Theory Versus Practice

5 08 2011

In many areas of study in a university, there is a separation, even antagonism, between a purely academic approach to what is being studied and a more practical approach as to how the discipline should be implemented in the real world.  The most apparent division along these lines that I am familiar with is within the Department of Communication. There are classes referred to as “comm theory,” which include things like “interpersonal communication” and “German Cinema of the 2oth Century.”  Then there are classes lumped in a “mass comm” category, which include things like video and television production.  Mass Comm classes, students, and instructors are looked at as short-sighted and uninquisitive by comm theory-types, who are in turn seen as isolated and elitist by those out to make television rather than talk about it.

In university art departments, there is a similar division.  Undergraduate programs often have a “Professional Practices” class—typically one semester near the completion of the program—and undergraduate and graduate seminars will read books like Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah  Thornton or Julian Stallabrass’s Art Incorporated.  However, the bulk of the studio education at the university level is less concerned with making art that will do well in the market than it is with what lofty artistic ideals the student is exploring.  As I have mentioned numerous times in this blog, the kind of art that this type of instruction produces is one that relies heavily on the communication of meaning and requires some level of secondary explanation.

Sylvie Fleury, Serie ELA 75/K (Easy. Breezy. Beautiful.), 2000

The sort of ivory tower attitude of an art department or institution is directly connected to how we think about great art as presented by the canon.  A great example of the notion of placing art apart from other things and therefore beholden only to itself is found in the writings of Clement Greenberg, though defining art as something above the need of everyday use or justification goes back much, much further.  It is also not something that is solely seen in art schools.  Museums, auction houses, and galleries all operate on the idea that the value of art is in the art itself–that something as worldly and mundane as monetary value or even aesthetic justification is below the aura of “Art” that is embodied by the work itself.  The works are beyond money and are therefore priceless.

As ubiquitous as this attitude about the value of art is, it is perpetually undermined by the fact that artworks have prices.  They are commodities to be bought and sold and to appreciate and depreciate in taxable, monetary value.  What drives those prices, and what causes a given artwork to sell or not sell, has less to do with meaning or craftsmanship than we might like to believe.  Who the artist is, how famous they are, what museums and galleries have shown their work, who owns other works by that artist, and how much those works have been sold for on the secondary market (at auctions) are all factors that go into the decision to purchase big-name art objects as well as the works of lesser-known artists from local galleries in, say, Portland or Boise.  Other, less glamorous factors go into the decision to purchase as well:  the color scheme matching decor of the room in which it will be displayed, the size of the work (how will it be brought into the building?  does it fit over the couch?), and, just as often, the illogical whim of the purchaser.  I knew a woman at a gallery who worked tirelessly to sell work to a client.  She called him in to show paintings that were or weren’t on display, she took artwork to his house and even loaned it over weekends to give the client an idea of what it would be like to live with the work, and made countless follow-up phone calls to try to find out what he was after and get him to buy something, all to no avail.  One day, he walked into the gallery, saw a painting on the wall just inside the front door and said, “I’ll take it.”  There was no investigation of color scheme, no measurements for wall placement, no deep pondering of the meaning behind the work or what kind of philanthropic endeavors the artist may have been involved in.  The client saw what he liked, so he bought it.

The fact is that art is purchased just like any other luxury commodity, with the same factors going into the decision—convenience, status, and personal taste.  What is surprising is how often these purchases are impulse-buys, just like deciding to get that candy bar on the rack right next to the check-out counter at the grocery store.  The gallery opening may be as much hype as it is sales push, but sales at openings are necessary to convince clients afterward about the desirability of the work on display.  And sales at gallery openings are typically impulse buys—the purchaser has likely not seen the work before, so any reasoned decision that takes time would be ultimately impossible.  Plus, there’s a reason gallery openings provide complementary beer or wine.  If you’re buzzed, the art is that much better, and the decision to buy it is that much easier.

Even Julian Schnabel's work is good when you've had a few.

There are few businesses that can operate entirely, or even predominantly, on impulse buys.  The convenience store is one example.  However, convenience store items are not very expensive, and the high-volume that results from the low price-point keeps the business above water.  While artworks can be said to be impulse purchases, they are limited in number and priced high as a result.  Depending on the market and the economic climate, traditional galleries can have a pretty tough go of things when sales dry up.  Some simply close down, while others may operate out of the proprietor’s home to save on rent costs for a storefront space, others get rid of staff and hold fewer events.

Other galleries, especially those featuring work of emerging or fringe artists, are staying in business because they are not focusing solely on art.  A convenience store doesn’t sell only one item.  If it just sold candy bars, their only income would be from people seeking candy bars.  But they also sell soda and chips, so the person seeking soda might say, “Hey, I also want a candy bar now that I see that delicious Almond Joy on that display.”  Or perhaps the candy bar-seeker might say, “I just realized I am also thirsty—this Coca-Cola will be a perfect addition to my Abba Zabba!”  In any given city, there are at least one or two businesses that aren’t traditional galleries that show and sell art—almost as a side business.  From coffee shops to martini bars to concert venues and custom clothing shops, these business may not sell all that much in the wa of art, but their existence–and the inclusion of art in their offerings—provides a venue in which the art can actually be viewed.  This is valuable real estate that can be near-impossible for an emerging artist to attain.  And if that artist can’t get into the market, they can’t sell anything, and if they can’t sell anything, the factors that can increase visibility and prices remain out of reach.

Visual Arts Collective (VaC) is a gallery in Boise.  Its real source of income is the beer that is sold at the concerts, plays, and other events held in its large space.  It also shows artwork—particularly artwork that you would be hard-pressed to find in a more traditional, upscale gallery.  The work of local graffiti artists, illustrators, mixed-media sculptor-photographers, and even performance artists is given a place to be seen in VaC.  While VaC may not sell out a given exhibition, or even sell many of the works at all, it can remain open because it is not reliant on art sales.  Likewise, because the clientele are often not there with the intention of viewing artwork, the art reaches a new audience and potentially a new market.

The creation of art may still be linked to a complex (and often convoluted) communication of meaning, but as long as art is made as something based in an object to be sold, the business of commodity will always be a part of its impact.  For artist and art consumers on the outside of the “Art World” bubble, diversity of marketing may be the best way to increase awareness, sales, and even prices.  Boise, Idaho has places like Visual Arts Collective on the front lines for these artists.  Find the ones in your city.  You might just get excited enough to buy something.

Visual Arts Collective is holding an exhibition opening tonight, featuring the artwork of Kelly Packer and Nathan Dang.  Doors open at 7, and you must be 21 or over to attend (I just told you they exist by selling beer!).

Visual Arts Collective, 3638 Osage, Garden City, Idaho; (208) 424-879

VaC Website




One response

2 09 2011
contemporary art

Good info. I reached on your website by accident, so thanks.

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