"Why don't you sell your paintings?"

Musings on my prickly relationship with money and art.

Ever since I was a teenager, working primarily in oils, I have fielded requests to sell my work. I have almost always declined unless the work was supposed to be reproducible (such as photography, print making, or music cds). Most artists seem to get immense gratification in finding people who want to give them money for their art. Why am I different?

My exposure to art was mainly through photographs in books and reproductions of various types. Of course, most of the work shown in books were "masterworks," and art historians explained why they were considered as such. I developed an eye from the best art around the world and through history, but most of it was physically in distant museums and collections. And when I heard of these pieces selling, the prices quoted were so far beyond my weekly allowance they were literally priceless to me. I would have loved to have something so cool on my bedroom wall!

I distinctly remember going to a shopping mall which contained an art store. They didn't sell art supplies, they sold art: paintings, sculptures, photographs. Seeing art work in person was so much more real, so to speak, than seeing pictures in books. Sure, they weren't "masterworks" (my brain was already critiquing the work), but some of them also looked pretty cool, even though the artists' names were unfamiliar. I was in a shopping mall, not a museum. Perhaps I could afford to buy something here?

For the first time in my life, I looked at the price tags and learned what "art" goes for on the market. These unknown works by unknown artists (I'm sure the sales staff could have educated me otherwise, had I asked) were selling for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. I couldn't afford that either!

I had also been introduced to collage in art class. I was told to cut pictures out of magazines of things that interested me. I was to arrange the pictures into a composition that said something about me. This was my first lesson in using art to express myself, rather than just something I did to while away the time.

All this led to a realization that if I wanted cool art, I would have to make it myself. And I felt that by bending it to my own desires, by expressing myself through it, it would become even more meaningful to me.

I never hesitated or doubted myself. I had seen what the "masterworks" had to offer, and I was sure I could play on that level with my own toys. My critics became the voices of famous artists in my head as I wondered if, say, Picasso would approve of a new painting I was working on. The idea of money never entered the equation.

As a painter, the prices I was being offered, say $50 or $100 for an oil painting, were minimal, and in no way would allow me to go to the art store and replace my work with something costing $1000 or more. Selling my work didn't seem to work towards my ultimate goal: cool stuff to hang on my walls.

So, I refused sales. If I wanted money, I'd go get a job. If I wanted art, I'd make it myself. I have lived by this mantra my entire adult life, through many jobs and art activities.

By this time, I had found ways to express myself through painting, working in those thoughts and feelings, so the works were also becoming very personal. They were no longer interchangeable with works from unknown artists at the mall. I have often compared them to diary pages, and when viewed chronologically, they tell in some fashion not so much the story of my life, but the story of my thoughts and interests. Selling one would be like ripping a page from my diary and selling it to someone. It's personal, and it all belongs together in a unified piece.

I've noticed some very good art being sold for very little, while I've seen some pretty inferior art selling for outrageous prices. The art market is subject to all sorts of forces that determine a work's financial values. I have come to determine that sales value in the art world has little to do with aesthetic value. I don't want my work compared unfavorably to another person's work because the price tag is lower, or vice versa. I want my art evaluated only on the basis of its intrinsic artistic value (i.e., whether it speaks something to the viewer/listener/etc.).

Not engaging with the commercial side of art has it's down sides, as I've found most people in the art world are mainly interested in money and how much they can make off you and your work. This leads to difficulty showing work or sometimes even garnering interest. I refuse to submit a work to a show where the winning piece gets the "privilege" of being "purchased" for the host's collection. I have had great success when I've shown my art, but those occasions are infrequent.

At some point, I decided being an artist was my calling in life. It is a calling that surpasses financial value, and demands that I remain true to myself and my ideals, as I'm the only one espousing them. I decided I wanted to see what I can produce without the pressure of paying next month's rent forces me to paint someone's portrait that I have no interest in. I want to create purely for creativity's sake, and not because I have financial obligations. That is my freedom, that is my artistic domain.

Once I moved out of painting and into reproducible media like music and photography, I found it difficult to give stuff away, much less sell it, despite I my continuing to work with the same artistic theories as before. Everyone's a critic!

Finally, I would like to mention another artist I met. I forget the circumstances and her name, but we were discussing art. She told me of all the paintings she had done and how popular her work was. At some point, I found myself at her home, and I was expecting to see canvases on display and stacked against the walls. It would be fun to look through them, see what she was doing, and engage in a discussion of her work. Instead, her walls were virtually all blank and white. She had a couple of canvases in a back room and a half-finished work on a tabletop, but that was it. I congratulated her on her sales, but I found it kind of sad that this artist had nothing much of her own work, to show or to look at herself. She had some photos, but even a "masterwork" loses something in a photograph.

Rick Hines, March 25, 2019

©2019 by Rick Hines.
Material may not be used without the artist's written permission.