Giving the public what it wants only perpetuates the abuse of artists

I read a post by an arts administrator the other day and was disappointed by how art was being taken almost entirely as “serving the public”. Its as if art is only defined by what it does for an audience and not what motivated artists to make it. You can perhaps see where this ties in to my previous essay about people glibly dismissing ‘starving artists’. Artists have their own idiosyncratic motivations. Dismissing that is a mistake. Too many people assume art has some function in society and that the concerns of artists are themselves insignificant. Is that what you think?

You can read the post here. Two other artists spoke up in before I took it upon myself to offer a different point of view. This is what I said:


It is revealing that Richard and Scott both chimed in to suggest that the audience focus of your essay was in some way a problem. Not wrong, necessarily, but lacking. They are both artists, after all, and when someone talks about art and leaves the artist hung out to dry its a real question what was missing. How can we talk about art and NOT consider what artists themselves think? How can we talk about the power of art and NOT talk about what motivates artists or WHY artists make art in the first place?

Are artists simply pawns in a larger game, or are they sometimes forced to play a game despite their own intentions? Do they have different motivations that are NOT aligned with serving the public? Is there a conflict between what art does in the public and why there is any art at all to begin with? Why do we make art? Why is there art?

A big question is this: Is art extrinsically motivated or is it intrinsically motivated? If extrinsic, then serving the ends of public goods may be all that matters. Art is a means, of entertainment etc. We can dispense with the artist’s own eccentric ideals and, perhaps, even the artists themselves. An artificial intelligence calibrated to public goods might be the art we prefer. Do we even need human artists? If machines made art would that satisfy us better? If serving the public were all that mattered, these might be serious questions.

In so many discussions it seems artists are the unspoken and neglected factor in art. By treating art as extrinsic artists themselves are forgotten. They are the humans we DON’T want to acknowledge. They are separate from the human public. We talk about art as being what art does FOR the public. Which is like talking about food as simply what it does for the people eating. You have a Hamburger and the point is that someone gets to eat it. But what of the cow that died to give us that burger? What were its dreams and intentions?

We think of art like we think of food: The consumer needs take exclusive precedence. The burger is simply what we consume. And art becomes more about consumption than who did what to get it to your table. Artists are like the cow that gets sacrificed for our meal. And until we respect artists and what their own motivations are we will continue sacrificing them to feed an insatiable appetite of the consumer. Is this right?

I don’t think so, and neither do most artists. STOP BEING A MINDLESS CONSUMER! If art matters to the public can it matter any less to the artists who devote their lives to producing it? To not even consider artists in the equation is inexcusable.

Why would artists support a public vision for art when they end up so inevitably and casually roasted over the fire? There are all these impressive claims for the value of art to the public, and yet artists themselves are devalued. They are removed from the point of view. Hidden under the rug. You want your art, but you don’t want the artists who made it. You don’t care about the artists, you care about the art.

Artists are treated like servants in a big house. “Do your job and don’t interfere. Don’t do anything to get noticed, but make sure the toilets are cleaned and the clothes are washed.” Results are all that matter. Some people want artists to be unseen, merely inconvenient necessities for the production of art. Who actually wants to know how the sausage gets made? If they could actually have art without the artists they think the world would be more perfect. Artists matter so little besides the public good that art does. Artists entertain like gladiators sent out to their death in the Colosseum. The spectacle is what matters.

But artists are not servants, not thralls, not slaves to your desires. When you say “To embrace a responsibility to entertain is not a denial of the desire to be visionary, provocative or profound – but of some recognition that even at that great height, there must exist something for an audience to enjoy” you are confusing the cart and the horse. A responsibility to entertain? Oh My God! There is a happy coincidence when art and the public find common ground, but to portray the PURPOSE of art as entertainment is to employ the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, namely that what follows from was therefore caused by. It imputes an intentionality that simply may not and usually doesn’t exist.

Entertainment may matter to YOU and to much of the audience, but don’t assume that artists are necessarily motivated by pleasing you. The audience enjoyment is NOT why most artists make art. They serve ART, they don’t serve you. They serve their own art. And if you really respected art you might better appreciate the artists who make it. They are more than your servants. They are human beings with their own intentions and own values. Stop sacrificing artists to the belief that their art is merely there to entertain you, that they are only valuable to the extent that they provide “something for an audience to enjoy.” Basic human dignity requires more from us than that…… Treat artists as people first, not as your servants.

Sermon over


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition | 1 Comment

‘Curing’ starving artists

Written in response to yet another marketing and business solution to the difficulty artists have in making a living.


When you describe something as needing a cure you have already accepted that there is a problem. I understand the sense in which you are claiming it, that IF a person is attempting to make a living there are things which can obstruct this. The problem, what I am accepting as a problem, is that for many people making a living from art is not a simple issue, and that some aspects of it are fundamentally conflicting.

It is not simply the case that being an artist is like other jobs. For some it obviously is. But for many others we make art specifically to bring certain things forward in the world, and getting paid to do so is not always easily reconciled with fidelity to one’s artistic vision. There is an inherent contradiction between doing what you want to do and doing something that others want from you.

Not that they can’t sometimes align, merely that they are not the same thing necessarily and following one path can lead us farther away from the other. Its the difference between being intrinsically motivated and extrinsically motivated. When we do something because its the right thing to do in itself, as making art is for many of us, then its a different proposition from doing something for the sake of an audience. Expressing one’s self is NOT the same as communicating.

“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”
-John Berger

If its a problem reconciling these two points of view, then assuming it gets solved through marketing and business sense is both naive and misleading. It assumes, for one, that the problem is solved on the side of the extrinsic connection to the audience. The people for whom the disconnect between making art and selling art is most evident often care much less about the selling part and are more focused on making what they believe to be the intrinsic mission of their creative lives. They may not want to be starving, but they DO want to make the art they make.

A dislike of starving is not even related to an artist’s motivation except circumstantially. They do not even scale together except by coincidence. And so when you say, “success was largely dependent on how successful those (business & marketing) areas were doing and not so much their abilities as an artist” you have spelled out precisely why the extrinsic factors are so repugnant. Some people would rather be the artist they understand themselves to be than ‘successful’.

To the extent that we actually care about being the best we can be as artists, and knowing that ‘success’ may have nothing to do with that, is it any wonder that many artists would prefer to be ‘starving’ than sell themselves out for the occasional crusts of bread? The less time spent perfecting your artistic craft the more you indicate a conflicting priority, and the less entitled you are to even claim your art as a priority. You can’t magically do both well at once. You can’t necessarily have your cake and eat it too.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are fundamentally at odds. And as such, to the extent this conflict is seen as a problem it is a psychological problem. We feel the tension. We are pulled in two opposing ways, a sort of schizophrenia of ideals. And if this is a problem, perhaps we need to understand that the ‘cure’ may just be worse than the disease. Proposing clumsy solutions is not answering the problem. There may be no cure if the two ideals cannot be reconciled without unacceptable damage. Sometimes, even, the proposed ‘cure’ is death. You have to die as an artist to be reborn with a successful career.

Death to the Starving Artist Cover

“marketing expert and author Nikolas Allen aims to kill this outmoded paradigm once and for all. In the book, Allen guides readers through a proprietary model of using the Right Tools to reach the Right Audience with the Right Message in an effort to educate, encourage and inspire ambitious artists with ideas, insights, and resources that will empower them to succeed in their creative field.”

I found this book cover in a search of images for ‘starving artist’. Disgusting and self serving, isn’t it? The title might as well have been “How to prostitute yourself as an artist”. Anyone who says there is something wrong with you for being a ‘starving artist’ understands very well what it means to be ‘successful’ but does not understand what it means to be an artist.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition | 4 Comments

The Darwinian fate of Dreams, redux

My blog just blew up yesterday as someone shared an essay written some 4 years ago. Thanks whoever you are! Its a good essay about the precarious lives creative people have, written after my worst ever sale. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t. You can find it at:

In response to the many comments I received after I first posted this I had to think through what it means to follow one’s dreams. What are dreams and why should we follow them? Some commenters felt that dreaming gets us into trouble, and that its more important to be practical minded and sober than wishfully intoxicated. Some dreams are not fit for this world and need to be killed before too much time is wasted on them. But is that right?

Here is what I said:

Dreaming, like any other ability or talent, needs nurturing and training. And sometimes we have to give up one dream to pursue another. So even failed dreams can be the compost for new dreams to find nourishment. And sometimes the plant is made healthier by cutting away dead or failing branches. And sometimes it just takes too much water to sustain a plant that was damaged from birth, and never will survive. Sometimes its best to cut life support. Sometimes a dream is just not fit for our world….

But then sometimes its also important to let a dream have its day in the sun despite all that. Sometimes its important to feed that dream despite knowing that it won’t go anywhere. Sometimes the point of a dream isn’t how much it leads us into the future, but what it is right here and right now. Sometimes a dream needs to be respected just for having been dreamed. “This is MY soul speaking” says the artist. And who is right to tell her that the dream she is dreaming is wrong?

If the world is not set up to support that dream is there something necessarily wrong with the dream? Maybe instead there is something wrong with the world that does not support it. Isn’t the point of dreams that they are not the world? That they are something different? Something new? Aren’t dreams born into this world as a sometimes violent tear in the fabric of reality? By their very nature, dreams are not of this world. So how can the world’s support ever be a measure of the ‘fitness’ of the dream?

But we can also make the world more like our dream. Isn’t the point of dreams that we can sometimes follow them and change the world? That we CAN make it different? Isn’t following a dream this magical opportunity to imagine something different? And if it is simply being measured against the status quo, what dream would ever pass muster? Don’t dreams succeed precisely because they DO change things? That the world now IS a different place?

Isn’t it also right to dream the seemingly impossible? To challenge ourselves beyond our known limits? To find new limits in previously undiscovered territory? Don’t we have to deny playing it safe just to have these dreams? Is that wrong? Are only the easy births worth supporting?

If we make it a Darwinian scenario aren’t we just saying that only the easy dreams get to survive? That its the luck of the draw that there are are doctors and a support team to gentle the newborn infant into its swaddling clothes? And that dreams born into a war zone, or born into poverty, are just out of luck? That they are right to die off? That their fitness for the world was that they were born into poverty and strife?

That just seems wrong to me. And if that is the case, then we can’t afford to measure our dreams simply by which of them survive long into this world. That makes it an accident of history whether something makes it or fails. Do we truly wish to measure dreams on those terms? If Michael Simon’s pots had never reached an audience, if YOU and I had never gotten to see them, would his dreams of beauty and function have been wrong? Would they have been unfit simply because there was no one at that time and place who could appreciate them? Are we saying that the tree never made a noise because it fell in a forest where no one could hear it?

And how much beauty is still out there languishing for lack of opportunity? For lack of an appreciative audience? How many dreams get squashed simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time? The validity of a dream simply cannot be measured by the contingent circumstances of how well it survives in the world. Sometimes the measure is how well it survives despite the world it is born into. Just ask van Gogh…..

Sure, some dreams can make a bigger difference, and some dreams don’t make any ripples at all. We tend to notice the ones that DO survive and change things. But do we only celebrate the dreams that shake mountains? Do we only praise the dreams that get born in fancy hospitals to wealthy parents? Or are adopted by privileged families? Is that the real test? The dreams that through worldly Darwinian contingency DO have an effect on the world at large? Are the dreams of the quiet hermit on the lonely mountain top any less worth dreaming?

It is the ability to make dreams real that ends up getting celebrated instead, if we put all our marbles in a Darwinian sorting matrix. Do we want to only recognize dreams of the people in positions of worldly power, where its simply easier to make dreams come true? Isn’t a dream its own integral value no matter who is dreaming it? No matter where its born and into what circumstances?

Isn’t predicting the potential efficacy of a dream in the world in a sense like trying to measure how well a car will run based on the color it was painted?

Don’t all sorts of other things have to line up for one dream to survive and for another not to? And yet, the fitness of the dream is in question, not the fitness of the circumstances it was born into. Does that make sense? A child born into poverty starts out with incredible disadvantages, and if that child gets pulled down how can we in good conscience put all the blame on that child? Is the way the world actually is the best sorter for which dreams make it and which do not? 

And isn’t THAT the point of dreaming in the first place? That there is more to value than simply what is? That we can escape the inequity of our circumstances? If only we dream big enough. And if only the hand of Darwinism isn’t there to slap us down.


Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

Truth and meaning

“There’s a fire backstage, the clown comes out to warn the audience. Laughter and applause. They think it’s a joke! The clown repeats his warning. The fire grows hotter; the applause grows louder. That’s how the world will end,” Wittgenstein says, “to general applause, from halfwits who think it’s a joke.” Wittgenstein Jr, by Lars Iyer

Human life often seems a contest between truth and meaning, and the perception can be that truth best mirrors reality, and that truth therefor should guide us. The house IS on fire, and the joke is on us if we think this is funny…..

One problem seems to be that we are too impressed by the messenger and not the message. The clown makes us laugh, even when he is being deadly earnest. Clowns mean something in human contexts. We take them not as oracles of truth but as cavorting funnymen. To say a person is a clown or is being clownish is to distance them from the stark realities of truth. Capering distraction rather than wisdom and knowledge. Clowns are there to make us laugh, not think deeply or seriously.

So who is there to aim us at the truth? Who is the spokesperson for truth? Who tells us the world as it really is? Whose job is it to cultivate and protect truth from the clowns and their audience?

Because the interesting thing is that it takes effort to get to the truth, and that effort is not often ordinary and its not often compulsory. But this goes beyond our being too lazy for the truth. We don’t just see things as they are. Its not that simple. We have opinions about what we see.

Maybe sometimes those opinions serve us well. Mostly they are merely good enough for us to proceed with what we’re doing. Culture, it has to be said, is often a collection of opinions that are good enough to carry our lives forward. It doesn’t need to be true to be believed. The fire backstage only matters if we didn’t find the exit in time. Our lives are filled with threats that sheer dumb luck has spared us. We only need to be just smart enough to survive long enough to get the next generation on its feet.

Culture is the big safety net of practices that does this, and only in rare situations does reality matter so much that our cultural hacks need to depend on truth. Life goes on. Opinions proliferate. Meaning has a casual relation to truth, not causal. Sometimes, even, our lives unfold in meaningless ways. We ignore meaning sometimes as often as we ignore truth.

But to the extent that our lives describe some purpose, that what we do matters, we are surrounded by meaning. And maybe the difficult thing to remember is that as long as we are content with our present lot the search for something better, or merely different, won’t drive us. Aspirations are not facts, they are the meaning we guide our lives by. The search for truth itself first had to be meaningful and sometimes, sadly, we just don’t know any better.

And somehow humanity survives all our collective and individual stupidity. Or it has so far. Meaning often matters more to the people believing things than does a direct fitness with truth. Error doesn’t always impress us with consequences. Our enthusiasm often makes us clumsy. This is why the truthfulness of facts is a perpetual victim to distortion by our values. We care less about the truth than what things mean to us. We take what they mean to be the truth. Our truth.

Its not always an issue of fitting the facts. Meaning is often a level beyond fitness. Meaning typically only threatens survival in ‘small’ or personal doses, though nuclear holocaust, genocide and racism, and global warming are human inventions that have far profounder effects. The rest we seem able to muddle through as a species. The friction between meaning and fact generally happens on a less universal scale……

But maybe there is also progress. If we compare the modern foothold on truth with that achieved by our ancestors we can see the many advances toward greater understanding of truths, some as part of the wider culture but many sectioned off into esoteric specialized and ‘scientific’ fields of knowledge. Racism, for instance, is NOT supported by valid insight. Peeling away layers of untruth requires constant vigilance. The truth, it turns out, is mostly a matter of discipline, both personal and institutional. Some truths seem to depend on our collective efforts.

“Real people, not actors” Chevrolet

Somehow we have the sense that actors are not ‘real people’, that they are false people. They are fakes. They put on a mask and become someone else. They are the representation of something besides the truth. Acting is not truth. Whatever the message, the messenger spoils it. The clown warning us about the fire is met with gales of laughter. We are in the position of seeing the truth only when we think it comes from a truthful source. But the problem is that we all wear masks, we all have agendas. Just ask climate change deniers. The truth is a casualty of our willingness to believe not just the independent truth.

Ordinary human life tolerates the truth, it seems, but is not truth’s best home. Ordinary human life is filled with clowns and politicians, oracles and supplicants, merchants and consumers. People whose destiny far transcends anything as basic as truth. Ordinary life has to stop and pay attention for truth to even matter. Because truth is the exception, not the rule. And most things we ordinarily take as evidence and therefor evidence of truth are at best matters of fitness with the world. Because meaning fits the facts every bit as well as the truth does. It can even be argued that any human assessment of ‘reality’ is itself a fiction:

The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction. The mathematical physicist Chetan Prakash proved a theorem that I devised that says: According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never.

And so we don’t. Human nature exists to provide meaning in our lives, not truth. Our success in the world, our fitness, may fundamentally derive from what the world means to us rather than access to the world independent of us. That is an important distinction to make.

I won’t argue that the truth therefor doesn’t matter or that it shouldn’t matter. The need for good science and truth only increases with our cultural evolution. Instead what I’d like to see more of is an acknowledgment that meaning is a fundamental standpoint of human activity in the world. If we can be honest about that we get to place meaning in a better context, not simply as something opposed to the truth.

The clown shouting at us might just have something important to say. Understanding that our lives are guided by meaning requires that we look deeper than face value. Our own bias intrudes. Know that. In a multicultural world this should be obvious now. The clown wears the face paint and silly wig, but has every human capacity for meaning and knowing that the rest of us do. Actors, it turns out, are real people too. Its just that real people are the best most inevitable actors we’ve got.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts” Jaques to Duke Senior, As You Like It, act II, scene VII

What we take the world to be matters. Meaning matters. Truth matters. Our fitness with brute reality matters, but often precisely in terms of what it means to us. Meaning is a lot bigger than truth. Or different, at least. Sometimes the truth is much bigger than anything we believe. But would there be anything we might describe as human life in the absence of meaning? The search for truth cannot be conducted as though meaning were not a fundamental aspect of our project or our own prosaic nature.

Things to think about, at least…..

Peace all!

Make beauty real!



Posted in Art, Beauty, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

More like Shakespeare

I was imagining that some folks who actually do well selling art would take my last post as an indictment of how they got there. The post had some general observations and conclusions that could be applied widely, but as far as the specifics this was a post about my friend and the comparison made to that one other artist. I understand that this may not have been obvious, and I’m glad at least one person asked me to clarify some things.

Denise asks:

“You’ve got me worried now that I’m just producing trashy eye candy which has curb appeal because I usually do well at Artisan markets and craft fairs. I like my work and have never felt I’ve just left the bar low but now I’m worried that is the case. I want to produce good work that can be taken seriously but I also want to sell to the mainstream. Are you saying I can’t do both?”

You should never apologize for doing well or being popular. And it is NOT the case that quality and popularity are mutually exclusive. Its just that the quality may go unrecognized in favor of more accessible things. Popularity is not a sign of quality, though sometimes we take it as such. And it is not often the case that we are popular because of quality. Curb appeal does not mean an absence of quality, just that quality is not necessary for it being liked.

Of course some artists DO sell out and give the public exactly what it likes and nothing more. But many popular artists attempt to raise the bar as well, to challenge the audience to seek more. Unfortunately curb appeal is sometimes distracting enough that quality flies under the radar. So this is a good question: Can you be challenging at the same time as appealing? I think it IS possible, but maybe its a difficult thing to pull off. It is also a question whether different audiences get the same thing out of this work. Quality work that appeals to the masses may still only be entertaining for the majority, and nothing besides…..

Remember, the audience getting what they get is NOT a reflection on your own attempts to raise the bar. Its just that if you give them something easy to like they may quit there and not look at the more difficult things you are expressing. That is not your fault. Some will get it, its just that most will probably not.

And that’s okay, I think. There has to be a place for ALL of this. The things that are not easy to like just remove the perch for a lazy audience. For the most part the audience gets out of it what they put into it, and an accessible format broadens the scope. I think that may be important. Weren’t the plays Shakespeare put on designed for mass entertainment as well as being the very best in literature? Entertaining but also something much more? If we ourselves aim this high we may not have the skill of Shakespeare in also appealing to the masses, but I admire those who try. I also recognize that not everyone wants to be challenged by art, and that’s okay too. Artists need to serve those people as well.

Here is an interesting question: It may also be the case that some folks are structurally incapable of seeing art as more than entertainment, which is perhaps a HUGE thing. I am sitting on an essay that explores this, maybe to be published later this week or the next. And if that is true, that some folks will never get what we do as anything more than simply eye candy, that is exactly as high as the bar goes for them. And if art only served some higher purpose and left these other people behind, if no art was made that merely or partly entertained, just what would the world look like? Could we actually live in that world? That is a real question to ask, and it seems a lot hinges on how it gets answered: What is the responsibility of artists if a huge segment of the population has a belief structure that makes art a luxury and which at best is only there to entertain us?

So I don’t think a low bar is necessarily a bad thing, it merely serves one end and not others. And what it does not serve is important in its own right. The disappointing thing is that the world view that focuses on entertainment simply has no place for these other things, and because it is so easy and accessible makes it seem at the same time that these other things simply don’t exist. And elitism on its side is equally guilty of selling a partial take on things. The view that embraces both may be the most difficult thing possible. There are not enough Shakespeares out there, perhaps. If only more of us were more like Shakespeare……

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Creative industry, metacognition | 2 Comments

How not to get crushed by a poor weekend selling art

A dear friend just had a miserable weekend not selling art work and I couldn’t sleep without writing what I understood about poor sales. This is the letter I sent my friend, but maybe it can make a difference to others as well. Maybe you have had a poor sale and need to find a way back from the crushing experience. Perhaps you know someone else who does. This is what I wrote. I hope it helps:


Hey Z,

My heart aches for you. And so I’m up at 2am of my first night free from the stresses of my own holiday sales when I was imagining I might actually sleep in for once. But I’m glad I’m up writing you because I care about you and I wanted to have something to say if I possibly could make a difference in how you feel.

It is dreadful mustering the courage to present your work to the public and then not getting any positive feedback. It is crushing leaving that experience feeling as if this were a referendum not just on your work but on you personally. And as strongly as it can feel like that I just wanted to tell you that a poor sale like this has nothing to do with you personally, your value as an artist, or the work itself.

It is hard not to compare your poor sale to the decent sale had by that other artist, but this is also a wrong comparison to make. It may seem as though you both were competing for the same dollars, that there is some qualitative scale that can be applied to you both and you just didn’t measure up, but that is false. The people buying that person’s paintings were almost certainly never in the market for your work. They were not your audience. They didn’t simply like that other artist’s work better. Odds are they didn’t understand what you had. The people who understand and like both your work AND that other artist’s work you can probably count on one hand.

So if it was either/or, the simple truth is perhaps that your audience just didn’t show up. Imagine going to a Classical Music concert and trying to sell Rap CDs. Or a Hip Hop concert trying to sell Opera….. Sometimes if not always a poor sale has everything to do with who showed up and NOT the quality of the art presented.

But a sale always feels like its a comment on your own worth as an artist. A good sale and we feel restored, a poor sale devastated. I’ve been on both sides of that. The hardest thing to remember is that its not a reflection on you or your artwork, ever, as much as its a reflection on the audience. The fact that you have work in big museums says something, and also, perhaps, that this other artist does not. While it only seems like a sale event is some sort of popularity contest and that there are winners and losers, you have to remember that there is a major difference in who is judging.

And the fact that your work is collected in museums means that it appeals to at least that specific arbiter of quality. You have to accept that this means it is probably the exact opposite of mainstream popular. You might even have to accept that work good enough for museums is chosen precisely because it manifests technical and conceptual mastery that is extraordinary. Its NOT ordinary. And therefor it also probably isn’t popular. The run of the mill person in the streets probably won’t get what you are trying to do, what you are attempting to communicate. If you were aiming for being understood you’d perhaps need to speak another language, NOT aim so high, actually aim to be understood rather than anything as complicated and accomplished as your work truly manifests. Because the divide between being understood by the majority and being understood by the ones who actually care about what you care about should never be underestimated.

People who go to museums want to be challenged. They go there because being exposed to work of that quality is uplifting and makes us see the world in new ways. And people who buy the kinds of work that museums collect are investing in that quality, whether they understand the work or not. But this is the exact opposite of who buys art at a pop up show for the holidays. People who are out shopping for the holidays want something accessible enough to give as a gift, meaning it doesn’t challenge them, or merely something that fits in their own home and goes with the furniture and the color of the walls. They are buying decoration for their home, not investing in art. They are buying eye candy not artistic quality.

The only thing you have failed to do is give them what they want, or even what they are capable of understanding. And the only mistake you made was expecting a sale like that to bring in the sorts of people who were going to buy your work in the first place. The courage you had in setting out your work was never going to be rewarded, because the people who were showing up were simply not even capable of talking your language.

So who the hell buys art anyway? The truth is that for most people art is simply a luxury and it doesn’t matter to them. If it does its only there to entertain but has no lasting value. Lets say that is half the people out there, and they would never show up for an art sale. Its either too expensive for all the good it does them or it never registers for them as an interest. They are not even tempted.

So maybe the other half of the population could potentially be interested and the question is whether they will or they won’t. This gets narrowed down to the folks for whom this particular art can appeal and those for whom it can’t. The higher you aim the fewer they will be. For some folks who might actually buy your art the issue is one of budget. They may simply not have the money to get what they like. Art is not a luxury but its too expensive. They might afford a trip to the museum every year or two, but the most they will include in their own homes is prints and work that pops up in yard sales, student sales, and other affordable venues.

Perhaps the biggest determination is whether they already buy your artwork. Imagine you are speaking a language that is so selective that only a handful of people understand it. Those are the people already familiar with your work, who care enough to understand it, and they may or may not want to own it. Buying art is not like buying cereal at the grocery: No one really needs it, unless…..

That ‘unless’ is the biggest thing to learn. No one will buy your work unless they feel it belongs in their lives, and the paths to getting them to feel that way are obstructed at every turn. The single most important way that your work belongs in someone’s life is that it already does. Its a switch that has to be flicked, and once it is in the ‘on’ position you have to fight to keep it on. When the switch is in the ‘off’ position that itself is almost proof to that person that it doesn’t belong. An absence of evidence sometimes counts as evidence. The human psychology is simply that the things which matter are the things that ALREADY matter. And putting people in that position is the single greatest challenge we face.

The people who will buy our work are almost always the people for whom it already matters, especially those who have already purchased it. The further you travel away from the eye candy of the masses the fewer people you will be speaking to. And the harder it becomes to understand what you are saying the fewer people who don’t already understand your work will be tempted to take a chance. If your art does not have curb appeal, go with the furniture, match their sofa, then the only possible way it can be valued is that it already belongs in their home.

Not all paintings are equal, but not all paintings are even paintings. Some stand apart as art in their own right, have value independent of where they are placed, and others have value only because they fit where they are. This is how art gets to matter for people.

The only conclusion you can make, and the most difficult thing to remember, is that its not about you or your art. The audience is either prepared for what we are offering or they are not. If some artists try to please the audience, appeal to more folks by lowering the bar, that may be fine for those artists, but their success is no measure of our own. It has no reflection on us what so ever.

It is almost impossible to make a living selling quality art. Its never truly appreciated, and the time and effort, the sheer talent involved in making it, will never be rewarded out in the public. You can’t sell real art to the public unless you are willing to get almost no money for it. And you can’t sell it at all unless it somehow already belongs in their lives. And maybe that is a question of marketing. I suck at marketing, but the one thing I do know is that building your tribe, the ones for whom your work matters is the only way forward. Building your community takes time and effort itself, sometimes even as much as making the work does.

You can’t expect random customers to get real art much less pay for it. The only stuff that stands a chance of mass appeal has curb appeal. And it is no crime to make work that does not have that appeal. It might even be a better sign of quality, in fact. Too many artists aim low, and it sometimes feels we are being punished for it. The audience is not being educated on issues of quality. Eye candy is being shoved at them and they simply don’t know any better.

What they can’t understand they won’t like, and what they don’t like they won’t take the time to understand.

The public is lazy, and the harder we make it for them the less response we should expect. That is the only lesson you should take away from this. A bad sale is not about you, it is some defect in the audience, if defect is the right word. Maybe deficiency is better. They lack something. There is a gap between what we are doing and what they can handle. And sometimes it is not worth lowering our standards to be understood. Mostly they won’t even meet us halfway. What a poor sale is not is that it serves as a comment on the quality of the work you do. It doesn’t and you should never take it that way. You can either make the work you believe in or the work that will sell. The higher you aim the bigger the difference between those things.

I’m starting to ramble here, but I couldn’t sleep, knowing the torture you are going through. I hope this helps. Lets do lunch soon. I believe in you, and I care enough to be up in the middle of the night to write this to you. That, at least, is proof that you matter and that what you do has value.

Gotta try to get some sleep!

Hang in there ❤



Posted in Art, Beauty, Creative industry, metacognition | 2 Comments

Understanding and Knowing

I saw it, briefly, last night. Or rather I heard it. The settling dusk making my trips out to the kiln carrying freshly glazed pots even more treacherous, my nose firmly to the grindstone of beating full darkness and the chill that was spreading, I had no other thought but finishing my task and the insistent rumblings of hunger that had started an hour or so earlier. But finish I must, and so I bore down.

And then I heard it. Somewhere, somewhere close, a neighbor had their door open. I knew that sound! Was it an accordion? Someone in my neighborhood was playing some instrument I could recognize but not easily name. But the sound. I knew that sound! And in that moment my heart swelled with a passion I had been missing for the past week. I understood that sound! I was listening to a neighbor pouring their own soul into one of the songs from the Amélie soundtrack by Yann Tiersen, an album I had listened to over and over again in days gone by.

Heart suddenly beating, I quickly placed the pot I was holding where it belonged in the kiln and strode off into the night, up the driveway, out searching for the faint notes hanging in the air, coming from where I knew not. I had a neighbor who plays the tuba from his rooftop, but that was to the right and this was coming from the left. Was it Ben? The former rockstar drummer from the Counting Crows? A dozen or so steps in that direction and I could rule him out. Not his side of the street. But there it was! The lights were on, the door was open, and the sounds were definitely from that direction. My heart thumped with excitement.

And then the notes faltered, and with them my feet. I stood in place, halfway down the block, fearful that if I moved again the spell would be broken, the magic lost, hoping for more, but the sounds petered out and came to a halt. I waited a few minutes more, but it never took back up again. The door to that house eventually closed. And then I remembered the cold. I remembered the growing darkness, my lack of food, and the need to get my kiln finished. The world returned to me in all its crushing beseeching neediness.

But for one brief moment I had understood again. I had understood that there is something worth more than the daily grind and our fixation on what is wrong with the world. I understood the beauty that has been lost to me in recent days. It was there, nurtured for a brief moment, cradled in ephemeral hands. And then it was gone…..

I know the power of art. I am just having trouble understanding it right now. Its not an intellectual problem, it is a problem for the spirit. The spirit trembles on unseen winds. And if we are not careful, it will perish. If we take our eyes off it for too long, fail to nurture and encourage where these things live and are born, we may end up losing them. Among the many horrors we face, that too must be confronted.

For the past week I have felt like a fraud artist. I was lucky I had already made the pots I was to fire, so my creative investment had mostly already been cashed in. All I needed in this last month before the sales was to glaze and fire, glaze and fire, glaze and fire, up at 3, to bed at 8, up at 4, to bed at 9…. I will get my mojo back. I know too much about beauty to let it die in me. I have too much invested to let it wither. But will I understand it again soon? I simply don’t know. The brief spell of my neighbor’s serenade made a difference. I simply need to recapture it from where it has hidden.

But here is to all of you out there who are continuing to make the world bright. And especially also to those of you who encourage beauty by supporting the artists that make it come alive. We need your belief and we need your support. Thank you sincerely. Beauty will not die while you are creating homes where it belongs. Beauty will not die on your watch. And for that the world owes you a debt. If beauty is going to still matter in the world that is to come, we owe it to ourselves to make it as realizable as we can. Beauty is one of the world’s gifts to us, and the more we cherish it the more our humanity is rewarded.

Who better to make that case than Amélie?


Peace all,

Make beauty real. Yes, please do.


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition | 3 Comments