05/12/2006: "Rodin in His Studio (after the starvation years)" by Paul Dorrell

Published May 2006 at absolutearts.com Blog section

Throughout the course of my book tour, whether speaking in New York, Seattle or Oxford, Mississippi, one common refrain ran true: I constantly met artists who felt guilty about attempting to market, and sell, their work. Where on earth does the guilt come from? Invariably they tell me that it was formed in college, partly from their fellow-students, but mostly from certain professors.

If this wasn't so tragic I'd find it amusing: tenured art professors advising their students on why they shouldn't sell their work. Of course those professors--who are in the minority among profs as a whole--have secure positions, so it doesn't matter if they sell or not. But the vast majority of artists will never gain a university position; they lead lives of risk that those few misguided profs know nothing about. However dealers like me encounter those artists on a regular basis--especially after they've reached their 30s or 40s, are broke, emotionally exhausted, and feeling like a failure on all fronts--even if their work is great. That is indeed tragic.

Listen: there's nothing wrong with marketing and selling your work, as long as it is done with integrity. This doesn't degrade you, it doesn't demean your work, and it doesn't make you less of an artist. All you are doing is allowing society to financially express appreciation for what you do, just as society does with teachers, legislators, farmers, and everyone else. As artists, the function you perform is essential to the growth and evolution of any society. By God you ought to be paid for it. If a few profs disagree--and most do not, being well aware of the realities of an artist's life--ask them to forego their salaries for ten years, then resume the discussion. I suspect you'll find their attitude changed.

Of course there are artists who have no intention of ever selling, and for whom the very thought is anathema to the process of creation. For them, that's likely the right choice. As for the rest of you, once you become accustomed to the process of receiving income for what you create--and define the rules by how you'll do it--I think you'll find it relieves a great deal of stress, allows you to focus better, and to give more generously to others. I'd say that's a pretty fine way to live: where the heart takes precedence over avarice.

Replies: 3 Comments

on Friday, May 12th, jose freitas cruz said

I couldn’t agree more Paul, no artist should feel guilt or shame for promoting his work himself or managing his own career. In the 21st century this doesn't make any sense any more. What Walt commented is pretty much common practice here [Portugal] and only helps to deepen the divide between the few who can afford the luxury of being represented and promoted and those of us who battle on our own terms to make our work known: we are frowned upon [by the establishment and its chosen stars] for being diligent, and belittled when we speak of the achievements that have allowed us to make a living so far. As you very well say Paul, so many of those who have found others to handle the nitty-gritties display so little generosity.

on Friday, May 12th, hyacinthebaron said

As a successful artist/owner of a very elegant gallery showing my own works exclusively I sometimes liked to drop in to college art classes. I did so by forgetting my career and personna and just letting it all hang out.
I draw very well, especially from life and I can capture images quickly while the model is moving.
Many of my best drawings are in museums and private collections. The long standing art professor came by to critique my drawings. Everyone gathered round as they all recognized me and appreciated my drawing skills.
The professor had no idea. "Hmm, not bad. You almost draw as well as me."
After all,as a tenured professor he was given regular shows, critiqued by an inner circle of academicians and part of an insular world where success remained within that circle.
I did not complete some task he set ( I wasn't there for the credit really) and so he failed me in his course for not meeting his criteria. And thisafter a quite successful professional career.

I may have been one of the lucky ones who got away and out on my own very early.

on Friday, May 12th, walt said

this mindset is one that goes back to the late 30's and early 40's and is based in Marxist ideology. A little reading about the Spanish Civil War, Picasso's Guernica and various communist groups in the U.S. is an enlightening bit of research. There was a great controversy just before and after the 2nd world war that began to divide the fine arts from the commercial arts. The fine arts were defined as "pure" while the commercial arts were "prostituted" and therefore "impure". I had a number of professors who held to this mindset. I was an Illustration major at the time and often recall hearing crits in which work was labeled "mere illustration" because the imagery was too much about making an object look like that object...a slavish copy hence an illustration during a time when abstraction and pecifically non-objective abstraction reined supreme. I was a student in the 70's but had been up on what was going on through the late 60's before going to art school and was very sensitive to both sides of the issue. To have ones work labeled "mere illustration" was a dibilitating insult. Once a professor felt that way about your work it was quite hard to regain their respect. You were simply not a serious artist anymore no matter how passionet you may be, no matter how skilled you may be no matter how interesting your ideas...you were out.

But as each new generation of students came through, some becoming professors themselves, the underlying politics became more and more vague. The history of the terminology was lost and then it simply became the rules of the game that one did not question.

It took me quite some time to avoid teaching those ways of thinking (even though I had been a working illustrator and designer before getting my first teaching job.)which had come to stand for excellence in my mind. And excellence is the basis of teaching art. If you shoot for anything less then you are teaching mediocrity or worse. So it became a circular trap that became quite hard to break.

I now teach illustration. For 7 years I was the chair of the department. I realized that our students were not prepared to get jobs in what has become an extremely competitive field. Not unprepared artistically but professionally. They didn't know how to market themselves, they didn't understand that they'd have to pay taxes on their sales, they didn't understand that they had copyrights that could be worth more than the actual piece of art they had created. So our department built a Professional Practices course that not only began to direct students towards these professional issues but it also influenced other departments to do the same, including the Fine Arts dept. Now the entire art college mixes marketing and professional issues with concepts and techniques. And we're not alone. Many of the independent colleges of art in this country have been moving in that same direction in recent years. Often beginning in the commercial areas then spreading out through the fine art depts.

However I can't say the same about University programs who often still hold to what they consider to be a more intellectual way of proceeding...that to spend too much time on anything but the intellectual content of the work their students do is somehow an impure way of thinking. But I would venture to suggest that this mindset too will eventually go the way of the dinosaur. There is absolutely no reason why an artist can't take themselves, their art and the business of selling their art seriously. The changes are all around. Even 'mere illustrators' are beign exhibited in serious galleries these days and some are bringing down hefty sums for their work. Its a brave new world.