Art, Merit, and Money: Why Marketplace Meritocracy Matters in the Fine Art World
No “Sell Out” cops will confront you.
Marketplace meritocracy matters if you want your art to pay.
Life is not fair. Otherwise, I would be smarter, taller, more handsome, much funnier, and richer. And goshdarnit, no matter what I do some of those things are beyond my control.
The same goes for business. I could be the very best at something but have no guarantee the marketplace would reward me commensurate to my formidable talents and skills. Huh? Why not? Shouldn’t the best come out on top? Nope, not IRL (in real life).
What’s Going on Here?
While some of the time the best wins out, but just as often it doesn’t. It happens in life, business, and the arts. Being excellent does not punch your ticket to success automatically. It takes a combination of talent, ambition, vision, timing, and often a dash of luck, too.
One would like to think the best, most creative, and talented artists would get the most recognition and highest prices for their work without doing anything but creating it. That’s not reality. It’s a pipedream fantasy.
The Arts Are All Subjective.
I don’t like this music or movie, but you and the critics love it. Who’s right? When there is no way outside of opinion to evaluate something, you end up a multitude of perspectives. Sure, there is crowdsourcing that can determine popularity, but it’s not a guarantee of quality. And, without knowing the demographics of the crowd, what does it mean to be liked, admired, or approved by those people? Nothing unless they are voting with their pocketbooks. That is when the meritocracy of the marketplace is at work.
You can make the same argument when looking at work with critical acclaim. Critics, curators, and prominent collectors all feed on the same information stream. They form a consensus that you might call intellectual incest. He or she said it, and I read about it everywhere, so I believe it. Or, what they said validates my beliefs. But, is any of that genuinely accurate? I mean you could have enormous talent but still be ignored by tony trendsetters. Who’s right in that case?
You Must See This!
I’m sure I will piss off some art for art’s sake purists with this post. But I’ll stick with my perspective all the same. Want to start off a fiery debate? Pick a side on the quality and value of this minimalist, conceptual “White Cotton Octagonal” artwork by postminimalist artist, Richard Tuttle. I took the picture where it hangs (I should say is pinned) in the prestigious National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Few people have no opinion about this work. Some question is it art? Others vehemently defend it as an excellent example of conceptual art.
I don’t know the actual price but would guess it is in a range of $5,000 – $15,000. Not too shabby for an irregular shaped napkin, right? Tuttle is a provocateur. There may be a thousand people who read this post who have better skills at creating art than he does. So, is it his thinking about art that sets him apart and allows him to be lionized for work like this? Where does this piece fit in the argument for meritocracy? You get to decide.
You Have Chosen to Make Art, to Be an Artist
Good for you. The world and the future need your thoughts, expressions, and creativity. You are free and encouraged to create art people want to buy. In fact, unless you consider making art a hobby, you must contemplate the desires of your buyer. You can make creative work they didn’t know they needed and wanted until they see it. That happens all the time. But, if you want your career to be a profitable business based on your creativity you must give the marketplace works art buyers desire and purchase.
Does This Make You a Sellout?
Are you selling out if you create artwork with commercial intent? Hardly. And, besides who’s the boss of that decision? Who gets to plant a “Sell Out” sticker on you? And, why should you give a tiny rat’s ass if someone thinks that anyway? Isn’t that their problem? Why should the concepts of commercial value and creative expression be mutually exclusive? Who made up that rule? And, how except in your gray matter can it matter or be enforced?
You Are the Boss of You
You are free to go about your business and live your life the way you want. I suggest you avoid criminal and unkind activities, but beyond that go for it. Be wild. Be crazy. Be different. Be innovative and creative. Go ahead. Unapologetically, make art people clamor to buy. Be unabashed. Get out there and promote the daylights out of your art to create commotion, interest, and demand. You can do all that, and you have my guarantee that no “Sell Out” cops will ever confront you.
Of course, you will get critics. You want them. If you have no one opposing what you’re doing, you’re not working it hard enough. A little controversy never hurts anything. It’s more likely to stir up interest and publicity than if you never take a step on the wild side. You don’t have to be unsafe or untrue to tap into the wilder part of you few ever get to see. Unleash the beast. That’s one excellent way to generate free buzz that in turn creates interest that translates to sales.
Unleash the Beast
I don’t know what’s going on in your mind when you read my encouragement to unleash the beast. I’m confident if you think about it and start permitting yourself, you will devise your version of what letting go, and going for it means to you.
Want to know a secret? When you are rich and famous, you can do much more good than if you are broke and unnoticed. I interviewed the marine conservationist artist, Wyland. It was about his book, Don’t Be a Starving Artist. He offers useful insights and motivation from his 30 years as an artist who has enjoyed success and fame at the highest levels.
Wyland Chose Not to Wait to Get Rich and Well Known
He’s been a multimillionaire for decades making him one of the most successful artists of his generation. In a Time magazine article from the mid-90s that pegged his annual income at $7 million, he was quoted saying this, “The Old Masters had to wait until they were dead for their art to make a lot of money. I didn’t want to wait that long.”
Not only has he lived a life most other artists only dream about. He’s helped raise millions for marine wildlife conservation. He estimates a billion people annually see one of the murals on his 100 Whaling Walls project. How’s that for raising awareness for a cause? Each one of his walls is painted to help create an appreciation for the caring of marine wildlife. His most famous Whale Tail image graces a special edition of California license plates for the same cause. The proceeds go to charities supporting marine wildlife conservation organizations.
Make Good to Do Good!
If Wyland had stayed a poor, unknown artist, he would not have been able to do any of these things. Is he the best artist to ever paint a whale? Probably not, but so what? He’s more than good enough. And, what matters is the marketplace meritocracy is in place. It’s rewarded him handsomely for decades for what he does and how he does it.
The moral for you is do not listen to those who will tell you don’t do this or that because it will ding your reputation. Here’s an example. I get questions with worry regarding putting work in the print market. Artists often ask if making prints will harm their credibility. My answer is if you let it. You must realize you have much more control over the spin of your reputation than anyone else.
A-Listers Who Did It All
Think of the number of A-lister artists whose work is in print. It’s a list too long to count. For example, Wyeth, Warhol, Picasso, Parrish, Rockwell, Ansel Adams, and Wyland making prints did them no harm. They made millions selling art, including prints. You’re entitled to do the same.
Stop the Hurting Start the Enriching
Whether you’re a millionaire, a hundred-thousandaire, or something else, what happens is up to you. You have the power within you to enrich your life and your career in ways only your wilder side can imagine.
Stop putting up walls that don’t need to be there. You know, like I can’t do that because someone whose opinion doesn’t matter may disagree with my decisions and actions. Or, I can’t do that because… pick a reason, I know you have your favorites… and then decide to abolish them from your thoughts and feelings.
Wake Up to the Negative Power of Secondary Benefits
James Wedmore calls excuses secondary benefits. Instead of going for it, you give in to mind talk with your reasons why you can’t. The secondary benefit is the payoff of not failing, not being embarrassed, not exposing a vulnerability, or whatever creates doubt and hesitancy.
If you are having a hard time letting go of what you know is holding you back, it might be a sign there are underlying issues you need to deal with. If you are deeply hooked on the Impostor Syndrome or feel undeserving, or any number of other things, look for aid to get yourself to a better place. Help is all around you when you start looking for it and go to it. Free will and the power to choose are indelible human traits. Use them!
Pulling Up Works Better than Pushing Down
Instead of standing in your way, try pulling yourself up. When you dump the head trash holding you back, you make room for new ideas on how to make your life and career authentically matter. Shed the handcuffs and self-imposed resistance that comes from trying to live up to the theoretical concept of meritocracy for meritocracy’s sake. Embracing marketplace meritocracy is what matters.
Teach yourself how to make the most of encompassing the meritocracy of the marketplace for all it’s worth on every level. Lead yourself to the success you deserve. It’s waiting for you to take it. You can do it.
I’ll leave you with this quote from someone famous — well, okay, me.
Ambition will where talent will not. – Barney Davey