What’s Art Worth, Anyway?
or the Problematic Ways We Assign Value to Creative Work
I often draw people in public places because: a) I enjoy it, b) doing life studies helps you become a better craftsman, and c) it’s part of the Unnecessary Creating practice. I commonly encounter folks asking me what I am going to do with my rough sketches, but what they’re really saying is: “if those creations aren’t somehow monetized, what’s the point of doing it?”
Often what is communicated by this seemingly innocent question is a certain assumption prevalent in our society that if an artwork (or anything/anyone these days) isn’t sold for decent money, it’s not worth anything. In other words, why even bother creating?
How to Stay in a Creative Rut, Guaranteed
Putting our ideas out is an inherently vulnerable process, because when we do that, we become exposed to potential judgement. It is inevitable that it will happen–how we react to it is within our control. It also goes both ways: without accepting vulnerability as the rule of the game we hold ourselves back from expressing our full creative potential in fear of judgement.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” -Brené Brown
Like anything else, this skill takes some practice, and requires that we cultivate it behind closed curtains, just so that we don’t create only for some desired external outcome. Fixating on the result can in fact impede our creative process and our ability generate ideas that hold any value.
Most artists keep sketchbooks and practice their craft all the time without ever showing those rough ideas or practice studies to anyone. Unfortunately, to some people unnecessary creating is, well, just that, unnecessary. Many equate it to wasting time or doing something wrong — a symptom of a much larger issue in our society, our unwillingness to be vulnerable and everything that stems from this deeply entrenched belief. The thought that you have to get financially rewarded every time you attempt to create something will stop you in your tracks and will cause inaction and procrastination.
Artists Don’t Need to Eat
One extreme among many people is this thinking around art along the lines of: “Artists don’t need to be paid fairly for their work.” It’s not a surprise many professional artists take offense in this attitude towards their work. It somehow implies you don’t have to eat, pay for your living expenses, support your family, or invest in your future and can sustain life by simply breathing.
“There is a stark reality about the business side of life. Everyone looks for efficiencies and hacks to move forward… What’s the “bad” of taking shortcuts? It denies us the hardships, detours, and lessons of the long road. The deep ruts and bumps that hone our skills, deepen our abilities and make us true artists as opposed to tinkering craftsmen.” -John P. Weiss
I don’t know how many times I ran into people who have this idea of art or creative work just not being worth much. It’s rather baffling, and frankly, infuriating that many people expect to pay pennies for an artwork or a design that they will use in their marketing campaigns, books, websites, products, packaging, etc. which continuously generate real sales for them. It seems a no-brainer to pay those who played a part in your success appropriately. If you’re monetizing someone else’s craft, it only makes sense to pay your fair share to the craftsman, i.e. the creator.
I even heard multiple prominent entrepreneur figures advocating for platforms, such as 99 Designs as a good way to go if you want to have someone develop some visual assets for you on a budget. These types of bidding-based platforms actually incentivize people compete for either potentially being hired OR potentially selling their work. It makes it extremely difficult for freelanced pros to make a living, because all the amateurs are willing to work for free.
Blind Faith in the Free Market
Once I heard someone say they could not believe I was charging several hundred bucks for a watercolor portrait. Back in my twenties I would have probably felt bad or apologetic, but then again, I was also dumb back then and had a lot of insecurities. I think what they meant to say was rather: “it’s hard to believe there are people willing to pay that kind of money for a painting.” Sorry to disappoint, there are people who are willing to pay more money for a single piece of art than most of us make in a life time.
The gruesome reality of organizing our lives around economic concepts is that it effects the way we begin to view the world in general. It skews our minds towards subconsciously equating worth to monetizing potential. In our gullible and easily impressionable minds, the assigned monetary value now is synonymous with good. We bought into this idea so much, we take it as far as habitually measuring one’s worth by how much money they make.
“We’ve mistakenly placed all our faith in the free market economy which dictates that something’s value should be reflected in its price tag.” -Sasha Mirzoyan
On the other hand, the value is completely imagined. Nothing has any intrinsic value, other than the value we give it, whether it’s good or bad. As the saying goes, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so some people like wall art prints from Target that matches their interior and think Picasso ain’t shit, and others are willing to drop a couple mil on a Banksy that was literally stenciled on some wall in a few seconds. Gotta love the irony.
Apart from our mere differences in taste, this produces the other end of the spectrum: an artificially inflated art market with works being auctioned off for hundreds of thousands, and often, millions of dollars. Also a great way to write off your charitable art donations when you have so much mula, you don’t know what to do with it. It’s not like the art itself is made of gold, but we can’t deny the hype around certain famous artists that create an illusion of enormous value in the public’s mind.
One of my personal down-to-earth versions of this phenomenon is a portrait of a newborn child that a husband commissions as a gift to his beloved wife. It becomes a family relic, being passed down from one generation to the next, looking at us from the wall of a home, bringing joy and warm memories every single day, retelling the ancestral history of the family. How much that might be worth to someone, of course, is highly personal.
What I really want to address is that artists do real work, just like anyone else. Most of us don’t go to an accountant, a banker, a real estate agent, or even walk into a store and just give $50 less to the cashier for a new pair of shoes, do we? Unfortunately, when it comes to art the inherent subjectivity can determine how we perceive the final value.
The Price Formula
Apart from everyone seeing art through the prism of their own unique set of values, how can we decide on what to charge for our work?
Don’t despair, there is a more pragmatic way to price your work. What I like to consider is my current regular monthly expenses, materials, and the amount of time and effort each work will require of me. Nothing lavish. In my case the price isn’t derived from fame, at least not yet–otherwise I’d be auctioning off my shit too.
I also know how I feel when I undersell myself. There is a residue of feeling like someone used you, and I don’t like that feeling. It breeds resentment, and I don’t know about you, but I like feeling good about my work and my relationships with clients. I like feeling that my work is actually appreciated, rather than seen as a great bargain that wasn’t really wanted after all. The transactional nature of getting paid to create is tricky but clients are just people and the nature of people is relationships. Business can’t happen in the vacuum without having those relationships with strong foundation of mutual trust and respect.
Speaking of respect, when we learn to have the self respect to price high, we attract the people who will treat you and your work with respect and true appreciation, instead of being the lowest bidder, turning us into a magnet for “cheap”. Talk about a perfect recipe for resentment.
You pay for quality design, and quality shows. The over-saturation of cookie-cutter so-called designers now being remotely accessible from other countries with much lower costs of living allows those creatives to afford charging a fraction of what it would cost to hire a homeland pro here in the U.S.. As with the home-bred platforms, this undercutting dynamic is what undermines the entire market.
The final component of that formula is how much training one put into developing that level of mastery to make her an expert.
Mastery is Rare and “Rare” is Expensive
When it comes to fine art these days everyone and their uncle is an artist, and don’t get me wrong–it’s great that people are able to create and express themselves more than ever in the history of humanity, but the craftsmanship aspect of what constitutes for great art has been completely neglected.
The majority of people aren’t trained to discern a masterful artwork from the rest. What we are forgetting these days is what went into achieving a high level of mastery. So we may look at a mere, albeit an accurate copy from a photograph and confuse it for a masterful painting.
It’s not particularly our fault. Most of us don’t understand how a painting is made. Most people don’t develop enough drawing or painting skills in their life, so it makes sense why we are easily impressed by work that greatly lacks any considerable craftsmanship. Using a painterly medium doesn’t equate to knowing how to truly paint–there is a big difference.
The same “artists” cannot draw an accurate depiction of form from life, because more often than not, they are merely mimicking something two-dimensional into another two-dimensional, as opposed to actually translating from observable reality or an idea in their head into an art form.
Which brings me to one last ingredient that we should all learn to consider and that is the sacrifice. The Latin root of the word “passion” is pati-, which means “to suffer” or “endure”. So passion really means: what are you so enthusiastic about that you’re willing to suffer for it? In other words, what was the sacrifice for obtaining a level of mastery over your craft? How much time, energy, and financial resources were invested into cultivating that skill? Because besides covering living expenses and the perceived value of an artwork, what one was willing to sacrifice and endure in exchange for that mastery can weigh its weight in gold. To put it in more familiar economic terms: the higher the investment, the greater the value.
A school is not a guarantee of mastery. Many creators did not necessarily invest money in acquiring their skills and there is nothing wrong with being self-taught. Paying for some type of formal education is not the only measurement of one’s expertise. In fact, I know a lot of masterful artists who are completely and utterly brilliant regardless of never attending any school. They were willing to suffer for their passion and slowly improved overtime. They kept their commitment to it and it paid dividends later in life.
That’s where resourcefulness is more important than access. You can still achieve the same growth with the right willingness to find resources which are widely available to you. Also, ask for help because receiving the guidance from the right teachers and mentors is key.
I truly believe in having mentors and paying for courses, classes, books, and coaches with your own hard-earned money. That’s what creates the necessary mind shift towards clarity, commitment and grit that helps us stick to it through the hard times. Setbacks and failures will happen, that is a given. Whether we loose sight of the true reason why we chose a certain path–is not.
It’s tempting to get distracted by the promise of instant gratification, but I digress. Most of great craftsman spent several years and many-many hours of perfecting their technique and polishing their craft and that investment should reflect in what their work’s worth.
The Hive Mind Shift
What we need is to shift the way we collectively perceive art and creative work. Many creative minds are behind the most expensive advertising campaigns that companies pay huge money for. So why is there such a wide gap between what we think is worth multiple 7 figures and someone’s sketch?
Interestingly enough, most of the big ideas that also sold big all started with some rough-looking sketch, or most likely, several. Maybe because the latter doesn’t seem to possess any monetary value in the immediate sense. Then maybe the question should be: Why are we so unwilling to be vulnerable that we see unnecessary “work” as a waste of time, unless it has a converting potential, just so we can justify doing it?
Creating exclusively under the enormous pressure of your client’s expectations, worrying about potentially disappointing people can really inhibit our creative growth, so unnecessary creating is crucial. Creativity is innate to us but it’s also a skill, a way of seeing things that an average person cannot see, building new neural-pathways that connect what seemed to be not previously connectible. You don’t develop an ability to be a great creative thinker or craftsman without actually creating, often for no apparent reason.
About the author:
I’m Sasha Mirzoyan. I create as well as teach art at the University of Arkansas, write on subjects of psychology, creativity, mindfulness and life, and coach fellow creatives.
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