This is a barely-edited email discussion between me and a couple of friends, which I thought brought up some good points which deserved a wider audience.
I'm starting to look at art differently.
For example, comic books don't sell good art or good writing. They sell Batman or Superman, or hot girls. Sales seldom vary much depending on the talent doing it, Superman with a bad writer usually sells the same.
And I think that those who make it big in the Fine Art world, do so mainly because most fine arts customers are willing to pay big prices because they are told and believe that fine art can be a good investment (and often is).
There *are* people who really appreciate good art and are willing and able to pay well for it, but simply spoken, they are just too few for the economics to work. Maybe they are one in a thousand, and that's optimistic. As a lifelong artistic hopeful myself I'm sorry to say it. But at the same time it always is good to get a clearer picture.
For a long time, I've believed that artists produce things that are beautiful -- to them. If they appeal to others, hey, cool. The true artist is process-driven, not product-driven. Once the process is done, the artist moves on.
Content providers produce things that appeal to others, and sometimes, to them. Content providers are product-driven, with the goal of pleasing others. And that is addictive -- they want to do it over and over, to get the continuing rush of approval.
Content providers are outer-affirmed, artists inner-affirmed, regardless of the content or product's inherent value.
Elfquest books were art: Wendy did them through love. Superman comics are simple stories, simple art, with reassurance that in times of trouble, someone special will bail everyone out. (Sound a lot like religion? It appeals to the same mindset.)
Artists who create things that appeal to them will usually attract a loyal following of people who can see the beauty created. Successful content providers must satisfy external appetites, and will always attract a larger following than artists.
Making a living at an artist in my opinion is easier than ever because of the global reach of the internet.
Take a look at this article which theorizes all you really need is 1000 true fans.
A comic book does not need to be the next superman. A band does not need to be as big as the Rolling Stones A writer does not need to create Harry Potter...
All you need is to be good enough that 1000 people out of 7 billion think that what you do is so amazing they will always support it. With the internet and the ease of publishing your work for the world to see without needing a middle man, a producer, an agent, or a publicist.. It is possible for anyone with great talent to make a living that supports their work.
As a young man fresh out of college and pursuing a career as an artist in New York City, I worked for a trucking company based in Greenwich Village. We picked up art from artists to deliver to galleries, and also delivered art from the galleries to the buyers. It was an unusual way to get a perspective on the "art world" as New Yorkers referred to it at the time.
Despite all the lofty pretense about the art, it was obvious to me that it was an investment commodity no different than stocks to many of the people who bought it on speculation that it would become more valuable. To them it was a just a thing, and I think many of the artists thought of their work in that way. I picked up and delivered a lot of Warhols then, and he was fairly up front about that fact that he was simply creating a commodity that people would pay outrageous sums for.
There were art trends, propelled by artists, galleries and buyers all betting on what was the path to profit, and had very little to do with "art" as I was pursuing it as an idealist. As a result, I became more practical in my approach and met with considerable success, but didn't want to feel guilty of "selling out".
I think that one of life's lessons is that, except for the very few fortunate or talented, most of us have to sell out at some point in order to make a living. The challenge as an artist is to bring something more to the task, an extra effort that is beyond what is necessary to just make money, in order to be true to one's self and the vision that brought you to the dance.
It seems to me that what you say has a great deal of truth to it. There is a rule of marketing that I had to learn several years ago: McDonald's hamburgers will always outsell the world's premium hamburgers. That's because McDonald's hamburgers match the tastes and expectations of many more people than do the premium hamburgers. And what you can say about hamburgers, you can say about anything -- cars, fine art, movies, clothing, housing, etc. It's not the top of the line that has the biggest market and sells the most, it's the middle of the line that has the biggest market and sells the most.
It's a bell curve. Seventy or eighty percent of consumers fall into the middle ranges of the market. The tiny remainder of consumers are split between the very top and the very bottom of the market. Hence, there are many more consumers for middle of the road products than there are for top of the line products.
People buy LOTS of art, but there is little rhyme or reason for it other than it is being sold to them.
When my Dad retired completely and gave all of his framed photos to the local library for their book sale, I found that any prints I wanted (and I have the original slides) were cheaper there and are still available several years later, than having new ones printed, much less matted.
NOTHING seems to sell by itself, a fact which I have bemoaned for decades now.
Every estate, yard , garage, rummage sale is full of wall art--most of which goes for the price of the frame...the market for used low value art is minimal at best.
But even technical solutions have to be sold. I spent 20 years consulting, and every single solution, however obvious and perfect for the problem needed to be sold to someone. (I asked a client once why they had chosen to implement a data structure in the manner they did (which was causing us to rework the entire multi-million line system,) to be told that the solution had been 'voted on, and that one lost.' That vote cost them millions.)
Most art is a bad investment. Many years ago, shortly after I got back froma feild trip to Alaska, I found a small soapstone Inuit carving at a garage sale. I'd not purchased any due to my budget while up North, but I'd priced them, and they were ~$100 or more each, selling for 2-3x that in Chicago, 100 miles away.
This seal was marked '25' which I thought was very cheap, and I picked it up to buy for my mother's birthday. It was 25 CENTS.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, most have little ability to tell what is formally beautiful from crap.
As a photographer, I, like most, have had my share of telephone poles and other junk sticking out of my subjects head. Most people don't even seem to notice such stuff.
The artists I've known in school have difficulty telling the difference between a "finished" work and a work ready for sale.
All famous artists either were good self-promoters or were taken under the wing of one, and a great many rich art patrons seem to buy only on the recommendation of experts, but even they seldom buy pieces which appreciate a lot.
Oddly enough, some of the worlds most talented artists have been art forgers--capable of imitating dozens of different styles.
Most profitable artists are craftspeople who sell thousands or millions of copies, and the art itself could be any level of quality.
The average time spent looking at a piece in a museum is on the close order of 4 seconds.
The average person is as happy or happier with a poster of their favorite sports hero as with a poster of the Mona Lisa, or any other reproduction of any 'great' work.
Photography as an art has taken over a hundred years to obtain the probationary status of 'art.'
Much of this was the impression that a photo 'only captures what was already there,' which, of course, is all in the camera not the photographer.
'The camera never lies.' Is widely believed even today, but anyone who photographs seriously knows that the reverse is true--the camera ALWAYS lies.
For millennia, art was a method of conveying religious stories--mnemonics. All art stems from religion, and religion stems from brain chemistry and the feeling of helplessness in the face of the Universe.
The brain stimulation activated by religious experience and art are related, and people can be trained to appreciate just about anything to achieve that effect.
Decades ago there was a 6 year old in London who was drawing pictures that could easily have been attributed to Picasso. She was a savant, and to cure her inability to deal with the world, they disconnected her brain hemispheres--immediately she was 'normal'--and without the artistic ability.
While most people appreciate scenic beauty, the standard human reaction is to ooh and ahh, then dump our shit, literally or figuratively.
This is why the money lies in pandering to the lowest common denominator. People on the high end of intelligence an education expect depth in their art, things which enable them to look at the same piece over and over finding new things of interest each time.
Does this mean we should abandon Art?
No, it just means that it is something people have to know about to appreciate. For a piece to become valuable requires that there are people who appreciate it enough to pay much more than average for a piece--which requires training. (I don't count art 'investors' who actually can't always see anything except money when looking at a piece.)
But average people do come up with beautiful art, though much of it is merely a copy of something they've seen. Look at the colored rice images created in Japan by the farmers, typical of Japanese art, they are mostly historically important images with long histories. New images are seldom created.
I think art is art... and business is business. Many good artists has been lost, simply because they were poor businessmen.
That's why a rockband needs a manager, usually they are artists, but not salesmen.
Van Gogh died poor, but became famous when his pictures became a business, and if Bill Gates had been a good programmer, and a poor businessman, computers would probably have been very different today.
Charles added the below, a bit tangetial, but interesting:
Yeah, as an inventor, I foolishly believed the old "invent a better mousetrap..." crap.
With the last UK climate report, which split the possible geoengineering fixes for the climate into 2 groups--increase the albedo of the planet or remove the CO2 & other gases from the atmosphere, completely ignores the possible solution I found, which is to change the ocean circulation back to what it was before our climate went irregular.
Everyone talks about thinking outside the box, but they seldom actually want to consider any idea outside the box, and nearly the first thing that is done is to draw the box if one doesn't exist.
By nature, organisms are resistant to change--in Nature, few changes are for the better, most change disrupts the current status quo, and that is nearly always a bad thing historically.
Autistic spectrum disorders show this dislike to a huge degree--ANY change in environment or routine distresses a highly autistic person.
All the rage in industry is "innovation," which effectively means "minor change." This is because:
1) It's usually easier to implement a minor change than a new method of doing something.
2) It's always cheaper to come up with innovation rather than invention.
3) Innovation, being a slight change to the staus quo, is much, much easier to sell.
In politics, change is discussed a lot, but much of the change that happens is designed to keep things as they are today.
Note that traffic circles, common in Europe for decades, are just now popping up all over the US to replace 4 way stops.
Religion & courts exist to act as a brake on progress--to preserve the status quo. Religious fundamentalism of all sorts acts as a brake on the already slow progress of change within religion (though the Roman Catholic Church made an increadible flip-flop in 990-1010. Went from peaceful "paradise on Earth" to "kill an infidel for the Lord.")
I think an artist has to find something the public is *already* interested in, and connect with that. Norm found one such way: to have an ample bosom, and paint with your titties!