Art for Art’s Sake?

I’m back from a week in British Columbia helping my college freshman son start his new life in a university – looking forward to getting back to some art-making and art-discussing!

I’ve thought a lot about what the process of making art consists of for me. There seems to be a line that is either crossed or not by each artist – the one I’m talking about is showing your work to others with the intention of selling it.

I know of some artists who practice their art and never cross this line. They are happy to paint, photograph, etc. without ever having a show, putting a price tag on the work, sometimes even putting the work in a frame. Each piece is completed and then put away in storage or tossed or ???

In some ways, I envy folks like this – for some reason, I have always felt that the art-making cycle was incomplete with this approach. For me, sharing the work with others, having them experience it, is required for me to feel that the work is done. Of course, I have a lot of art that I’ve shown and never sold – the sale isn’t the piece that completes the puzzle, it’s the showing of it, the sharing with others, that closes the loop. Of course, there are pieces that aren’t of sufficient quality to show but those are not candidates to close that loop anyway.

This does place an extra burden on the process of making art and showing your work to the public can be a very humbling experience. So I am a little jealous of those who don’t feel the slightest need to take that route – somehow they’re dodging a bullet that I can’t seem to dodge. Perhaps there is a pathological need to acceptance behind all this. I won’t deny it…

When I started playing the piano 4-5 years ago, I made a conscious decision at the beginning that I would never play for anyone else. I don’t even let my family hear me (though they probably do hear something from the other room while I’m practicing). But I wanted to keep this activity to myself, for my own selfish enjoyment. It helps that I’m not good enough at it to be tempted to reverse my earlier decision about this! And this has worked for me so far with the piano.

Perhaps this topic has come up now because I am preparing for a large show next month – nothing like that to stir the pot!

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10 responses to “Art for Art’s Sake?

  1. Bob, you make the basic distinction between two groups– the “closet” artists and the ones who want to sell. And then you kind of group selling and showing, as if one wouldn’t show without the intent to sell. As I read your post (interesting and thought-inspiring as always…) I wondered how you feel about a third group–those who show but do so without the intention of selling (not that they would object to selling, but that is not their purpose). Isn’t that where blogs come in?

  2. i agree with the last comment about showing your work and blogs, i can identify with that, though i have shown and solg one or two paintings in my time, the hole process is a bit nervreckiing and up and down, almost peformance art! So i hope your show is a success !
    Being artists you can put a bit of you into what you paint so it takes a certain thing show, some people never will, thats fine and it makes you wonder how many unknown painters are out there, I remember reading about a artist in this country who was discoverd after he had died, he had a whole housefull of paintintings that the critics thought were wonderfull.

  3. Great comments! I agree, Jude, there are more than 2 categories – I think the biggest divide is putting the work out there, showing it, whether for sale or not. Bloggers are a good example, as you say.

    And I like the reference to “performance art” when selling your work directly. It is just like that, which is why it is an uncomfortable act for so many, myself included.

    It is fascinating to ponder how many artists and great works of art are out there that no one has ever seen! Certainly as you go back in time where the means for preserving the work was less and the likelihood it would be destroyed greater, the chances that there were masterpieces we don’t know about is likely. We probably have seen only a small percentage of great art that has been produced.

  4. I agree with quite everything you say, Bob. I also need to show my work to close the loop. Or even worse: to try to sell it!
    But all this has been an evolution. At the beginning I painted for the sake of it, then when I thought it was not too bad what i did I always more and more felt the need to show it, first to family, then to friends, then to the large public.

    And then one day this was not enough, i needed to try to sell my work. This is how I became a professional painter, instead of the mathematician I was. I don’t believe it is a simply need for acceptance. I remember how I felt (and still feel today) the first time somebody gave me some cash money in exchange of some sheet of paper painted by me. It was an incredible feeling, the feeling of being able to print money! Nothing to do with getting my money on my account at the end of each month! This is some very basic need which seems to be filled, the need of immediate. concrete reward. And of magic and tension in my case.
    I love the tension, the surprises, the adventure when we show our work. The result (they like it or they don’t) is immediate, and only implicate you. This is the reason why the critics can kill, and the congratulations make you feel in heaven. It is surely not something for people with weak nerves.

    I had a kind of “killing me” confrontation at my show Friday evening (ask Susan), and all the compliments and even the sales which came after could not delete the awful feeling of being NOTHING! I am still under that shock, some days later!
    So yes, sometimes I wished I would still be a mathematician…

    Very interesting what you say about your piano playing. I really wonder how you can keep it for yourself, after 5 years! Have you an idea why is it possible with your music, and not with your art? Just because you think you are not good enough at the piano? Or is there something intrinsequelly different between music and art in this context?

  5. Miki

    The evolution you describe is all too familiar to me! And I completely relate to the way in which “tension, surprise and adventure” come with showing the work – exactly right! I’m sorry about the “killing me” experience you had and know how something that, intellectually, you know is meaningless, can hang on and overtake your thoughts and feelings for some time. If we could only control our minds…

    I don’t know why I can be this way about the piano. Perhaps it is because, once you are done playing a piece, it is gone, whereas with a painting it is still there and you have to decide what to do with it! Or it may just be because my intention at the start was so clear that this would only be for me…

  6. Congratulations on your show next month Bob I hope it goes well! I am an the process of beginning to sell my art for the first time. Years ago I sold several pieces but have never tried to sell or exhibited since then. Some pieces as you say are stored away, in fact I have a whole dang messy room full of stuff, it’s impossible to keep everything, but I try! I agree that sharing the work can be very humbling but also very rewarding, I have a lot of sharing to catch up on. I always intended to show more but you know how one can get distracted. I am working on creating cohesive small pieces that are framed, then I will try and show my new work.

  7. Bob, Chris commented on my post from today, referring me to this one. Our blogs are having parallel discussions! I am not sure why this whole subject just popped up for me, but must have something to do with my current anxiety about getting some more galleries, which is my goal and promise to myself. You say your thoughts might have been because of your upcoming show.

    I have a lot of empathy for Miki, whatever her experience was. We are inextricably connected to our art and others’ reactions to it and to us by extension.

    I say you have nothing at all to worry about with your open studio, and you will have a ball interacting with your visitors. It’s a great way to keep control of the situation!

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