You may not have an answer as pithy English mountaineer, George Mallory for when he was asked, “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” His reply was, “Because it’s there”. Willie Sutton, the infamous, prolific bank robber gave this answer to why he robbed banks, “Because that’s where the money is.”
I believe for most artists, the answer is complex, and no single answer will apply across the board.
I think you make art because it is part of who you are. It’s almost like art chose you as much as you chose it. You might have a burning desire to scratch a creative itch, or can’t resist because you have the gift of being able to observe the world along with an ability to express what you see, visually.
Some of you make art because you’ve gotten pretty darn good at it. You’ve also found it’s a great way to make a living as opposed to climbing the corporate ladder, or punching a time clock. You might do it because it’s fun, or just because you love the thrill of seeing the result of your creative output. I get that last one.
I had the tools, knowledge, skills and creativity to make a fine woodworking career. Two things dissuaded me from doing it. The first was I was not willing to take the pay cut to turn my hobby into a business. The second was a growing sensitivity to wood dust. The idea of wearing a mask at all times in the shop is a bummer.
I mentioned the S.W.A.G. Factor (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) in last week’s post. I’ll use it hear to guess most of this blog’s readers make art because they want to make money from it —at least in part. You have a profit motive. That’s a good thing!
If the reason why you make art is not profit driven to some degree, then you have a pleasant hobby. You know what? If that’s what you like and want, it’s okay. It’s more than okay — it’s great. You have a pastime you love.
I love to strum the guitar and sing, but I know no one would pay me to entertain them. It’s something I got okay at doing up to a point; then I could not get better. When my progress hit an insurmountable wall, the pleasure from playing diminished.
I just did not have the skills to cut it as a professional musician, or even a competent part-timer. That never stopped me from pursuing playing for many years. It was a letdown to come to the realization that I could not get to the level of playing that I imagined when I started, but that’s life. As Rolling Stones lyric says, “You can’t always get what you want.”
I can say the same thing about playing golf. What’s wrong with a game where you walk a few miles on grass, commune with nature, and swing a club at a little ball to move it along your path?
Nothing, unless you want to keep score and progress in the game. Then it gets serious, and the fun leaves fast when you are shooting double over par every round. Instead of being enjoyable, it becomes an exercise in futility. I’m sure the similarities between why I put down playing guitar and gave up golf exist. I had reached my zenith, could not get where I wanted to go with either, and moved on to something else.
Being an ENFP personality type just added fuel to get me to the next quest. As mentioned before, I got dedicated and quite good at fine woodworking, but in time gave that up, too. It was a fun ride while it lasted, and I have some treasures around that remind me of it. Like art, some of the things I’ve made will still be here long after my living years.
One of the coolest things about making art or fine crafts is it will outlive you. Besides Norm Abram and the New Yankee Workshop, what motivated my interest in woodworking was seeing an exquisite rocking chair made by Sam Maloof. That piece is now part of the Smithsonian Collection.
It was the first time I became aware on a higher level of the longevity or art. It’s as obvious as the nose on a face, but until one grasps what it means to make something that might live on for centuries, it’s not clear. At least it was not for me.
I cannot explain what it was about the chair. I’d seen thousands of pieces of art and fine art crafts in my life. Nevertheless, something about it hit home with me. I could not resist the urge to take on woodworking and see how far I could take it.
For the first time in my life, I understood what Hippocrates meant when he wrote, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” The aphorism is part of a poem he wrote in of a medical text some 2,500 year ago, which is incredible in itself. Translated, it reads like this:
“Life is short,
[the] art long,
What’s interesting is I’d seen the phrase many times. I saw it every time I went to the magnificent the St. Louis Art Museum. It is prominent on the building. That museum is a place I often visited in my childhood with my mother and siblings. It is one of the great museums in the country, and still free to the public. What a treat.
Yet, to finally understand what something means on its deepest level, to have the veil lifted and add to my life in a meaningful way. That was unique. It is what art can do. Knowing that sort of thing is possible has to answer why many artists make art.
Art of all sorts can do that for you. Whether fine crafts, visual art or even non-fiction. Gary Wills superb book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America is one I recommend for anyone. He won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for this book. It had a profound effect on me, the way that great art should. Like many kids in grade school, I had memorized the Gettysburg Address, but was clueless to its meaning or the real history surrounding it.
The thing is, I never understood what it meant — at all. Despite all the history classes I took, none ever helped me realize how monumental and eloquent Lincoln’s words were. Our country then was not yet 90 years old. It was deeply divided.
The horrific battle of Gettysburg fought over the divide. Lincoln offered up an oratory – spoken and written words – equal to any art for any age. I finally got the importance of the outcome of the Civil War. It was about freedom for slaves, but it was just as much about whether the nation would endure.
That Lincoln was able to stir emotions and sum up the meaning of the battle and the Civil War in just 175 words makes is remarkable beyond belief. Read the book whether you are a history buff or not. Have your kids read it, too. You will come to understand something about our country that you did not know.
Maybe your art will not make the Smithsonian, or remembered hundreds or thousands of years from now. That won’t stop it from giving pleasure and meaning to its owners for decades to come. To me, that’s a pretty laudable way to think about why you make art.
I’m a realist. I know that if you want to make art on a steady basis, you have to find buyers for it or rent a storage bin. The latter besides being expensive and unwieldy is just not practical. So, what I believe you need to do to make this work out is to make art that you know has a good chance of going home with a buyer.
That’s where I come in. Having an ENFP personality, it took me a long time into adulthood to figure out something I love to do. And, that was also something where I could help others and get paid for what I do. If I just wanted money, I could be doing day trading, flipping houses, or being a stockbroker or a financial planner.
I found out I was pretty good at writing, that I knew quite a lot about marketing in general, and art marketing in specific. I’ve also learned I’m like my mother with a teacher personality. Thirty years of commission sales will teach you about marketing. The result is I’m doing something I love now and finding ways to give back, too.
I am about art marketing. I have devoted a good part of almost 30 years helping artists get their work to market. At the heart of art marketing, or any marketing for that matter, is one thing. That is to stir interest and attention to such a degree that it creates desire resulting in a sale.
Marketing is about raising awareness for your art. When done right, you use techniques to find your best prospects and then focus your communication to them. As always, we make the assumption your art sells well when seen by enough qualified buyers.
This is something you need to know and be sure of. If your art is not selling when your marketing is doing its job, then your problem isn’t marketing, it is in making work that has commercial appeal. If you are stuck in a rut because the art you are making is not selling, you have to determine how to change what you are doing so selling your work becomes easier, or even possible.
I know to some artists, the mere thought of commercial appeal when speaking about their art is a big turnoff. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about that. You’re free to make whatever you want. But, you also have to accept that what you’re making needs to find a place in the market if your intent is to profit from making it.
You have to be okay with making money from your art, or your career is going nowhere fast.
Somehow, visual artists got stuck with the idiotic notion that they could sell out. Really? What the heck does that mean? If you make art that is too commercial that your artistic soul will burn in art hell? Does it mean you passed on the chance to punch your ticket for a show at MOMA?
Yes, there are critics and curators who look down their noses at artists who make work with the notion it will sell well. The reality is none of them are offering to pay your bills or send your kids to college, right?
Do yourself a favor and quit kowtowing to a bunch of people you most likely don’t know, and who don’t have your best interest at heart. You probably would not want these high brows as friends either.
Here’s the thing. If you are making art that you are proud of making – something that comes out of your creative ability, then good on you. Are you a sell out if you choose a color palette that matches modern decor? What about creating around a subject matter that matches current trends, such as you make poker art because poker is the rage? Are you really gonna worry that MOMA won’t call? Was someone from there gonna call anyway?
If you do try to make everyone happy, you are not doing much. So choose to make yourself happy with whatever that means to you. You want to be a satisfied Sunday painter, go for it. You want to crack six figures selling your art, go for it. The only thing stopping you is you.
Agreed, you may have life conditions that constrain your ambition. That is unfortunate but real. Like we all do, you learn to accept those things you can’t change and work hard on the ones you can.
The best thing is to set achievable goals for yourself. Base your goals on your realistic evaluation of your resources and situation. Then do your best to stretch beyond those goals – or, you can always take up woodworking.
It’s about giving you ideas, information and inspiration to help you succeed in the business of art. I’ve written five books on art marketing. They all have the same mission. Help artists figure out new, practical and best ways to sell more art.
Since 2005, I’ve published around 750,000 words on this blog. My 300-page How to Profit from the Art Print Market book is 90,000 words. That means I’ve written what equals about nine more 300-page books for this blog. That’s not counting the hundreds of thousands of words in the four other books I’ve written.
If I did not get satisfaction from making such an effort, I’d be crazy. I assure you, I’m not. I am passionate about helping artists succeed, and I like the idea I can make an income from providing free and paid services to artists and photographers.