Rembrandt in His Studio, 1628, Boston Museum of Fine Art
The question why make art? is an important issue to me. I wonder what drove me to do it, and why anyone in their right mind would bother. It provides for most of us who would like to call ourselves artists, neither remuneration nor critical attention. Remember Rembrandt was broke when he died. Out of fashion and Bankrupt, the creditors took his printing press, plates, and most of his materials. What the un-famous create isn’t held to be culturally significant, nor does it register as an economic activity. Try to find information on the economic value of the un-acclaimed artists? You will find it minimal. Neither will you discover many facts about how much money is spent on art materials. One Internet estimate says $1.2 billion. I don’t believe it.
Estimation of the number of professionally trained painters and sculptors in the United States is fewer than under 300,000. This calculation is complicated by the inclusion of craft professionals. The total of people in all the arts is almost three million. This includes actors, writers, architects, and teachers. Nor is there information on the number of people who like to make art and are not professionals. George W. Bush would not be a statistic, despite the fact he probably sells his paintings. Making art is not considered to be an economic activity, except by a misguided few. I am one of those who scoff at art defined as magic.
The art market of the very few artists held be important is reported extensively. Globally it is valued at $56 billion annually, and it pushes into the media’s awareness when a monumentally priced sale takes place at one of the big auction houses: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and few lesser others. In 2017, a Japanese collector was the high bidder on Jean Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” at $110.5 million. Basquiat was an African-American New York artist who died of a heroin overdose in 1987 at age 28. It is always good for the market if an artist dies young. Egon Schiele died at 28. Early death of the acclaimed keeps the supply of their art limited, thus increasing the value of short supply. This is one of the laws of an oligopsony.
In 2016, three of Basquiat’s graffiti-inspired paintings sold in the top 100 auction prices for $80.6 million. “Untitled,” created in 1982 was auctioned the previous year for $8 million. He is the first black artist to make the top 100. Only four women were in this group: Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Mitchell, Agnes Martin, and Jenny Saville, a member of the young British artists group (YBA) that includes Damien Hurst of the diamond-encrusted skull fame. Saville was number 96 on the list. Her painting of fat white women auctioned for $9 million.
For most artists, this is the unattainable. Many artists give up. I promised myself after butting my head against this wall of critical silence and lack of sales that left me with piles of unsold art and costly bills from making it, that I was going to stop. I ranted that I would burn up all this useless crap. After several days of dark depression when I did nothing and couldn’t even get out of bed, I found myself back in my studio working. An alternate awareness descended. The reason I make art has nothing to do with critical or financial success. I make it because I have to. This revelation surprised me.
In the past I have concocted all kinds of reasons why I wanted to make art. The initial reason I gravitated to was that I had something of cultural importance to communicate. No. I don’t. The way I see things is different. No, It isn’t. The way I make things is innovative. No, it isn’t. I need to express my feelings. No. I don’t. None of these motives, and a few more, meets the core reality. The desire to make art is an internal need. I am compelled to do it.
The compulsion is, in essence, an unknowable thing. It does have a connection to skills I have learned or innately have. Like most kids, I liked to draw, but unlike most kids I kept doing it. The self-accusation that I couldn’t draw anything that looked like a real thing never took hold. I carried on making my colored messes despite teachers who remarked negatively on my smudges. Drawing came naturally to me. Indecipherable scribbles and marking outside the outline was OK. In college, classes honed the skill to the extent that I could draw in many ways no matter if it wasn’t realistic. A favorite professor said draw with your whole body. Drawing, marking, and creating are biological satisfactions.
Things I see and think induce me to use my body to explore what I arises in my mind. Writing as I am now is likewise a physical demand. Practice and understanding the talent of others has refined the ability. However what I do has almost nothing to do with seeking meaning. What I do simply is what must be done. Ideas and issues form around the doing, but under it all it is the force to do something. It matters not at all, if I have talent or not or if what I make is significant. The force emerges from the gut.
My guess is that it comes down a need, not altogether unlike the need to eat. The fact there is pleasure in it reinforces the necessity. The process momentarily fulfills the want. After the making, the thing is dead. Putting the art corpse in a file, I await the next urge. The object is the leftover husk of the passing connection to something beyond the self. Is that the Divine? I have no idea, but this I do surmise: that making art has many stages. The first is what for me I have described. There are three more: what the dead thing becomes after it is created (its social value); how it is used (its artistic value); and what is appended to it (its economic value). These issues are what I will attempt next to unravel and understand. They will be incomplete and mere estimations by a visual thinker, for that is what I call myself now, who is neither an art critic, an art historian, nor an art economist. An artist, I believe, is a tradesperson engaged in self-delusion. Some of the delusion is marvelous; most of it is unspoken.