Is That an Insult?


It sometimes seems as though being an artist gives the rest of the world a license to be insulting, if unintentionally. Can you really make a living from this? Is that a cat? Could you do that in yellow? Wouldn’t it look better flipped on its side? Artists who sell directly to the public regularly face those and other questions and comments that seemingly denigrate their professionalism and their art. What’s more, the same questions get asked repeatedly by different people at exhibitions and fairs, which could turn sensitive souls sarcastic and mocking, hardly a good way to engender sales.

Perhaps, the most often heard question is, How long did it take you to make that? On its face, the question is matter-of-fact, but many artists take it as a challenge, as though the person asking “wants to know how many dollars per hour you earn, so they can calculate it into wages,” said Dorothy Fagan, an artist in Cobbs Creek, Virginia, or the person “wants to make sure he’s getting his money’s worth.” A snide riposte some artists are tempted to make is, “Well, how much do you make an hour?” but artists are more apt to soften the blow or reframe the question. Taking the latter approach, one might describe one’s method of working, discussing the various steps involved and how ideas form and change during the process. This type of discussion, Fagan said, makes a precise determination of how long the painting took impractical.

An often-used response to the how-long question is “my whole life,” suggesting that a given artwork is the product of years of training, experimentation and intellectual growth, while a more of a straight-on answer might indicate that some works take days, others months. Some buyers may associate a longer process with higher value, which may or may not be true. If you must, chuckle inwardly.

At other times, the laugh can be enjoyed by all. “I was at this one show, and an old farmer walked by,” said Hamden, Connecticut painter William McCarthy. “He took a look in my booth, then said about one painting, ‘How long did it take you to do that, 10 minutes?’ He was a large man, not to be reckoned with, and I said, ‘Oh, maybe about 25 seconds.’ He then let out a big belly laugh, and we started talking. He actually said he liked my paintings.” The farmer was not a buyer (“he may have bought a hot dog there”), but a testy situation was defused. In rare instances, McCarthy has found that what starts as a confrontation turns into a sale. Visitors enter his booth display and begin voicing criticism of one thing or another (“People think that artists are invisible, that they leave their feelings at the door,” he said), such as that they hate the painting, they hate the colors, they hate the frame. Although he was not part of the conversation, McCarthy may interject himself, saying, “’Well, the intention of that painting was…’ or ‘I wanted to use those colors, because…’ or ‘I thought that frame was appropriate, because…,’ which catches people off-guard. They take a second look.” In fact, some sales have resulted, which “surprised me: They started out saying that hated a painting that they end up buying.”

It is rare that visitors to a booth or exhibition are looking to quarrel – after all, they often have paid admissions to enter the fair and have some idea of what to expect – but simply want to strike up a conversation (itself a compliment of sorts) and don’t know what to say. Artists are sometimes told that they dress like artists, which may seem like a backhanded compliment (are their clothes oddly matched or funky or ill-fitting or in disrepair?), or that their work reminds the visitor of some other artist’s (is their art derivative, unoriginal, plagiarized?). It is likely that both comments are meant in a positive light, indicating in the first instance that the artist is a unique individual and in the second that the artist’s work is as good or as pleasing as someone else’s. Knowing how to find the positive side of a potentially negative remark may turn an awkward situation into a more relaxed moment. Shows can go for days, and artists may become tired and irritable by the end, apt to find a question insulting simply because they have heard it repeated so many times. Possibly, there is no ulterior motive to the question of how long it took to paint that picture. Artists might simply need to refresh themselves periodically in order to maintain a positive attitude.

The old maxim, There are no Stupid Questions, may help artists turn a seemingly thoughtless remark into a learning opportunity, helping someone who might be intimidated by art into a potential collector at some point (maybe, right now) or just letting visitors know that artists are normal people like themselves.

Often, the knowledge to turn a conversation around takes practice. Artists who sell directly to the public need two quite separate sets of skills, the first is the technical ability and a conceptual framework to produce the desired work of art, while the second is the capability to put that technique and concept into words and to be a good salesperson. Salesmanship is not only concerned with negotiating the terms of a purchase, which assumes that prospective buyers know exactly what they want, but trying to answer the questions that are really being asked. It may help, for instance, to show a booth visitor a sketchbook, so that that person may see how things get started: A little idea becomes a work of art. The question of where an artist gets his or her ideas turns out to be concerned with the mechanics of the artistic.

Similarly, the question “Can you really make a living from this?” may not be “’How can anyone make a living selling this crap?’ but, ‘What’s it like to be a professional artist?’” said Gary Stretan, an artist in Spencer, Ohio. Or, the question may be more specific, leading many artists to state that they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t make money at it and that, otherwise, they are doing well in their careers. Perhaps, it is a vicarious longing to be artists themselves or just nosiness that leads visitors to ask about an artist’s livelihood. Money questions – how artworks are priced and why one work is more expensive than another – may also be specific to the objects on display or a glimpse into the artistic process.

On occasion, questions and comments that seem insulting may be just that. Buyers who come into a booth at the last hour of the last day of a show seeking large price reductions irritate Stretan and other artists, because they “seem to be putting down my work and me as a professional.” He noted “when someone comes into my display, they’re not under any obligation to make my day or to support me,” but to visitors who appear “belligerent and want to bust your chops” he gives short answers to their questions and recommends that they “take a look at some of the other displays.”

By Daniel Grant

One response

  1. Pingback: Featured Bookmarks: The Arts | The Woven Tale Press

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