The price of popularity

by Robert Genn

January 30, 2009
Dear Rodney,

The other day I was visiting a former painter who just happens to be an old friend. This fellow had some considerable success as a young man in New York and other places. At age 32 he shut down his studio and opened a restaurant. He has since gone on to other brilliant successes. "You really have the business side of art figured out," he told me. "You're an excellent businessman." I told him that when I was in my twenties and making less than $400 a month from my paintings, the critics wrote that I was "a talented up-and-comer worth watching." I also mentioned that when I started to make more than $400 a month they said I was an "excellent businessman."

The convention continues. Among the intelligentsia and academia, it's de rigueur to think this way. Art critics use up trees mentioning it. The favoured artists of many critics are congenitally broke, intellectually challenged and incompetent in all ways but art. Artists who happen to be poor-quality citizens or social basket cases are of particular value. Maybe some critics have "painting envy." Maybe, down deep, they think creative folks just shouldn't have it all.

To be fair, my idealistic friend found the life of an artist required too much "selling out." "Catering" was not his game. Refusing to do what he called "potboilers," he checked out, never to be seen in art circles again.

The recent passing of Andrew Wyeth reminded me once more of the situation. Andrew arose from a talented family that ate and slept art. He chose to be true to his rural roots and enjoyed a lifetime of love and laughter around Chadds Ford, PA. He earnestly explored his microcosmic world, kept sane and more or less sober until age 91, got mighty good at his craft and painted not a few American icons. Yet the critics never missed a chance to dump on him. The richer he got, the more they dumped.

"Making a fortune," says critic Michael Kimmelmann, "allowed Wyeth to play a familiar American role--the free-thinking individualist who at the same time represented the vox populi.  As bohemianism itself became institutionalized, Wyeth encapsulated the artistic conservative's paradoxical idea of cultural disobedience through traditional behavior." A self-admitted "good promoter," Wyeth was also a good painter--a fact enthusiastically embraced by a world of collectors. Quality baffles.

Best regards,


PS: "What you have to do is break all the rules." (Andrew Wyeth)

Esoterica: Fact is, you don't necessarily have to sell out to be a success. Sure, conservative reality rings the cash register, but exploring one's personal reality can be a lifelong love affair made gracious by hard-earned days of electrifying joy. Sensitive collectors pick up on this. In a sense collectors are way ahead of critics because their emotions harmonize with their chosen art and artists. Critics, often "sold out" by their need to dump controversial ink, are different folks than the wide world of untrammelled collectors who cave in to their legitimate needs.