Comments on Business and Art

by on March 4th, 2012

This year, I’ve popped into quite a few art exhibitions in London. After spending most of the week in the structured world of frameworks and spreadsheets, it’s interesting to be in an environment that is in some sense the opposite. As far as I know, there’s no formula or rule dictating the position of brush strokes, the use of colours, the size of a canvas, etc. And if rules exist, they’re alien enough to me that the end-result can still seem like the product of haphazard genius.

A few things have come to mind:

Volume of output: Looking at a retrospective of a given artist makes it clear how much work has been done over a career. Romantic notions of an artist’s life aside, it seems like there’s actually a lot of work involved. And what ultimately ends up on a wall is the work that’s considered ‘acceptable.’ Who knows what else was been produced over the years only to be chucked away as being rubbish. An exhibition visitor sees the ‘polished’ portfolio, free of anything considered embarrassing.

It might be possible to make a name for yourself with a few pieces that are automatically recognised as masterpieces. But the more likely scenario is that you produce work year after year, only some of which will immediately be recognised as brilliant. (And hopefully the brilliant work will enhance the perception of other work that might otherwise have been considered average.)

The takeaway? Keep producing/doing ‘stuff.’ Not all output will be amazing despite best efforts. But not all of it needs to be.

Making a change: As well as churning out work, there’s value in doing something different over time. A gallery with room after room of the same style of painting would be tiresome. From the artist’s perspective a portfolio of identical work might be equally tiresome to produce. In a creative field, there’s an understanding – perhaps an expectation – that the artist/writer/whoever will do something weird, wacky, and wonderful. For someone in a more traditional field (take your textbook accountant), there a little less appreciation for unpredictability. In the world of the accountant, too much creativity is a recipe for going to jail.

But there’s still hope. Given that we’re all living longer (with no prospect of retirement), multiple divergent careers may become the norm – it’s unlikely that the 18 year old version of you was in a great position to pick the ‘best’ path for your next 50 years of work. Alternatively, people may start to place more emphasis on having outside ‘projects’ alongside a steady day job; something more substantial than a casual hobby.

Concept of value: The financial environment has raised many questions about who is deserving of cash. Are bankers and investors worth more than nurses? Shouldn’t people be paid based on effort and value to society? The art world certainly isn’t responsible for the recession, but it still highlights the nebulous concept of what is and isn’t value. A great David Strigley sketch at the bottom of this post illustrates this.

In 2010 a Picasso set a new record, following its sale for over $100m. This is a painting whose inputs could be purchased with a teenager’s weekly pocket money. With a few months/weeks of saving, perhaps that same teenager could purchase a pretty good replica. The original painting’s value has no real link to the actual image portrayed, the physical effort that went into the painting, the cost of production, etc. It’s valuable because however cheaply it can be reproduced, it remains unique. And to someone, somewhere, that’s important. The notion of value is hazy indeed. Those who think hard graft should drive financial rewards are in for continued disappointment.

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