Shock Value – Cheesy Art – And Tell Me Why Do You Compare Yourself To Others?

I thought hard about what you are about to read. It is an open letter to artists everywhere. To the self-doubting, struggling, and those who do not value his or her own work enough. To the voice in my own head that says you will never be what you hope to be.

Do not compare, in fact, never compare your work to the work of other artists. If you only study the style of your favorite artist because you want to make art like them, then you are simply killing your ability to develop a style of your own. The world doesn’t need another Rembrandt – they already had one.

Contemporary art almost has a problem with separating style from shock value. Many artists simply want to shock their viewers. Often the work is technically well done, but has no style, and therefore must use shock to impress the audience.

In some cases, the modern establishment seems to think art that doesn’t shock, is nothing more than boring art. In fact, some artists create a great living for themselves by making a particular shock value their style.

The most recent example I can think of regarding art that may have been painted more for the public reaction rather than the simple reason to make great art, are the Obama portrait paintings destined to grace the halls of the National Portrait Gallery. In fact, the New York Times even made their headline regarding the portraits a testimony to what I am trying to say. Posted Feb. 13, 2018 by Sopan Deb of the New York Times, “The Obama Portraits Drew a Strong Reaction. What Did They Mean to You?”.

Why does the subject of the former first family, portraits painted for public display in the National Portrait Gallery, have to “mean” anything? Shouldn’t they be classy, timeless, well executed grand paintings of the Obama’s?

Mr. Obama was painted by Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle Obama’s portrait was by Amy Sherald. Both artists did paint in the style each of them are known for. To be honest, the National Portrait Gallery gave a list of artists to pick from. So…in reality, there was probably a small pool of selected artists the Obama’s had to choose from and they picked these two. Sad really, I could think of many artists living today who would have made classy portraits rather than the cheesy university trained styles of the two who were selected. The name Ralph Heimans comes to mind when I think of classy portraits worthy of national portraits.

This is why I believe we continue to make art a commodity and try to line it up as if one is better than the other. The style is lost, there is no soul, and technique and shock value are the only valid parameters the viewer uses to decide which is “good” and which is “bad”.

How boring? As artists we must study the best artists and the artists who inspire us but learn to find our own style and put our soul into the art. Technique is a learned skill and anyone can become technically great. We will never be the best version of us until we develop a signature style and learn to put soul into our work. Technique is just the ability to move the medium in the methods that are best – but style and soul are what make great art.

If you constantly compare good and bad, you will never discover what great really is. If you confuse style with your way of shocking the audience, or technique as a tool for making your art interesting, then you’ve done nothing more than illustrate a complex cartoon worthy of a dollar store gift card.

In other words, stop comparing your work to someone else’s. Stop thinking your work isn’t good enough and develop your own style, learn to put your soul into your work, and keep mastering the technique that supports your style. Don’t waste creative energy on wishing you could paint, draw, photograph, play the guitar, or whatever like your favorite artist or someone you think is better than you.

At the end of the day, art is subjective and I am sure there are a few people who really like the Obama portraits. My opinion is heavily influenced by my distaste for most of the shock value driven contemporary art created by overpaid and egoistical university graduates who act like their shit doesn’t stink because they have a BFA from an esteemed college. Personally, I don’t think a better art education can be had than one given at a classical realism atelier but again, I am biased.

I know my words attack a segment of artists who otherwise might have been something else if they didn’t attend the school they went to. I know I can be a bit of an angry man when I talk about art. I can also appreciate the fact that I am a part-time artist, struggling to sell his art and have little more than a knife at a gunfight in the world of contemporary art. But, I also know that I am not alone in my feelings about the crap the elite call art. I also know there is a wide selection of people who know and appreciate what great art is supposed to look like.

Make art – find your style and soul and be great.

Yes – It Is About The Money

We could all use money more than exposure – © Michael Warth

Unless you are selling artwork to better mankind and their perception of the universe, you are selling art to make money. There, I said it. If you are making art and giving it away freely, then well, this isn’t a post that concerns you – keep doing your thing. Making money doesn’t make you a sell-out. Compromising your standards for a dollar makes you a sell-out. Making money as an artist affords the artist the ability to sustain a standard of living and make more art. Simple really, but the fact most artists have a difficult time makes me think it really isn’t as simple as one would think.

I have read many articles regarding “what successful artists do” only to finish the article with more unanswered questions and more concerned about how to make money than when I started reading. Sure, we all must first define success before getting too hung up on the details – that’s not what I am arguing here. What I am proposing is that once the definition of success is made, one must define how much is enough. In other words, success is many things, and income (or money) is just one attribute of what each of us define as success.

Just like art, success is subjective. To some, fame is success, to others, financial wealth is success, and the list can go on and on. For the sake of this blog post, we will stick to financial gains to determine the attribute of money for a measure of success. In a nutshell, success in general can be defined via the following attributes…

  • Happiness and fullfilment
  • Fame or adoration for what we do
  • Enough income to live comfortably without too much concern for money
  • Surplus (over the amount of necessity, but what we want to make us feel successful)
  • Freedom (more on this as you read ahead)

Many may disagree with the above, but I believe this is a good baseline for defining success. Again, looking specifically at the money, and understanding that in the end, without money we cannot keep doing “it”, I believe success ultimately comes down to how much money we need to keep doing what we want. When the money is there, we can place more focus on the other attributes of success and build on the small successes until we reach a goal. But then again, when is enough, enough? In fact, chasing success in terms of goals, is a treadmill we will never outrun. Contentment is important for finding success for without it, you are simply reaching goals and defining higher levels of success you plan to attain.

This is where you need to decide how much is enough. For me, I already know how much money each month I want to feel successful. Could I live on less? Will I want more? Probably yes, maybe no, then again, maybe – right? OK, we are on the same page – pick a number and stick to it for a minute.

Now that you have the number, will you be happy and/or fulfilled making said amount? Will you have to work like a slave to earn said amount? Will you burn out and hate it because you need the money? Do you see where I am going with this? Fame can come out of this too, but if you are working too hard to enjoy the money, I doubt you’ll enjoy the fame or the perceived success.

Now that you realize the money dictates the other attributes and has a profound effect on them, wouldn’t it be best if you could make money just being an artist rather than selling art? All I am saying here is that we artists need to change our mindset and stop thinking like employees and indentured servants to our craft. Making art and selling it, should be the fun part but not necessarily the means to an end.

I believe success can be defined as freedom. Freedom to paint and freedom to enjoy life. Make enough money but free to stop working form time to time. Have fame but time to enjoy it. Have surplus money, time, art, etc. but still have time to sit back and plan for more. Yes, my friends, freedom is the goal of success. Success defined as a dollar amount, and level or tier you need to reach is nothing more than what an employee thinks about climbing the corporate ladder. Therefore, stop trying to find the answer to success in articles or by examples of what others are doing. The answer to success is freedom and success is nothing more than the ladder in which to reach your goals.

So, when someone says you are all about the money in a derogatory manor, smile and say, “yes, money allows me the freedoms I am after so that I can find greatness as the artist I hope to someday become”. Stop thinking like a ladder climbing employee, or a starving artist. Think in terms of what you can do to earn enough money to buy yourself time to make art. Think about it…

Making art isn’t the job, it is the main reason you are or became an artist. Allow your income and methods of generating income rise to the level of your definition of success where freedom allows you to make the art you want to make without concern of selling it to eat or pay the rent. 

Some artists do this by…

  • Selling products related to art or what they do
  • Have a successful YouTube channel and be a social media expert
  • Teaching others how to make art
  • Non art related income generation from a job or some other way to pay the bills (I listed this last because having a job limits freedom because your employer expects you to be there)

Listen, making it is not about becoming a slave 18+ hours a day to your craft or making your dealers rich. Making it is simply finding the right path for you, and determining what success means to you and how that success will provide you with freedom. Again, don’t see the production of art as the goal – rather, have a way to reach a level of success that gives you the freedom to make art.

Right now, I work a regular job that in some aspects kills my freedom of time. But it allows me to make art for me and the art I want to make. It [the job] is a compromise I make for the income and freedom to make art. I’m lucky that my job pays well and has great benefits. Therefore, the compromise is a great thing because it creates success and some level of freedom.

From this point on, things get a little hard to read or follow. I get detailed and subjective to a point where some may throw their hands in the air and say, “I quit” – but don’t let anything I say from here on out deter you.

Assume you have 1200 billable hours a year to make art. And assume you will sell 50% of the art you make. This means you have 600 hours a year of sellable art. Due to costs of doing business, a 50% consignment fee rate at most reputable galleries and dealers, and a material cost budget of 20% you will need to sell your art at a high price to make a living on art sales alone. Assume we agree on $300,000 in revenue as a successful amount. If 80% is sold in a gallery at 50% commission, you will need to sell $60,000 worth of art on your own from the studio directly. You will also spend $60,000 in materials (remember that 20% materials budget?) to make all the art and mistakes you can muster.

How much art can you make an hour? If the average piece takes 30 hours from start to finish, you will only sell 20 pieces per year (600 hours divided by 30) but need to make 40 (1200 hours). At $300,000 in revenue, you are looking at about $15,000 per piece average.

  • Is this realistic? Yes, people sell art for $15,000 and up all around the world, but the trouble for most of us is finding the buyers. Which is why a great dealer network is needed.
  • Is this too conservative? Probably, but then again, I am simply saying you only sell half of what you make, and you need $300,000 in revenue to feel successful.

What is the breakdown at $300,000 in revenue and why can’t I work for less? Well, the short answer is, you can always work for less but your financial success depends on enough to keep making art and being able to sustain a standard of living. Do you like nice things? How many bologna sandwiches can you tolerate for dinner?

Basic Breakdown

Information about the chart above:

  • CODB (73%) is the sum of Materials (20%), Commission Fees of 50% for (40%) of the revenue, Capital (8%) to cover all your brushes, gear, equipment, travel, etc, and finally Pre-Tax Retirement (5%) is a basic necessity for the day you decide you can’t keep up anymore.
  • Revenue generated by a gallery is $240,000, meaning consignment fees are $120,000 and the expected studio direct sales are $60,000
  • Income tax on the remaining income is figured at 35% but your tax rates vary based on where you live and I’m not a tax expert. Consult someone if you want specifics. 

Plugging in a few numbers, I came up with a few observations. Using the chart above, notice the revenue is $300,000. Assuming a tax rate of 35% (which I have had mine as high as 42%), 20% for materials, 40% of the sales made at 50% consignment rates, a capital budget of 8%, and a pre-tax retirement savings of 5%, one would make a monthly net income of $4,390. I can’t talk much about health insurance but I know some self employed people are paying $1,500 per month for good coverage making the $4,390 less attractive and one can quickly see why $300,000 is a conservative figure. If you live in Brooklyn and need $2,500 for rent while paying $1,500 in healthcare, the last $390 in net income won’t get you very far.

Back to the numbers, one would have to paint 1200 hours a year minimum and make a $15,000 painting in 30 hours or less 40 times a year and sell 1/2 of them to make it. I would rather not be this enslaved to making art as my single income stream. Yes, one could sell prints or reproductions (however you want to look at it), but they could also teach or find other income streams that don’t require so much overhead. Personally, I’d rather make about $13,000 in monthly revenue without materials costs and commissions by having a successful social media channel such as something like YouTube. Don’t think one can make money like this on YouTube? Lookup Casey Neistat (https://www.youtube.com/user/caseyneistat) and more specifically, Peter McKinnon (https://www.youtube.com/user/petermckinnon24) for prime examples of creative types making enough from YouTube to have fun living a creative life.

Again, I knew this post was going to get lengthy and I could beat a dead horse and some of you would still argue I was wrong (maybe I am). However, the way I see it, as an artist, it is about the money or we cannot keep making art. I for one believe our best success model is one where we have the freedom to make the art we want to make and time to have a little fun. Sure, I want my art to be sold for $25-$50,000 per piece but I’m just not meeting the right people and selling in the right places yet. But I also don’t want to be so enslaved to selling and making the art that I lose my freedom to make two or 22 pieces a year. My studio is not a factory making decorations for walls.

Success is having the freedom to do what I want when I want and having the means of support to do so. Your definition will vary but I also think it will be similar. At the very least, I hope this post got you thinking. Is YouTube the answer? I don’t know – maybe. Is selling handbags the way? Possibly but I’d have to enjoy it too and again, if too much time is spent away from making art, I have lost a freedom and probably just created a job for myself.

Therefore, I leave you with this. Being a successful artist means you have the freedom of time to create, but also the income to sustain your standard of living. If being an artist means you show up at the studio and work 40 hours a week, then maybe you are just making a job for yourself. Unless you enjoy it like a job. I say, be an artist 7 days a week and every waking hour but give yourself the freedom to make art on your terms. Make the art but remember it is about the money…because in the long run, we can’t eat or pay our bills on adoration, fame, exposure, accolades, and any other form of flattery the rest of the world expects us to take for our art. Strive to be that carefree kid on summer break from school who made art because it was fun. Let your creative work, and your lifestyle pay you and pay for the life you want so you will never have to work again. It’s not, “find something you love and never work another day of your life” – it’s be yourself and let the rest of the world pay you for it.

Thanks for reading, I hope you got value out of this. Success is a journey, and we all must define it our way. Don’t look for any article or video online to give you the golden ticket or an answer to “how to make it as an artist”- start asking yourself, “how can I get paid to be me?”