The Price of Art

“Night and Day” (detail) © 2017 Michael Maurer Smith

One of the most difficult decisions for an artist to make is what to charge for her or his work. Let’s consider the following example of a hypothetical painter. 

Janine is an experienced but not well-known artist. She has spent most of her adult life living in a small town in a “flyover” state. In the town there is a frame shop that sells the work of local artists, and a member supported cooperative gallery that limps along on membership fees and grants. Janine has a deep knowledge of art history and has honed her painting skills over a period of more than 20 years, but she lacks formal credentials—having not so much as an Associates degree. But she is not a Sunday dauber. And though she lacks formal art credentials and the recognition of the art world, she is, nonetheless, a real artist. When she can’t make art she suffers—like a mother torn away from her child. It is art and art making that gives her meaning and purpose. And though her art brings her joy it sometimes plunges her into despair and self doubt, causing her to question why she follows this path that demands so much sacrifice.

Janine’s paintings are not conventional, pretty, cute or clever. They are non-representational. She doesn’t paint pictures of adorable puppies or stunning sunsets. She does not study what sells and then conform her paintings to the demands and preferences of the market. She does not make a fetish of technique. She does not paint for an audience and acclaim. She is not an entertainer. Janine paints to express feelings from the core of her being. She finds solace in art making. She uses her art to express and share what is otherwise ineffable. For her painting is visual poetry and inquiry. It is a form of breathing; of being.  

So asking Janine, the artist, the price of any one of her paintings is to ask her to place a monetary value on part of her soul—something she (or any artist) should never undervalue.

© 2019 Michael Maurer Smith

Agnes, Awe and Inspiration

On the fourth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, almost hidden away, there is a small gallery in which hang seven paintings by Agnes Martin. This past November I sat there in bliss.

“ Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.”
Agnes Martin

mms_agnes_sfmoma
Agnes Martin: (l) untitled #9  1981 (r) untitled #5  1988  SFMOMA

Martin’s paintings are not clever. They do not tell stories. They are not about verisimilitude. They do not portray myths or celebrate battles. They were not done to adorn the halls of power. They are not demonstrations of the artist’s facility with a brush. They are simple but not simplistic. They are beautiful but not pretty. They are done with an economy of means—color washes and pencil markings on gessoed canvas.

To sit with Martin’s painting is to sit in peace in the presence of essential beauty. They bespeak reverence but not for any god with a name. They are pure in their imperfections.

A little more than 2 months before visiting SFMOMA I was in Florence, Italy. There I stood in awe of Michelangelo’s David and works by such masters as: Fra Angelico, Donatello, Uccello, Botticelli, and Vasari. All these artists were and are unsurpassed in skill. But awe is not the same as inspiration.

Martin made her own rules. Working in solitude in New Mexico, after leaving New York in 1967, she developed her own visual lexicon. And unlike the renaissance masters, her art was not restricted and directed by the demands of the church and wealthy bankers. Her art was the manifestation of her own vision, truth and integrity.

I am in awe of what the old masters accomplished. But I am more inspired by the life and work of Agnes Martin.

 

Art & Design

Trajectory © 2015 Michael Maurer Smith - mixed media on canvas, 20 x 20 inches
Trajectory © 2015 Michael Maurer Smith – mixed media 20 x 20 inches

Without design there is no art. To design is to plan and consciously construct, even if moment-to-moment. Design is the orchestration of the elements in the art work. Design integrates the bits into a whole. A painting can fail because, after hours and hours of work, the artist fails to place a single pencil eraser sized stroke, of just the right color, in just the right spot.

© 2016 Michael Maurer Smith