October 5, 2010

The Price of Art

        Putting a price on art is such a complicated question that there are no complete answers.  However, as I gear up for a sale in ten days, I thought it might be interesting to bring up a few of the issues I think about, and lay them out for people to consider.
        First of all, there's the basic capitalist idea of supply and demand.  One could argue that the right price for any piece of art is "as much as the market will bear."  This allows some pieces of art to cost millions of dollars while other pieces are essentially worthless.  There are general rules of thumb that multiples are cheaper than singles, works on paper are cheaper than paintings and sculptures, and works by living artists are cheaper than works by dead artists.  But pretty much every other factor is trumped by Name.  Art by a Big Name costs more than art by a No Name.  And who's a Big Name?  It has something to do with some intrinsic and objective level of quality, but since art is so subjective it probably has a lot more to do with marketing and fashion.  Basic economic factors.
Everyone from Old King Cole to his bowl-bearer should
be able to enjoy great art.
        It seems to me, however, that if I'm going to claim that Art is something special, all about making the world a better place, then it can't be treated exactly like a pair of white socks or a spiral notebook, or any other unemotional commodity (not that those don't make the world a better place, too.)  First of all, any given piece of art is unique.  If you don't have a lot of money to buy socks, you can shop around for the cheapest pair, because there are plenty of socks in this world, and lots and lots of them are white.  If you have too much money to spend you can buy silk and cashmere socks or something, but either way you still get a pair of white socks.  Art is different.  One piece doesn't substitute for another, which is why fifty artists at an Open Studios show aren't competing with each other in the same way that fifty sock vendors would be.  None of the other artists is offering exactly the same artwork I am, and I'm not offering theirs.  Basically, if  someone comes to the sale ready to buy art and loves my block prints, they'll buy from me.  If not, they won't.  So I don't try to copy someone else's successful formula.  (Admittedly, I might make more money if I did.  Marketing has never been my strong suit.  But where would be the joy in playing wannabe?  I might as well be working at a sock factory.)
        The main force that ought to push the price of art higher is simply the time it takes to craft individual items by hand.  If you add up all the time spent on a piece, including planning, sketching, carving, printing, clean-up, matting, packaging, and selling… multiply by a decent hourly wage, and then add the cost of materials plus entry fees for shows and such, you can see why original art has to cost more than a poster at Target. 
        On the other hand, I do believe that there's also a force that should keep the cost of art from getting ridiculously high.  I believe that art is for everyone, not just a privileged few wealthy patrons.  I feel quite strongly that everyone ought to be able to have access to genuine original art, both in museums (which should not charge $2o for admission so that only the rich can afford to go!  Yes, I'm talking to you, Boston MFA!) as well as owning pieces of their own.  For that reason I make a point of keeping my own prices pretty low.  I acknowledge that my high-faluting ideals are a luxury that I can afford because D's job pays the mortgage and my art sales aren't needed to put food on the table.  I know that things can look different to my friends whose art is their primary source of income.  I wouldn't want to undercut their prices (although I'm not so worried about that because after all, we aren't all selling white socks) and nor do I want to charge so little that I don't make a fair wage myself.  Still, I make a point of having some very small, inexpensive pieces among my offerings.  And I'm pretty confident that genuine Nydams are never going to be up at auction for millions of dollars, so I don't have to worry that my democratic ideals will be assaulted that way!
         So, in conclusion, it's hard to put a price on art because
a) it's hard to compare pieces when no two are alike
b) I make art because I love making art, not because I love running a business
c) I want to have my time and effort sufficiently valued, but
d) I don't believe I should be making a luxury only for the rich.
        It's a lot to think about.  In fact, maybe I'd rather forget it all for now and just go enjoy some art instead.

[Picture: Old King Cole, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001.]


Anonymous said...

I agree -- there is more than virtue in enabling ordinary people to have access to quality art at reasonable prices. In a way, this is one of the reasons why we seem (or some societies) seem to put a premium on public art. At least the ordinary bloke can be exposed to good stuff.

Another aspect of this is, do people actually think they have a better piece of art on their wall because they paid more for it? In this era of commodification, we invariably think more expensive is better. Whether it is a car or a show or a print or a college for their kids, money talks. Pride has a price as well. How can we deal with that sad side-bar to the capitalist game?
Aging wordsmith

Nan said...

And, too, much expensive art is collected as an investment, not as art. It might as well be condos or stocks--things to resell when the time is right, not to enjoy for the love of them.
At least the MFA has one free night every week and the public libraries offer free tickets to borrow--it's not much help, though, given the size of the institution.