Art fair organizers love to crow about how great it is to go to their shows, where you can meet real-live artists face to face! It’s better than a trip to the zoo, because when you taunt these captive creatures they won’t, usually, throw their feces at you or go hide in the back room that looks like a fake cave.
Most people who come to art fairs are pretty ordinary: they’re polite, courteous, and mostly don’t ask rude questions. Others ask questions that they honestly don’t mean to be rude because in their worlds they wouldn’t be. Still others, however, are idiots. If you fall into the third category there’s no hope for you so stop reading now. If you fall into the second, though, and don’t wish to inadvertently insult or upset the strange animal in the tent with a question that seemed innocent to you but clearly makes the artist’s neck veins bulge in a frightening way, then read on. I’ll offer the questions in no particular order, and over the course of several posts. So, on to the the first forbidden question:
1. How long does it take to make that? I said “no particular order” but this one jumps to the top of the list anyway, mostly because it’s the most universal and most common. It’s probably the one asked with the greatest degree of innocence, too, or at least genuine curiosity. So why is this, seemingly innocent, question a problem? Several reasons:
First, and most obviously, we just don’t know. We can’t. The variables are too numerous. Because every single piece we create includes all the time we had to invest just in the course of being and becoming the artists that we are. This includes the obvious work -a-day stuff like time spent maintaining the kiln, shopping for supplies, sifting the enamel, etc. that goes directly into any given piece. It also includes the indirect but specifically art-related stuff that enables us to keep creating pieces generally, such as applying to shows, driving to shows, standing around at shows, and driving back home. It includes keeping records, cleaning the studio, marketing, printing out materials, maintaining web sites. It includes all the time we spend going to school, mastering techniques, making mistakes, educating ourselves. It includes the time we spend thinking about some element of our lives that we wish to convert into a physical, viewable form. It includes all the doodles and sketches and snapshots we make to get us there. And, finally, it includes whatever physical acts are involved in changing the specific materials into a particular work of art.
But all anyone who asks that question really wants to know is, how many hours were spent standing at an easel or sitting at a bench cranking the thing out? Again, there are problems even with this question. First because it’s dismissive of all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into doing what we do by attempting to reduce it to some few delightful hours (or days or weeks) blissing on the joy of expressing ourselves as creative beings. Second, it’s attempting to gauge value by applying a coarse metric: direct labor. You don’t have to like it, but the fact is, art has — and always has had — ineffable components. Throughout the long history of art buying, how much a piece of art is worth has seldom had anything to do with how many hours it took to make it. We’re artists, not backhoe drivers. We don’t get paid by the hour.
In the fight to stay alive, many an artist has had to find a way to speed up the process. The line between creating art and cranking out product can be easily crossed, and it’s a subject that I have plenty to say about. But for the moment, if you find yourself pondering a piece of art, wondering whether or not it’s “worth” the price it says on the tag, don’t be tempted to ask how long it took. Whether you mean it that way or not, it’s insulting. And anyway, we don’t know.