I started painting
    so young (5) with professionals that I got to find my ‘honesty’ before I even
    realized there was a life to my work after mom took it off the refrigerator.

    But coming from the perspective of a kid than I was free to
    not distinguish between the artistic critiques of my instructors and my siblings
    scorn. I’m sure both impacted me, and some advice I followed and some I didn’t,
    but ultimately the solution was me. When you are painting and something goes
    wrong you fix it, so I never understood why fixing what someone else sees as a
    problem is any different. It’s how I fix problems that is my signature.

    All that said, than it never occurs to me that a subject is more
    salable when I’m choosing them. It doesn’t bother me if it is, but I don’t
    really think about it. I still assume mom will post on the refrigerator. But
    there are very few problems that I don’t think I can address in my own way, and
    if there are than most of them are because I’m not the artist for the job
    (ability wise).

    I think any medium or discipline is capable of any topic,
    the limitation is whether I have to artistic skills to do it. I don’t put my identity
    into topics, so if I like to paint about death and someone wants to commission
    me to paint the dog, I wouldn’t have issues with that other that artistic
    insecurity. I’m just a painter of visions, not necessarily a visionary, so one
    vision is as valid to me as another.

    But some of the things you mentioned are going to concern
    the buyer. Art that doesn’t last or is extremely delicate is burdensome for a
    buyer. And understandably so. These won’t sell because it’s failing to fill the
    buyers need for investment. Again, you’re going to have to come up with another artistic way to convey fragility. You can either artistically figure this out, just like a composition issue, or don’t. But the issue is your talent to solve just another problem, not whether there
    is a ‘right’ somewhere that excludes you. People have the right to want what
    they like; is there an art that should be liked and who determines that?

    –mary ellen anderson

  • http://www.nancyherman.com/nancyherman.com/HOME.html Nancy Herman

    I think it is interesting that most of the responders and the author assume they could make art that sells if they wanted to. I have been making art for 60 years or so and some of it sold for thousands of dollars and some of it is still sitting around my very crowded house. When I began to make things that sold I continued to make variations of that because I liked doing it – it is hard to say if being able to sell it was part of that or not – but I would say it definitely was as I had to actually employ helpers which I could not have done if I didn’t sell the work. When I got tired of making that work I could not do it anymore. I simply lost all interest in it and without the enthusiasm necessary to create something it was over. I would like to sell everything I make of course but I have no idea why some things catch on and others do not. One can be ahead of the trend, behind it or hit it at the right moment and have the right person or group pushing it, but it seems like a crap shoot to me.

  • http://www.lolvolker.com Paul Volker-artist

    I don’t think compromise is actually the issue, and that’s why the situation is problematic. You are really talking about two different things…doing something you love, which has very little ‘sales potential’ but which you would do anyway for one particular set of reasons (because your inner voice as an artists demands it), and also trying to make money, which you need to do for an entirely different set of reasons. This is why many artists get non-art jobs instead of depending on the sale of their work. The solution I have come up with in my own experience is to devote part of my time to making stuff that will sell (often cranking stuff out, in fact) what I call my ‘hamburger art’ (because it is really no different than flipping burgers), and part of my time to making stuff that I just have to make out of passion. The benefits of this are twofold:
    rather than holding resentment about having to make stuff for the market, every moment I spend cranking out those art-burgers develops my skills and talents. Furthermore, by producing a large number of cheap, salable works, hundreds of people now own my paintings, have friends who own my paintings and so on. They connect with me through facebook & other social media, and out of all those people, there are a handful who are interested in my “real” artwork, and are willing to pay me what it is worth. In other words; use every situation to your advantage. And, as an entrepreneur.. don’t forget that it;s all tax deductible!

  • John

    Good morning Brian,
    Please pardon the appearance of harshness in my comments. Let me explain my back ground. I was a studio artist for 16 years before becoming a professor of art for the next 18. There is a great divide between these worlds that should not exist, but certainly does. Many of my fellow faculty members have never had to pay rent or buy art supplies by selling the art they create. Because of this, they pass on to students some odd ideas about studio practice. Instead of thinking of art as a tool of communication, they have students thinking it is a didactic activity,,,that is, instead of prompting a conversation it’s “This is my art, so shut up and take it!”. This is one of the main reasons most art majors do not continue creating art five years after graduation, there is no real engagement with viewers. I feel so sorry for all those baristas and waiters who struggle with huge student loans for art practices they do not use. (and please, don’t get me started on the “critical thinking” argument for humanities education)
    I want to see former students find joy and personal success in studio practice. For that to happen, they must understand some art you make like talking to yourself and some art you make to communicate with a larger audience. Communicating with a larger audience means the artist must engage instead of posturing and also understand the value structure of the viewer.

  • Tze Yang Yeo

    This is an important article. (Y)

  • Linda Smith

    After thinking about this sort of thing for awhile now, I concluded that the best and only thing an artist should do is make the kind of work they believe in. Perhaps people will find it and want it but that shouldn’t be the first aim.

  • LucidGal

    I am an artist (took me a long time to be able to say those words) and for most of my life, I resisted doing it for money. Couldn’t stand the idea of doing things that were someone else’s vision, or doing something to match someone’s sofa. Still can’t. But I also realize that, if I want to keep doing what I’m doing, I have to make a living. I also recognize that nobody owes me a living just because I like to do art. I have many, many artist friends and find that an impediment that is at least as large, maybe larger, than artistic integrity vs. commerce is an unwillingness to do the hard work of marketing. We’d all rather be in the studio (I should be there now) than setting up websites, working the social media sites, blogging, doing e-newsletters, sending out direct mail. That’s the business of marketing that fuels the traffic to our work. Then there’s accounting, and tech stuff, and saving for retirement, and on and on. I can make all the pretty pictures I want, but if there’s no buyer, then I have to stop doing the art and go do something else. Great article about some of that here: http://bit.ly/1j0mjzu and there are some great groups on LinkedIn for art marketing.

  • http://www.leroybrothers.net Leroy Brothers

    Thanks for the interesting article, Brian.

    To all of you – pro or contra being entrepreneurial as artist – I’d like to offer our book we wrote in 2011 “How to be a successful contemporary artist from A to Z”. It has already been useful to thousands of artists from around the world. We don’t claim that our book is the holy secret to become successful, but it offers an insight of how we work and how this can help you to further develop your art career.

    You can download a copy for free here http://www.lulu.com/shop/leroy-brothers/how-to-become-a-successful-contemporary-artist-from-a-to-z/ebook/product-20091591.html

    It’s a quick and fun read!

    Hope to be able to help.
    Leroy Brothers

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