Saturday, July 17, 2010

Say My Name, Say My Name

If, as Samuel Beckett said, words are all we have, then artists represented within the gallery system have very little.
Today, I received an email from a well-known and respected curator. He was promoting a giveaway of an artists' print. To communicate the artwork's value, the curator described the artist as museum-level. It reminded me of a high school or university grading, where students' levels of achievement are noted not as numbers but as credit, distinction or high distinction, except the curator's terminology was colder. Referring to an artist merely as museum-level conveys they are valued within the traditional system but not enough to receive more fulsome enthusiasm.
I got to thinking about the terminology used elsewhere in the art world. The words used by art dealers to describe artists are a mixture of financial jargon, touchy-feely euphemisms and derogatory metaphors. The same words are adopted by artists to describe themselves – maybe because they are too often desperate to ingratiate themselves with art dealers.
Like a horse-breeder, a commercial gallery has a
stable of artists – and any artist that joins the gallery becomes part of that stable. It's a common expression, used without embarrassment on many commercial gallery websites. Unlike race horses and domestic animals bred for show, artists aren't labeled according to age but rather potential value. They're described as emerging, mid-career or leading. The very best are not always called masters but thoroughbreds.
Of course, the dealer's perspective is no different to a stud farmer's or trainer's. The work of an emerging artist is sold at an entry level price. However, unlike race-horses, who earn their categorisations by age and early on, only ever race against their age-peers, the age or price point at which an artist ceases to be emerging is relative to the then-current market and can be entirely arbitrary. The term is often dismissive:
emerging can be art-speak for newbie or worse, rube.
An artist graduates to being mid-career when their work is regularly sold on the secondary market through art dealers and auction houses. It's a kind of no-man's land, expected to be achieved only after working hard for a couple of decades. Most professions offer some kind of recognition for such dedication. Not the art world.
leading artist is, as the name suggests, a front-runner, a pace-maker, a winner. Leading artists' works sell for large amounts and their names carry and enhance the status of everyone – dealer, collector, curator, institution – associated with it. Their artworks are described as blue-chip, the same as stock that sells at a high price because of public confidence in the issuing corporation's long record of steady earnings. Buying (and selling) the work of a leading artist is also akin to backing a winner in a horse race.
Incidentally, those collectors who buy art as an investment are called
punters, the same as bettors at a race track. Those who buy poorly are mug punters.
Euphemisms abound in the traditional gallery system: patronising, pseudo-parental terms like
nurturing, supporting, and developing. They imply care - worse, they imply that artists are unable to care for themselves. Galleries always proclaim that they nurture the artists in their stable. But giving an artist an exhibition – and often charging emerging artists a higher commission rate – doesn't equate to helping to develop artistic talent or further a career. Art dealers nurture prices, not artists.
When an art dealer or gallery
supports an artists' work, it means they bid for it anonymously at auction to ensure that the price point at which the gallery retails the work remains stable or increases. Auction records are available to the public. However, the details of the buyers are not. In an attempt to stop price-ramping, art galleries selling their artists' work at auction must declare their interest. But buyers always remain anonymous. Sometimes the buyers are collaborative dealers – or rich spouses.
Early on in my career I was advised by an art dealer to find a wealthy man to marry, one who could
support my work, both its production and its price at auction.
The term
support is also used when an art dealer has exhibited and sold an artists' work. It implies a favour, a good deed, rather than a business arrangement. I have even heard it used as a kind of emotional blackmail: a dealer telling an artist, "I supported you for years!" Which is to say that he displayed and sold the artist's work, took a commission and charged ancillary expenses from the proceeds – and still couldn't return their phone calls.
Words don't just define meaning. They create it as well. The words used within the traditional art system are inherently demeaning to artists. Yet artists – who, by definition, delve into meaning and symbolism every day of their working lives – use the same words to describe themselves and each other. If we are ever going to become more independent and better off, we need to find a different terminology with which to think and talk about what we do.
It's the very first step we need to take if we're to challenge and change a system designed to oppress and profit from us.


Michael Douglas Jones said...

No further comment is needed; thank you for telling us what we once were, and shall never be again.

artistlauralynch said...

hazel, you have revealed some ugly inside underbelly workings of the gallery system and i commend you for that... for the most part it's a bottom line monetary thing .. and falls in line with department stores and the rest of the commercial world ... eyes wide open... so all you starry eyed artists out there who think that just because you are creating a work of art doesn't mean that your work exists outside the system ... in fact it's right in there... maybe at a higher price tag but nonetheless part and parcel. the whole reason for my work as an artist has nothing to do with making a buck, but rather the production of meaning... i can't speak to the gallery system, i have managed to stay outside of that ... it's been very difficult and others have tried to convince me that i need to find a gallery to represent me ... and i have resisted. (i am not rich nor do i have someone who takes care of me; i am poor and barely surviving) there are other avenues out there that i am discovering ... online exhibitions, blogs, websites, podcasts, internet capabilities that will level the playing field! and i am reenergized and i'm going to keep on keepin on!

rino said...

Excellent post.

I think this could be part of a book.

Carmarthen artist said...

Interesting blog but Im not sure if it says more about you than about the relationship between artists and dealers.
Artists are all grown ups and are happy to take the money when they enter the system and know the price they have to pay ~in every sense.

Many artists paint or create because they want to. If they sell fine. I put myself in this category and very much lower in the food chain than yourself.

Nevertheless an interesting view point.

Carmarthen artist said...

That post was a bit more personal than I would normally be. Probably a combination of sleep deprivation and looking after grandchildren for the weekend.So sorry about that and very classy of you to publish it. Wish you continued success (in or out of the gallery system). Lwc Da ~ good luck.

Harold Spector said...

It is a double edged sword. I have something being shown in a gallery in Mayfair. Pleased it is there and hope somone buys it. Have haggled about the commission being charged if work sells and ended up with 50% -great deal although still seems harsh would love 99%. The work is not of great importance to me but do need the money. Could say that I'm selling my soul but do need to live as does the gallery need to earn money. The gallery I believe are paying 6K a week rent so they do need to justify their commission.Not sure where I'm going with this but bottom line is it's still a transaction of a product like any other business.

michelle kuen suet fung said...

It empowers other fellow artists to read this. There is not enough professional materials for artists in the market--good ones anyway.

Thank you for the enlightening read.

Corey Rankin said...

I'm loving your writings, Hazel, they are so comprehensive. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said If you're going to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you. No wonder the traditionalists hate you. Good on you for doing your thing and revealing. Love your art, merry xmas.