Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Secret to Success in the World of Fine Art

It's not that hard. There's a formula. There's money in it. You should try it!

Before my verbosity overtakes me, I should reduce the requirements to a list:

  1. Use noble materials;
  2. Observe the rules of academic technique;
  3. Come to the enterprise with a natural sociability (Your actual personality may be dark or light, but you must be under tight emotional control at all times and able to carefully monitor the content of your speech and the expression on your face. People are taking pictures! Also control your body-language.);
  4. Live in a big city, and ruthlessly meet and schmooz all of the important people in the local art community. Keep files; memorize them. Patrons of the arts; university professors in art related disciplines; gallery owners; society matrons; writers; collectors; critics; Chamber of Commerce types; journalists; anyone who is wealthy, or whose family was once wealthy; Masons; politicians; other artists; craftsmen; retailers; everybody;
  5. You must have a style that is immediately recognizable. There must be a narrative element, but too much narrative is not ideal. Just a hint of what may be happening in the shadow world of your art, whether it is a painting or a sculpture or what have you. Is that diagonal a stairway? Is that rectangle a window? Is that grass? Is that a cow? Leave a lot of mystery in it. All colors must be dark, but not muddy. Nothing is merely “brown,” or “gray.” But the colors must be very high on the hue and value charts. High-yellow, high-blue, high-red. So dark that they carry only a hint of their actual identity, but real colors just the same. There are formulas for such things. Those are among your “academic techniques”;
  6. Your art must be BIG. People like big things, and they will pay more for big things. A couple of meters by a few meters, anyway;
  7. Have no noticeable taste in art yourself. Speak of other artists work only in the most general terms. Change the subject. Tell personal anecdotes. Never let anyone pin you down about anything.

None of this will be easy, but with a detailed and closely observed plan based upon the above rules you could potentially earn enough money to actually be secure in this crazy new world of ours. As of 2018 I put the buy-in at about fifteen to twenty million dollars of bank, plus a couple of properties in your own name. A really hip studio with a cool address and a gourmet kitchen is a must, but you don't have to live there. Have a family if you must, but ensure that they will all join you in adherence to the plan.

At all costs, you must avoid following your personal interest in the art that you practice. I recently pointed out on this blog that Van Gogh painted for the sheer pleasure of it. He followed his vision, and where did it get him? He didn’t make a nickel on his art. It's the age old story.

During the 1960s we were all music fans and there was a lot of great music around. Most of my friends were quick to name the “best” guitar players, or even to identify the single greatest guitar player of them all. Those were heated debates. I would patiently point out to them that almost certainly the best guitar players were guys that we had never heard of, guys that perhaps no one had ever heard of. Guys that just practiced alone in their parents garages. One night I was driving a cab in Manhattan and listening to WWRL on a small radio that was lying on the seat next to me. They played a song that I had never heard before, and never heard again. I didn't catch the artists name. The guitarist on the cut was, forgive me for using a much overused word, amazing. He was like some guitar equivalent of Art Tatum on the piano. Put him on stage with any of the famous names and he would cut them to ribbons. It was like a science fiction blues record. It was, I think, a regional record being played in New York only because the disk jockey liked it. I never heard that guitarist again. The great unknowns are out there.

In the music world it takes much more than talent to make a living. It takes luck, and interpersonal skills, and good looks, and brains, and connections. The fine art world follows that same pattern. The financially successful fine artists whose names we know have all followed the rules outlined above. So, in fact, had all of the famously great guitarists of the 1960s. Following your dream is the death of making a living.

I visited a law client at his home one time (it was on my way; I saved him a trip to my office). He lived with his mother, who was a clinically observed lunatic who also happened to be a classically trained painter. She had been trained at a university in South America. The apartment was filled with her paintings, which were all quite spectacular, if a bit odd. The walls were full of them, and they were stacked everywhere. Every one of them had a narrative, there wasn’t an abstract painting in the bunch, or even an impressionist. Every painting was done in real oil paints on properly stretched canvases. My undergraduate degree is in Art History, and to my eyes these paintings were museum quality, worthy of cataloging and further study. She favored reds, and her subject matter may have been religious or allegorical, the iconography was obscure. She was an accurate draftsman though, and every person or object was perfectly modeled. All perspectives were rendered with academic precision. I almost asked to buy several, but I didn't want to intrude on the woman's lunatic solitude. She didn’t make a nickel on those paintings; she was further out of the circle than poor Vincent. I may be the only non-relative who ever saw those paintings. The dust-bins of the world are full of lost art. Some people make the art just to keep busy.

But this plan that I propose, I have seen it work. I have known a successful artist or two well enough to get invited to their studios. They were successful, and my observation of their strategies gave me the basis for this plan. I've also known a lot of craftsmen, many unsuccessful artists, and many members of the groups listed as “important people in the local art community.” I have not pulled this plan out of the air; it is based on observation.

Let's see, what needs clarification?

By noble materials I mean media that will withstand the ravages of time without quickly fading or losing their character color-wise. Don't be fooling around with tempera or acrylics. Nothing on paper, you could hardly sell it unless you were already very famous and rich. No pastels or chalk, they'll look different tomorrow than they do today. Stick with real oil-based paints, and apply them to properly prepared and stretched canvases. If you are working at the proper scale, which is to say something like four by seven meters, you may need help with the preparation of the canvases.

As you are beginning to accumulate some work product, you must begin a social whirl that will last you for the rest of your life. You will be out and about, meeting people and talking about the art business, at least three to five evenings every week. Here you will begin working on your lists and your files. You must remember everything about everyone that you meet, so that when you see them again, you can immediately say, “hello, Michael! How did that trip to Florence work out?” Or, “Joyce! How nice to see you again! How is that manuscript going? I'm looking forward to reading it!” You must have eyes and ears everywhere. If some important art professor's child suffers an unanticipated death, you must appear unbidden at the funeral and be appropriately subdued. Things like that are critically important.

Much more important, in fact, than the artistic quality of your output. That must only be consistent, and marketable.

Good luck! And look for the bright side. Art is much more susceptible to this scientific approach than music is. Music is the toughest gig in the show business. Art is a piece of cake compared to music.

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