Reflecting ethics and egalitarianism in art

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This spring I will be relaunching my website and introducing an online shop for direct sales. Despite the enormous complexities and risks of starting a business, it’s an exciting time and a wonderful opportunity to put all my efforts into something I truly believe in and can wholeheartedly stand behind.

One of the most intriguing challenges in setting up a business is determining the way it can reflect my values and ethics. I’ve been thinking a lot about what selling art means to me, and I’ve been particularly concerned with egalitarianism, specifically can affordability and accessibility make art more egalitarian?

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However necessary I believe art to be in life, it is fundamentally a luxury item. Selling art is a capitalist exchange, a trade of money for a physical commodity. To paraphrase Dave Hickey from his brilliant book Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, art and money never really touch, which is to say, the money exchanged has nothing to do with the actual value of a work of art. The price of art is usually determined by what the market will bear. Looking at the big-time Art World, buying art is often treated primarily as a financial transaction, where a painting or sculpture is purchased for its calculated return on investment and it doesn’t particularly matter what it looks like. Every friend who has worked in a blue chip gallery has stories about hedge fund guys who buy art sight unseen based on an artist’s brand value and have it delivered directly to climate-controlled storage vaults. I would rather never sell another painting again than have something I produced with my heart and soul be part of such a cold, emotionally sterile transaction.

Last spring I attended the VIP preview of a fine art fair in the city. Many of the guests in attendance had limitless money to spend on art, but seemed dismayed by a lack of new or interesting things to buy. Gallerists and dealers were working their hardest to sell them on the work they were presenting, but all the conversations I heard seemed to center around the artist’s rising prominence, recent critical acclaim, and resale value. I was stricken by a complete lack of discussion of aesthetics, beauty, or why someone would want to own and live with a piece – it was more like acquiring a designer handbag that could be hung on the wall to broadcast how much disposable income a person had and, presumably, how sophisticated a purchase could be made with it, based on what the best consultants advised. I walked around the fair feeling like what I was seeing had nothing to do with art and everything to do with money. I enjoyed seeing a few nice Chagalls and some decorative pieces I hadn’t seen in person before, but the vast majority of this fair (and most of the others I’ve attended) was a hollow, artless experience, showcasing expensive pieces with little to no emotion. I wanted nothing to do with that elitist iteration of “art,” but I was also never more certain that I needed to be working as an artist myself.

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I decided I would like to make my art accessible and affordable for normal people, not just upper-1%ers. I want my art to be purchased by people who actually like it and want to live with it in their homes, not turn around and resell it at auction in a few years for a profit. I plan to make a range of products available including prints and decorative items at various price points so that someone like me or my family could own my work. I want to make pieces where a portion of the proceeds is donated to support environmental conservation efforts and charities I believe in. The financial pressure will switch to needing to sell several more pieces in a month, but I’m okay taking that on if it means that my art is affordable to more people that way.

As for accessibility, I have never believed in the esoteric coding and gimmicky obscurity that seems to predominate contemporary art. That’s not to say that art shouldn’t be challenging, but it feels deeply cynical to create pieces that can’t be understood without a pretentious manifesto, or where the ignorance of the viewer is thrown back in his face as part of the “concept” of the piece. My experience in grad school revealed a lot of dilettante philosophy wrapped up in artist’s statements, where the physical creation was secondary or tertiary to the text, always making me wonder why the art was made at all instead of writing a more intellectually rigorous text. I don’t believe art has to be “dumbed down” to make it more generally accessible either, as there are centuries of extraordinary art that can be loved and appreciated by the general public. I know it is fashionable to sneer at anything popular or mainstream, but the average viewer is actually quite sophisticated in the capacity to make and communicate observations and express emotions evoked by art. And sometimes great art is popular for a reason – everyone can see why it’s good.

Nature is a central tenant of my art, in large part because it is universally and primally understood. I think the more my art reflects the shapes, rhythms, patterns, and proportions of nature through the lens of imagination, the more accessible it becomes. When people describe visceral reactions they have to my paintings, I know I’ve done something right, and that’s what I want to keep doing.

The core values of my personal and business ethics are quality (using archival materials and techniques), environmentalism (by running a paperless office or using recycled / eco-friendly materials as much as possible), ecology (promoting awareness and connection to nature), honesty, integrity, kindness, civic-mindedness, spiritual mindfulness, and egalitarianism through accessibility and affordability. I am so excited to put these values into practice in my art and the way I run my business, and I hope to show that this system of ethics is sustainable and brings people pure, extraordinary joy.

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