Should artists care what art patrons think?

[“Dr. DJ” originated Light Ray Photographs and Light Sculptures; he was Wisconsin Artist of the Year in 2014.]


I was recently asked by an ambitious young artist if he should create his art with an eye to whether people cared about his work. Not the first time I have been asked this. Also not the first time I felt like I was going up for a jump ball and probably landing on broken glass or rusty nails. I have a feeling he was wondering if he should shape his creations to people’s tastes enough that they would buy his art.

But I easily fell into that nauseating, fatherly, philosophic, person who says, wisely: “It depends.” It depends, does not satisfy people’s quest for ultimate truth.

But, unfortunately, it DOES depend. Most all questions do. Because it depends on the context.  You ask me, “Is it okay to yell, ‘FIRE!’”? Well, it depends. Are you alone? If so, yell ‘FIRE!’ until you are hoarse. (While escaping of course.) Are you in a crowded gymnasium? Well, I would, in that context, suggest you do not – unless there IS one.

Should you invest in BitCoin? Well, it depends: How much unencumbered capital do you have? Do you have enough that you willing to invest it knowing you might lose it all? Is it all your money, or is it also your business partner’s or spouse’s?

So, back to the young artist’s question about should he care what art patrons think?

It depends:

Are you counting on your art creations to pay your bills and feed your family? In that context, you best care, because your patrons are in that category called “customers and buyers.”

The old expression is, “You can choose to sell people what they need or what they want. Guess which choice makes YOU money?”

I have also heard, “REAL artists create and are not concerned with what others think.”

Of course, they do! I have created many Light Sculptures and Light Ray Photographs and never shown them to anyone because I thought they would stink up the place if someone saw them. Much of my work is “experimental” and is not meant to be seen by anyone but me, or Zak – who is my best critic, adviser, co-creator. On the other hand, I have created things just playing around and Zak will say, “THAT will sell!”

Here is my best advice:

1) First, develop a clear picture of WHY you create. Take some time.

2) Then, ask yourself this question: Do I care if anyone buys my art?

A – if the answer is YES, then learn who your market is by researching their desires, then angle your art accordingly. E.g., I remember going up to mid-coast Maine one year and almost every gallery had ships, or lobster boats – definitely all sea paintings. Galleries in Florida have bunches of beach/palm tree/and sand scenes. It is what visitors/vacationers/buyers want to purchase and take home to remind them of their fun time on their trip to Maine of Florida.

B – If the answer is NO, then create for the joy of it, create from your soul and celebrate the process. Show it, if you wish…and if people like it, Great! If people don’t like it, no matter.

3) There IS another way…consider doing B and not only creating the art your way, but also create an audience for it.  [Study P.T. Barnum.]

I am going to say one other thing on this, and this is totally my opinion based on years of being an artist, gallery owner, Internet marketer, etc.: Just like babies go through stages, so do artists. My first art sold for $6. Then $29. Then $99. Then $299. Then—and on and on. As I developed my craft and my style, and “found my groove” so to speak, I would not insult my work by charging a few bucks. Unless I was dying of hunger – (then hell, yes, $6 looks like a Waffle House Adventure to a starving person!). Lastly, have enough courage to show your work at art shows, art fairs, wherever you can, and stand there as people look at your work. (GULP!) That is the ultimate research.

Stay with it. Develop. Learn. Research. GO TO GALLERIES and see what is selling – that is both learning and research. Go to art museums and get inspired to be GREAT! And did I say persist in your development? If you are good, but not always growing, you are a “craftsman.” Which is different from “artist.” (Nothing wrong with being a craftsman…and some are both! They have a line of creation that they just produce over and over and over…probably because it sells. And then, they take time to push boundaries, and keep growing in something else.)

So, should artists care what art patrons think?

You will have to decide on your own to what degree to answer this very important question. But I will say one thing: Above all, have fun -whether you are creating to please yourself or others – that is how to overcome this angst, no matter what.


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