First, I will say what this post is not. This is not about what gives art value. I’ve written other pieces about that and probably will again. Nor is this about, say, why a David Hockney painting sold for $90.3 million. That question there isn’t ‘why is art expensive’ but ‘why is it SO expensive’ and that question has also been answered elsewhere.
Instead, we’re simply going to talk about the cost of a work of art as an equation of what goes into it, what one (in this case, the artist) should reasonably expect to get out of it, and how that creates the space for further explorations.
What Goes Into It
For every painting I make – every large painting that has some monumental place in my body of work – and I seem to be able to make two or three of those every year – as well as every smaller painting that might take a week or a month – there’s a period of time where it is simply something I am investing in. I am paying my mortgage, the electricity, the car payments, the grocery bill. and so on. You know: all the life stuff.
So let’s just talk about one painting that takes 5 months. Right there is the flat cost of creating the space for that work to happen for the span of five months.
Sure, we could say that one only needs a hovel and a brush to make great art but, personally, I don’t want to live like a pauper. I would prefer some general levels of comfort. So let’s give our artist a basic modest lifestyle. That world has the basic life expenses on a monthly basis so, for a painting I might make, that 5 months now has a base investment cost on behalf of the artist that is X.
To be fair, every painting has a lead up time – it might be months, weeks, years of sketches and concept work but we’ll leave that out of the picture.
What one expects to reasonably get out of that.
One should, at the very least, expect to have one’s expenses covered. However, we know that’s a bad way of doing business. We would like to enjoy some profit. What is profit? Being able to take a vacation is profit. It means that we have additional funds to go do something that is not work-driven. Or we can reinvest that profit in ourselves. We could join a gym or go take classes somewhere.
An artist is, for all intents and purposes, running a business, and all businesses hope for some profit. No artist deserves to be treated like a non-profit where the work is merely for the good of humanity, regardless of whether or not the artist suffers in the category of meeting their basic needs. I believe an artist deserves to generate an income above and beyond their basic needs
This amount we’ll label Y.
How that creates the space for further explorations.
This is, I think, an important and overlooked facet of art pricing . I recently published the painting “The Bricklayer’s Dream.” It’s not a very marketable painting. It’s rather terrifying. That piece or “First World Problem Child” are paintings that I make because I feel the world needs them. But I can only make them if I personally create the space to do so. After all, I’m not on a salary. These paintings won’t make back what went into them any time soon.
So, just as one might use the profit to take a vacation or see some music or just go have a nice dinner, one should also imagine that the sale of one painting should afford the space to create the next.
We will call that amount Z.
So we come to a general equation of X + Y + Z = The BASE Price of the Painting. Suddenly, it’s not an inexpensive painting. Of course, you the artist has to be sure it’s worth that. This is where the real art making comes in. The real sense of craftsmanship and pushing oneself. To really stand by something and say: no, it’s worth every penny. It’s your heart, your soul, your tears. It is a jewel you’ve extracted from the deepest part of yourself and put onto the canvas.
After that ‘BASE’ price of the painting, we can then add to it – is this one worth a topaz? A ruby? A diamond?
This is why my own paintings ending up costing what they do. I consider what goes into it, what comes out of it, and how the sale of just one painting helps create the space for multiple others. Finally, I consider how clearly it sings the song I set out to sing. Some sing it better than others. It’s always my intention that the large paintings – for all the time they take – sing the song perfectly.
Sometimes I see artists their art for very little when it’s clearly taken them months. I understand the need to pay the bills but the thing is – the bills often can’t be paid if one sells a painting for a fraction of our aforementioned “The Price of the Painting”.
I feel that our relationship to the value of art in our world has to change in order for artists to be able, on a broader scale, to make the great works they set out to make.
Art making is a challenging game. Art selling is, perhaps, even more challenging. We love it when people want to give us something for it but we have to be willing to truly ask for what it’s worth. Understanding this aspect of it empowers those who make it by giving them a better sense of the value of their work. It also gives those who contemplate purchasing original work a sense of a sort of base value as well. If something knocks your socks off, know that hours and days and weeks went into that with, most likely, the artist investing in that work.
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