price of popularity
January 30, 2009
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
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
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
PS: "What you have to do is break all the rules." (Andrew
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.