Making Objects over Making Money or Making Money over Making Objects

May 30th, 2011 | Posted by david kefford in art

After reading an article in the review section of Saturday’s Guardian by Hari Kunzru about  Ai Weiwei’s recent disappearance/incarceration, it’s prompted me to pose a few questions in relation to our second public event, Collecting the Uncollecatable.  Particularly in response to a section in the article which talks about how

“The art market fetishises objects in the name of preserving their value as commodities, and this is something artists have frequently felt the need to kick against……”

At the art school I went to in the mid-late nineties there was never a mention of the commodification of objects.  The focus was mostly about  process, finding a voice and developing a personal visual language through practice.  I always saw my education as much as a discovery about myself in the world (philosophical) rather than having a career in the art world.  I never felt like I was kicking against something because there was nothing really to kick against.  I was (perhaps ignorantly in hindsight) happy exploring and discovering new things about my adulthood through materials, ideas and peer discussions (going to the pub!).  The whole ‘career/professional development’ question was more or less swept under the carpet and generally ignored or was never a part of the curriculum.  I often wonder if I was at art school now, whether my attitude towards being an artist would be different.  Actually I already know the answer is yes.  I now lecture in both further and higher education colleges so I see the pressure on students to become ‘successful’, quickly, which often equates to selling work, being represented by a commercial gallery, making money.  “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” as Warhol once wrote.  There is much more focus on professional development, career strategies, passing modules, being ‘business like’, competent at writing excellent and convincing C.V’s and marketing yourself.  The space for taking risks, making mistakes, playing around seems to be disappearing? As Graham Crowley pointed out in his letter to Art Monthly

“Money currently spent on marketing, publicity and administration should be spent on teaching.  Management culture has led to the prioritisation of the administrative over the academic.  We now certificate rather than educate.”

I’m not necessarily saying this is a wholly negative aspect of how courses are now run, but it does seem distinctly different.  The commercial arena and notion of selling your work seemed like a dirty word when I was at college, whereas now it is more positively embraced, perhaps more realistically?, as an integral part of being an artist.  I must admit it has taken me years since leaving college to accept that it is okay to make money from selling my work and that this does not undermine its integrity because like I said this always seemed like a taboo subject.  It’s been a gradual acceptance/realisation but now for me it is about striking a balance and recognising that different contexts/opportunities provide different outcomes in terms of furthering my artistic enquiries or/and being able to professionally finance this.

Is it still possible for an artist to value process over product? are the spaces/opportunities that provide this sufficient – i.e schools/colleges/residencies/studios/project spaces

How does an artist who makes temporary, transient and ‘non-existent’, like Robert Barry’s inert gas pieces of the 60′s, sell their work – is this dependent on selling the documentation?  I’m thinking of someone like Karla Black who makes site-specific environments in gallery spaces using materials which don’t last.  I remember overhearing her gallery, Mary Mary, at Zoo art fair a few years ago talking to a potential collector about purchasing a certificate as tangible evidence of ‘buying her ‘work’.  Or there is Richard Wright who makes wall-based architectural drawings and Sol LeWitt who sells his diagrams and instructions as the work of art.  How did Martin Creed sell his piece, Work No.227: The Lights Going on and off?

I’ve noticed a proliferation of public galleries selling limited edition prints or multiples of artists work – does this provide an accessible opportunity for collectors to purchase an artists work or are they merely props, asides and residues of the ‘real’ work?

Finally, here is a link to the Top Ten Uncollectable artworks, published in ArtInfo on June 14th 2010 by Andrew Russeth


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8 Responses

  • David wrote: “I’ve noticed a proliferation of public galleries selling limited edition prints or multiples of artists work – does this provide an accessible opportunity for collectors to purchase an artists work or are they merely props, asides and residues of the ‘real’ work?”

    I think in many cases they are increasingly and quite consciously the latter- they’re the work of an artist but they’re not the artist’s WORK. In other words, they are monetisable artefacts (or products, to use a word abhorred by the art world) that relate to the artist’s practice but generally speaking they are not actually the artist’s practice.

    • David Kefford says:

      I’ve always felt this as well. But is it okay for an artist who doesn’t necessarily make tangible ‘products’ to consider this as a viable way of providing necessary income? Or should the focus be on finding a context for the actual work itself?

      • Perhaps a useful way to think about it is to sort of turn it around and think of artists’ ephemera or byproducts (ugh, sounds vile) as potentially a way of people showing small scale support for an artist even though they can’t afford to buy their work proper. Like buying a CD or going to a gig to support a band you like, especially if you don’t have to because you could download or stream it for free, or buying a writer’s book even though you could get it from the library- it’s a small show of support that really adds up if enough people are in the habit. These things are not regarded as vulgar or distractions from being a musician or writer; they’re just part of the business. I don’t see why doing comparable things should be seen as distractions by artists.
        Different, shorter answer: if you want to grow giant pumpkins, you have to accept that it’s labour intensive and the market or demand for them is somewhat specialised. It doesn’t mean you can’t grow potatoes and carrots as well, which people usually want.

  • I agree that there’s huge pressure on young artists to be “successful” in that particular way you write of- commercial representation, being the hottest painter under 30 or whatever. This works out well for a very few people, but that’s mainly down to luck and/or them having the right connections to start with. Otherwise, it’s a very unhelpful and damaging legacy of the romantic, nostalgic notion that an artist is and must be a misunderstood, penniless outsider. That form of “success” is not at all appropriate or even possible for a great many artists whose work is nonetheless valid and valuable.

    What is still MASSIVELY lacking from arts education, in my experience, is realistic and pragmatic (i.e. not tainted by the romantic lie of the starving artist in his garret awaiting “discovery”) education of student artists with regard to how they can work their way up and stay in the profession they’ve chosen for the rest of their lives. This pragmatism is not a binary thing that can’t exist alongside a strong commitment to ideas, aesthetics, politics and intelligent thought or creativity in general. Both are needed, and they always have been. Warhol was a marketing genius equally and concurrently with being a conceptual thinker. Van Gogh was an artistic genius but a commercial dunce, one of far too many artists who fell prey to their own romanticism about art and artists.

    • Julie says:

      Great post David.

      What’s also missing from arts education is an emphasis on those that work very closely with the artists to value the artists. Curators could try to not to ask for freebies. They could be taught how to be genuine about what an artwork can cost and what they should pay for work to be exhibited or an installation. And being genuine means not simply getting the cheapest possible deal from someone who is quite probably uncomfortable about a financial negotiation. Tutors could also pass on knowledge about whether making/suggesting multiples is appropriate…

      • Galleries, curators, etc. also need to stop saying “well, if we didn’t get the work/artists for nothing, we wouldn’t have a show”, which has become almost the default position and an unquestioned assumption. If they truly believe that, then that would seem to be a tacit admission that the system they’re working in is very, very broken and needs a complete rethink.

        Playing devil’s advocate, for example, I don’t necessarily want any of the following to happen, but…

        Perhaps there simply shouldn’t be so many shows, or so many artists?

        Perhaps a smaller number of more professional(ised) artists should get more support than they currently do, instead of art and artists trying to be all things to all people, with a clearer, honest delineation of who is a career artist and who is an amateur, with separate opportunities for both? Along the lines of professional sports for example, where it’s accepted that only a small minority of athletes can and will succeed, but those that do have talent are identified early and nurtured appropriately.

        Fundamental questions like this just don’t get asked and are even almost taboo in many cases and places.

  • David Kefford says:

    I do get bored of always having to negotiate a fee after an offer of a workshop, exhibition, residency. This always seems like an unnecessary effort. Rarely is it made transparent from the outset what the ‘deal’ is. A feeling of clutching a straws springs to mind.

    • It’s far, far too common for artists to have conversations that go something like:

      Artist: “It sounds like an exciting project, what’s the budget for it?”
      Curator: “… well, the thing is…”

      And in no other profession is getting hold of vital information (who gets paid what, when- or if- funds or payment will be coming, what is expected of you, what you can expect of your employer, even sometimes when and where they want you…) so akin to extracting teeth from a reluctant crocodile with a small pair of pliers.