By John Camp
The discussion of Ctein’s print-subscription offer, and the ruminations on the monetization of artwork, are among the most critical topics ever addressed on this site, and I was astonished that so many people seem upset by the idea, or the process, or the fact that’s it’s being publicized here.
I’m a professional writer of thriller novels. I’ve been doing it for twenty years now, having written a couple of non-fiction books before I finally got launched in fiction. In that time (since 1990) I’ve published twenty-seven novels. I have another coming out in May and another in September. All of them have, in one form or another, made the New York Times Best Sellers list, several of them going to Number 1.
In addition, I have a lifelong interest in art—painting, in particular, but also in photography, ceramics and fabric art. When I was a newspaper columnist, I tried to write two columns a month about artists, which meant that I spent a lot of time in artists’ studios, many of them heart-breakingly primitive. I’ve seen middle-aged women living illegally in industrial buildings with no private bathing facilities, cooking with illegal hotplates, just so they could do the work. One of my non-fiction books, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, published by Rizzoli, a New York art publisher, grew out of my interest in painting.
I’m trying to say that I’ve been doing this stuff—writing for a living, and looking at art and talking to artists—all of my life, and I know quite a bit about it.
So let me share the following with you...
- A single 200mm tube of Winsor & Newton cadmium yellow oil paint costs $51.89 at a mail order discount store. List price is almost $90. A single brush can cost anything from $3 up to $100. A good-sized professional oil painting may have $200, or more, in materials tied up in it.
- A pack of Premium Glossy Photo Paper in 13x19 costs $57 at the online Epson store; and you need a pro-level printer.
- Commercial art galleries will take between 40 and 60 percent of the retail price of an artwork (depending on the artist’s popularity and demonstrated ability to sell.)
- In 2005 (the last year for which I could find numbers) there were an estimated 172,000 book titles published in the United States—and in Great Britain, 206,000 titles.
- Artists and writers need to eat.
This scattershot summary—you can extend it as far as you wish—is meant to demonstrate several things: being an artist is not cheap; the competition is extreme; earning a decent income is brutally difficult.
Of the successful artists I’ve known, I’d say that the two things that led to their success were compulsion (virtually to the extent of mental illness) to do the work, and the eventual ability to monetize the effort. Most of them never get that success—they’re finally ground down and give it up.
Generally, if you’re not compelled to do a particular form of art, you won’t be all that good at it. And people who collect visual art work will see that; people who listen to music will hear it. Serious art collectors are like serious baseball fans—they might not be able to do it themselves, but they have keen eyes and ears for ability.
Two recent books, still in the stores, have a lot to say about the relative values of talent and work. One is called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, who also wrote The Tipping Point and Blink. The other is Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune magazine.
Both suggest that while inborn talent is of some utility, the thing that really determines success in the arts (or any other field) is simply doing it. Gladwell even suggests a standard: ten thousand hours. He suggests that if you work very hard a particular art form—art in the widest sense, including sports, music, law, medicine and so on—that you will begin to reach a mastery of it after 10,000 hours of hard work. That’s 40 hours a week (no cheating!) for five years, or 20 hours a week for ten.
Colvin argues that people need to do a certain kind of difficult practice—long and unremitting and constantly challenging—before they reach mastery. He uses Mozart as an example, Despite Mozart’s reputation as a child genius, he says that a real analysis of his work suggests that he might have been something of a late bloomer. As the son of a well-known composer who carefully directed his child’s work from the age of two, Mozart put in his 10,000 hours (to conflate Gladwell with Colvin) while still relatively young. His status as a child genius developed because he put in his ten thousand hours as a child.
Let’s say that they’re onto something: that it’s work that counts, that it’s the compulsion.
If you’re married, with children, and have to support the kids with a job, where do you find the extra 20 hours a week to seriously work on your art form, if you decide to take the long, ten-year route to mastery? If you’re working in a non-demanding job (which is the kind that usually leaves you awake enough to do the extra 20 hours a week of art work) how do you pay for the paint at $50 a tube, for paintings that won’t sell, or the recording sessions, for records that won’t sell, or for the computer and printer you need for the books that won’t sell? How do you do that while trying to raise some decent kids?
The work is serious—this is the only way you can get to a career—but how do you afford it?
It’s not an accident that many fine artists have artists as parents—the parents value the early work, and the child, like Mozart, has the opportunity to put in his 10,000 hours before he actually has to make a living at it. Another example? Tiger Woods on television at age 2 showing off his golfing skills.
The way most people afford to do it—who don’t have the luck with parents—is that they simply give up the idea of having another life: they work all the time. They put off getting married, having children, they risk not taking good jobs (and taking bad, easy jobs) so they can work hard at the art, they turning living rooms into studios and bathrooms into darkrooms. Those who do try to have a "real" life often wind up in divorces, with broken homes—or they give up.
But let’s say you’re compelled to do the work, and you somehow find the time to do the 10,000 hours you need to master the job. You can now paint, sculpt, write, sew, throw, whatever, with the best of them. Then comes the other critical question: how do you monetize it?
It’s no accident that some of the leading artists of our times are excellent salesman—Jeff Koons sold bonds on Wall Street to support his art habit—and simply shifted their sales skills over to the art would. Andy Warhol did the same thing, to some extent, though he was also a far better artist than Koons, and Damien Hirst, the British artist, has shown a real flair for publicity and sales. (I’ve read somewhere that they’ve made a movie, with a rap star, I think, based on his diamond-studded skull.)
But most artists tend to be somewhat reclusive, because of the "compulsion" and "10,000 hours of work" aspects of their lives. They’re not back-slappers, drink-buyers, hale-fellow types.
So selling can be one of the toughest hurdles for a real artist to clear, even those who put in their time, who are doing excellent work.
For writers, there’s a relatively simple path: get an agent, and let the agent do the sales work. Most people who are seriously into writing can get an agent. That’s because the agent’s investment in an unknown writer is trivial—most agents can tell within a dozen pages or so of a manuscript whether the writer is competent. Many of them will take home 150 or 200 pages (total) of the 10 or 15 novels they got that week, scan them, and then only read those novels that seem competent. In that first scan, they’ve invested maybe two hours of work that can be done while eating lunch, or for that matter, sitting on the toilet.
But for the other arts, the problem is much greater.
If you’re doing painting, photography, sculpture, ceramics, fabric art (weaving, quilting), you need wall space. People need a place to go to see these things. The fact is, the Internet doesn’t really do it—the Internet can provide leads to artists that may interest a collector, but most really need to see the art works, in person, before they will consider a serious investment.
Walls cost money.
A few years ago, I rented a non-retail sixth-floor office in a downtown St. Paul building, just to get myself out of the house in the Minnesota winter. The space cost me $30,000 a year. Down in the retail area, where an art gallery might have been located—but wasn’t, because the building wasn’t up-scale enough—you’d have paid $90,000 or $100,000 for the same space. That’s why art galleries have to take 40%–60%, and they still fail.
So an art gallery must attract artists who sell well enough to support the wall space they’ll use, and that rarely includes beginners or real unknowns.
(And maybe not even "knowns." In Santa Fe I once saw a poster of a famous print by one of the best-known Twentieth Century art photographers, who shall go unnamed, and thought, "Jeez, that’s gorgeous, I’d pay for that." I started looking around for a copy, and eventually found his website. I wrote asking if any prints were available, and got back a quick call from an assistant, or wife, or something—I didn’t ask—and was told, "We happen to have a very good print of that hanging in his studio, and it’s available." The price? $6,000—and this for a great piece of art, identical copies of which hang in major museums. The woman even seemed a little tentative about the price, as if I might have been able to bargain, if I was hardnosed about it. But think about that: $6,000 for a large, signed, iconic print by a major artist. He’d have to sell two of these a month—and I’m pretty sure by the response I got, that he didn’t—to equal the pay of a first year Harvard law graduate.)
What do the beginners do? Okay, they get a day job that allows them to work....
But how do you start selling? How do you make that critical jump? How do you get the toe in the water? How do you prove to people who own the walls, that you should be on them?
How do you do that without special pull, without a friend in the business, without screwing the local art critic?
That’s the problem.
That’s why this Ctein experiment is important, and should be a bit more publicized than it is. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see if somebody can build a way out for people who desperately wish to be taken seriously as artists, but can’t do that initial sales job.
I’ve encountered small-town women who do the most marvelous quilts—they’ve put in their 10,000 hours and more, they work hard, but they live in West Jesus, Texas, and there are no places for their work to be seen. They may even be afraid to go to the places they need to go in order to be accepted as artists.
Would the Ctein plan work for people like that?
Is there some other way to do it, to use the ’net to open up the art world, to take off the hermetic seals that means you have to go to New York, Chicago, LA or San Francisco to see serious stuff, and then pay a fortune for it?
I’d like to see more ideas like the 1000 True Fans—more alternatives—and see them publicized here or on the Luminous Landscape or Digital Photography Review or wherever they can be.
Doing so isn’t a problem for places like TOP; it’s almost their highest function. Why should all the publicity go to Tinker Toys like Lensbabies, when hard-working artists struggle to feed their kids?
This is an important thing being done here; for real artists, maybe the most important thing.