Here it is, the second installment of my thrilling series: Top Ten Questions Never to Ask an Art Fair Artist. Forbidden Question number two is, “How do you make that thing?” This is a tricky one because it’s close kin to a perfectly welcome question about an artist’s process. As an enamelist, I frequently encounter people at art fairs who are completely unfamiliar with the form, and are under the misimpression that what I do is like ceramics or painting or some other medium they’re more familiar with. I’m happy to explain to them — in whatever amount of detail they want — what enameling is, how it’s done, and what I do that’s a little different from others they might see. This is the sort of curiosity artists thrive on. What we don’t want to do, however, is teach a free class.
The idea that you can just toddle on home after a few minutes explanation and make one of those yourself is pretty insulting. (And whatever you do, don’t tell us you’re looking for ideas for your next scout troop art project.) Try a little role-playing here: Whatever it is you, the reader, do, you probably expect a certain amount of respect for the difficulty, or the nuance, or the experience required to do your job well. However lowly others might regard your social status (and I put myself through college as a waitress and bartender, so I know all about lowly regard), you probably bristle at the assumption that just anybody can walk in off the street, listen to a couple of pointers, and be ready to take your job (much less teach it to a bunch of kids in a half hour.) If someone were to imply otherwise, you’d be insulted too. You’d probably be downright livid if you were asked to train your replacement at your own expense.
Even those of us who are otherwise very generous with our time and knowledge don’t want to conduct a workshop when we’ve got our salesperson hat on, and that’s the hat we’re wearing at an art fair. Being a generally polite lot, though, most artists I know aren’t comfortable appearing rude, and will often be forced to neglect potential paying customers because they can’t extricate themselves from a tutorial session with a freeloading “student.” If you’re trying to pry some information out of me about firing times and kiln temps while my eyes keep darting to the woman in the booth trying on earrings, and if I seem to be grinding out my own fillings, it’s time to stop talking. In fact, if anyone else is in the booth besides you and the artist, it’s time to stop talking. A little consideration will go a long way. A bored artist at a slow fair may be cajoled into providing all sorts of free advice, as long as you’re careful to respect her need to attend to her customers. But if she’s not — and we’ve become a very proprietary culture where sharing doesn’t come easy — get over it. She doesn’t owe you an education.
For such a stridently anti-communist country we sure have a lot of citizens with an unshakable sense of entitlement. You hear it all the time from doctors and lawyers too — casual acquaintances expect free services, and will monopolize their time at parties, PTA meetings, and even when they run into them in the park. They don’t, however, seem to expect to walk into a lawyer’s office and get free legal advice. When you walk into an art fair artist’s tent, though, that’s what you’re doing. You’re entering their place of business and expecting them to provide you with free art lessons.
The practice of some art fairs allowing — even encouraging — demonstrations only serves to foster the assumption that artists are instructional resources to be exploited without compensation. The idea is supposed to be that we’re performing a cultural service by educating the public on the value of art. I suspect that the opposite, however, is true. There is a great deal of research out there demonstrating that people don’t value what they get for free, and that includes art “education.”
Many of us, however, are not so generous with our time and knowledge and feel, frankly, that if you genuinely want to learn something you should go through the hard work of learning it, same as we did. Buy a book. Pay for a class. Get online, for god’s sake. In fact, a lot of us teach classes. Sign up for one. The art fair artist has been hit as hard as anybody by the never ending recession. Most of us don’t work in the museum world, where hundreds of thousands of dollars regularly change hands and we’re free to do whatever we want in the name of art. The recession barely touched the sort of artist who gets auctioned at Christy’s for megabucks. The people buying that stuff are the ones who caused the economic meltdown, remember? They’re doing just fine. And they’re not shopping at art fairs.
Art fair artists work strictly in the middle to upper middle classes, and that’s where the recession did the most damage. As a result, many artists who were able to make a living creating and selling their work had to take on other jobs. A lot of them started teaching to make ends meet. As such, it’s not something they particularly want to do for free. And even if they did, there’s a time and a place. You might happen to know that the kid clerking at Walgreen’s is a skate monster, but you wouldn’t saunter into the drugstore and ask him to help you with your flip tricks.
Anyway, you probably can’t do flip tricks and never will. Unless you’re thirteen years old, and then, as is always the case with kids, a different set of rules applies. I know it isn’t fair, but a kid can ask the exact same question as an adult without it being insulting, demeaning, or annoying as hell. It’s like dogs and puppies. Most of my dogs will let a puppy jump on their heads and gnaw on their ears. This sort of thing, though, is not tolerated between adults (unless, of course, they’re very good friends.) Same rules apply to the Forbidden Questions. If you’re over 16, don’t ask them. And don’t jump on my head and gnaw on my ears either. Not unless we’re very good friends.