While I spend a great deal of time and effort in this blog proclaiming the values of thinking about art as an integral part of everyday life, I am well aware that the products of art are commodities and if a person is going to live an “everyday life” as an artist, that person is going to need to have some level of monetary success result from those commodities. Like anything else, art has real, monetary value—despite the notion that works of art are “priceless.”
However, artists trained in the Modernist mindset to make art for art’s sake inevitably have some level of resistance to looking at art as a business. Like the relationship between art and society, each decision that an artist makes about his art—how to create it, how to display it, and how to (or not to) profit from it—is also the artwork.
I have written about the danger in thinking about art as something that exists outside of society. In doing so, we are thinking about art as something that is not essential, trivial, and easy to marginalize. If we expect to make our living as artists, we need to present what we do as something that is both necessary and of monetary value. Nobody questions Apple for charging money for iPods. It has presented the product to us as a valuable and necessary part of our lives, and we are prepared to pay handily for it.
Charge money for your art. In The Dark Knight, the Joker says something to the effect of, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Don’t give away your artwork, don’t hold events that ask for nothing at the door. Your work is important and the person who is consuming it should be prepared to compensate you for your time, effort, and skill.
Of course, market forces apply here. You may not be able to charge $1.5 million for a painting just because you feel like it’s worth that. A poet’s chapbook is not going to sell for much more than five dollars, and you won’t be able to charge $45 at the door for a rock show in a dive bar unless your name is Mick Jagger. But $5 is $5, and art patrons need to get used to the idea that art is something that costs real money so it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to have their tax dollars go to the NEA to support artists.
The road goes both ways. As an artist, spend money on art. Pony up the $5 to see your friend’s open mic performance, even if they say they’ll get you in for free. Put a couple bucks in the donation jar as it’s passed around, even if you’re performing and trying to win some of that money back at a slam. Buy (don’t trade) the work of other artists; even your friends, even if it’s expensive. This is how economies work. If cash isn’t circulating, it isn’t doing anybody any good.
If you are charging money for an artwork or for an event, present it like it is worth money. Hang your artwork properly. Make sure it is lit well, that the wall is relatively blemish-free, that the painting is dry (even though people aren’t supposed to touch the art, they touch the art—don’t give away souveniers of paint on fingers). If you are producing a performance event, make sure your PA system is set up and working before the doors open, have the chairs arranged how you want them… START THE EVENT ON TIME. If you want people to value your work, you should value their time. Respect your audience.
Patrons aren’t the only people involved in an art event. There are also other artists, venue owners, and journalists if you’re lucky. Treat these people with respect as well. Buy a drink from the bar. If the bartender buys it for you, leave the bartender a tip. Look at and discuss the work with the other artists in your exhibition. Stay for and listen to other performers in your event, even if you go first. Especially if you go first. If you are a performer, leaving a concert, open mic, poetry slam, or play in which you are involved before it is over is the height of rudeness. (Of course there are exceptions, but at the very least you should explain why you are leaving to an organizer and apologize—even if you don’t mean it).
By making a livelihood out of being an artist, you are positioning yourself as a professional. Act like one. Professionals don’t have to be boring, they don’t have to be stuffy, they don’t have to be snobs and wear cravats. A professional conducts himself with the same respect for others that he expects from them.