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.
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to comment. I publish these ‘Artists Only’ posts once a month. Feel free to request other topics you may like to read about.
“I painted picture upon picture in keeping with the impression made on my eye in a moment of heightened emotion – painted the lines and colours that remained fastened to my inner eye… By painting the colours and lines and shapes I had seen in an emotional state – I wished to recapture the quivering quality of the emotional atmosphere like a phonograph.”
– Edvard Munch
This. A painting I make is based upon an impression made upon me by the experience of an emotional state. It is to be seen as if listening to a song.
I wonder if anyone at an art show in 1900 said “O, look, ANOTHER painting of a woman at a bar.” There’s SO many paintings of a woman at a bar. Woman drinking at a bar. Woman sitting at a table near a bar. Then, sometime in 1945, Max Ernst comes along and says, “Hold my absinthe” and he paints ‘The Cocktail Drinker.”
The reason I mention this is you might look out on the artistic landscape and say: o another profile of a face, another soup of abstraction, another… and so on. But these paintings become the visual language of our current times. Out of those, arise a few particularly noteworthy pieces and we use those in the future to guide our understandings of ourselves.
In the case of ‘another painting of a woman at the bar’ we have Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”:
Renoir’s “Moulin de la Gallete”:
Gauguin’s “Night Café at Arles”:
Don’t forget Van Gogh’s “Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin”:
And so on. You get the point. It’s a motif of the time. What is the time we live in today? What do we try to understand through our art, our repetitions, our motifs and visual languages? This is what gets asked fifty, a hundred years down the road. This is the ever evolving story of art.
“Yesterday I resumed work. It’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times. All the same, I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying…”
– Claude Monet. 1914. While working on his water lilies paintings during World War I.
I feel like this sometimes. There’s so much going on. There’s this endless stream of chaos beating down my door. Who am I to turn my back on this issue or that issue and “resume my little researches into form and colour” while so much pain and suffering exists. Maybe it’s the fact that joy CAN exist side by side with the pain.
WWI raged on outside his door with troops marching to the trenches and cannons and explosions in the distance. He turned back to these canvases, toiling away on what must have alternately seemed like a retreat, an excuse, a guilty pleasure, a creative drive.
I feel this way sometimes: these lines, curves, visions, ideas… They speak to and of the current times. They are informed by it and offer inspiration. Art is a vital part of our human experience and that creative drive of expression is inherent in our existence. It’s found in every culture, every tradition: the desire to make beautiful, to make special, to create some mirror of ourselves in the world around us. Yet, while the wars, the protests, the heart ache rages on, our little studies, our tidy pictures, can seem frivolous.
There is no end to the ugly, though. If we don’t create the beautiful, then what are we left with? So I keep at it. And, if you are a creator, I urge you to keep at it too.
Read more about Monet here: Wartime water lilies: how Monet created his garden at Giverny
To own an original painting is to have the original playing – the live perfect performance – of a song. I’ve met many a musician who has, in a painting I’ve made, seen a visual representation of a song, much as I’ve heard many a song and, in that song, heard an auditory journey of a particular image.
Imagine if you could own Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis”. Or Beethoven’s 5th. Or Miles Davis’ “Agartha”. And so on. Each canvas print of a painting is like the perfect and pristine vinyl recording. The paper prints and posters are good quality CDs and, finally, you have your variable-kbps mp3s floating around on the web.
So just imagine: each guitar lick and hi-hat and cymbal crash, each thrum of bass or plunk of a piano by a human hand is each of those brushstrokes.
A great painting is like a symphony. There’s entire cavalcades of sound – entire violin sections roaring across the yellow sky over a horizon of great bassoon and oboes resounding through the purples. A penny whistle sparkles across the crystalline golden whites and, for a moment, that lead violin is the sinewy line drawing it all together. And the artist crafts each of those violins. Each oboe and oboe player. Each note has to be played in a final perfect harmony.
This is why original art – that final finished piece – that one and perfect singular canvas – ends up with so much value. Like the recorded song, we can replay it a thousand or million times through countless means of recreation but there’s only one original moment where careful little nuances were breathed into each brushstroke to make the painting.
People say ‘why get the painting when the print is so much cheaper.’ This is a true fact. Just as the mp3 version is much cheaper than having the band play at your house where you can experience the raw entirety of the sensation of that SONG, so is the painting. So is the painting. If you decide to take part in that relationship, consider this: you’re helping to bring these songs, these performances of art, into the world. By supporting the arts you are enriching the cultural experiences of others as well as yourself.
This immediacy and connection to the moment is what gives art – and especially great art – its value. It is the intangible NOWNESS of it. The greatest art echoes our human archetypal experiences and mixes them with the constant exploration of our perception of the experience coupled with all the set and setting of the moment – the politics and world views and financial considerations and environmental conditions and so on. It’s all wrapped into that vision. And out of it… out if it arises “what it looks like.” Or feels like or sounds like in that now.
It is my task to offer you, as least from my own perspective, what it looks like. This is why, to me, an artist is really just a scribe. I’m here to take notes. To be open. To be a channel. To see what comes through me. It’s terrifying and tragic. It’s blissfully beautiful. It’s heart breaking and mystifying. It’s mystically enthralling. And, like the musician, I have to choose a note, a color, a line. I do my best to find the right note, the perfect color, that precise line, and that feeling. The feeling and the reason and the intention and the moment that I, Michael Divine, want to sign my name to.
So the past couple of weeks at our little Divine Comedy have been challenging. We moved north of Napa back in December and, after the wettest winter on record, we had the hottest summer on record which led to the worst fires, you guessed it, on record.
Our air was thick with smoke and we woke every morning examining the current fire maps. We were rather surrounded – to the north, south, and west at times less than ten miles from the brunt of them. When everything is like a tinderbox and winds may shift at any moment, that ten miles doesn’t seem so far. Some friends transported all of our artwork to Oakland for safekeeping – ‘just in case’ – and our bags were packed the whole time.
Thankfully just in case didn’t come to pass for us. Many others though lost homes, businesses, and even lives. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures – of Santa Rosa, Napa, etc. It’s heart breaking the swath of destruction left by the fire. These extremes are the tangible examples of what climate change looks like and the reality we live in. We’re incredibly grateful that our gardens, home, and lives are still intact.
In the coming month I’ll have some new works to share with you and will also be doing some fundraising for those who lost everything these past few weeks.
The painting above (and the detail below) were made while our air was thick and the light was this weird golden rose color from the smoke filtered sunlight. It was hard to relax into the general painting flow so I worked on some free-flowing pieces, painting over canvases that remained at home.
Here’s to the rain of the coming autumn :)
“I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed…
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”
– Toni Morrison
I made another poster for the Bicycle Day Parade in San Francisco, April 19th.
Beginning in 2014, I started making the posters for the annual Bicycle Day Parade in San Francisco. The annual event is free – just show up with your bike – and held yearly on April 19th in Golden Gate Park to celebrate the discovery of LSD by Swiss chemist, Albert Hoffman.
Bicycle Day was first celebrated by Thomas Roberts, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University. Read more about him here.
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